My five-but-six-in-a-few-sleeps year-old son announced a few weeks ago that he wanted to learn to play the piano. My wife and I looked at each other across the breakfast table and smiled.
For me, this was, quite literally, music to my ears. Although I’m not as accomplished as I would like to be, the piano continues to be a major part of my life. My grandmother had an old Heintzman upright in her living room and, if you were looking for me among the 42 cousins that eventually called Nana’s Hamilton house a kind of a second home, the piano bench would be the first place to look. It was my first stop on the way into her house, and the last thing that I touched before leaving.
In my earliest years, Nana used to pencil in the names of the notes on the ivory keys and on the pages of the many Broadway musical collections that she had purchased. While many will remember learning “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as their first piano “piece”, I distinctly remember Edelweiss from The Sound of Music as my first accomplishment.
My time at my grandmother’s piano would be divided between trying to figure out the musical code that appeared in the books that she had, and just playing. The former required some mental energy. The latter just meant randomly running my fingers over the keys pretending that what was coming out of the piano actually sounded good.
In retrospect, it was the difference between learning to play music and learning to play with music!
We didn’t get our own piano until I was ten years-old and I didn’t start formal lessons until the following year. Instead, I would just go down and play with the piano, spending copious amounts of time experimenting with different sounds, listening to what would happen if black and white notes were played together, making up different rhythms, using louds and softs, fasts and slows and, all the while, imagining that I was a real piano player.
So when Luke announced a few weeks ago that he wanted to learn to play the piano, I resisted the suggestion that we immediately start him in formal lessons. Instead, I went out and bought a basic instruction book–one that contained more keyboard visuals than musical code. I told Luke that, eventually, we would learn to figure out what all of those scribbles on the musical page meant, but I also encouraged him to just play with the piano.
In particular, I showed Luke how he couldn’t really go wrong sticking to the black notes. In fact, he could come up with some pretty cool stuff if he played only black notes in different combinations.
I didn’t tell him that the black notes formed a very natural part of human musicality called the pentatonic scale, but I was reminded of this wonderful video clip featuring Bobbi McFerrin
For Luke, the past several weeks have meant a daily combination of looking at the book, and playing on his own. It’s funny how he will quite naturally (and quite randomly) combine to two over a 20 or 30 minute period of time. Just like Dad!
I’m available to answer questions about the code that are beginning to emerge, but he’s also willing to tell me about what he is creating as he plays with the music. I’ve begun to record a few of his sessions so he can hear the results of his experimentation, and so I can remember what it was like to be young and curious about an instrument that has since become a life-long companion.
The brief clip at the top of this post is captured from last evening’s before dinner session. The signature crash at the end is Luke’s way of saying that he’s finished!