I have now had three piano lessons. “You are on the verge of being able to play a song,” Susan promised me on Monday. “You are right there.” During the lesson, which thus far has been a lot about naming notes and counting, she had me play some pages of exercises. One of the exercises required me to play three notes at once with my left hand, then the “e” above middle c with my right. “Now play them at the same time,” she said. I did. “Ta da! You’re playing with both hands at once!” She gave me my first actual song (a Halloween song) to work on and I went on my merry way.
And not easy at all. Taking piano lessons is reminding me of some of the most basic, opening gestures in starting a writing project. They may as well remind you, too.
Put your project in a notebook. A nice notebook, a dignified one — for piano, the notebook has to have firm covers that stay open, allowing you to read the pages inside while your hands are on the keyboard. For piano or a writing project, the notebook becomes a home for whatever material you accumulate, a safe place where it can gather and wait for you to return to it. Susan suggested that I decorate the notebook’s cover (it had a clear pocket that a picture can be slipped into); for a writing project, I suggest that you create a working title and a title page. As Louise Erdrich says, “a title is like a magnet. It begins to draw these scraps of experience or conversation or memory to it. Eventually, it collects a book.”
Practice every day. Yes, I know that some people will argue with me, but I don’t think art happens without discipline. Especially at the beginning, and no matter what other demands there are on your time, your goal is to dedicate a few minutes each day to establishing your practice. Kim Stafford, in The Muses Among Us tells a little science story about how someone examined a violin microscopically and found, just after it was played, that there was a rippling effect in the wood, just as there is in water. And the ripples persisted for about a day. After 24 hours or so, they were gone. This explains so much!
Haven’t you seen a piano that is never touched, an ornament in someone’s living room, or a stringed instrument displayed on someone’s wall? They don’t look alive, not the way an instrument that is loved and played regularly is alive. Just like the Velveteen Rabbit, musical instruments come to life when they are loved. Loved = not left in a corner to collect dust; loved = picked up and hugged.
I’ve found that it is not so easy to fit practicing the piano into my routine. It isn’t, after all, already there. I have to intentionally put it there. When I lament about how busy I am to Susan, she says, “baby steps.” If I don’t have twenty minutes, maybe I have five. If I don’t have five, how about one? Could I establish a habit of merely sitting down on the bench and putting my hands on the keyboard, once or twice a day?
That’s my third bit of advice: nurture a habit of beginning. For now, don’t worry about how long you keep at it. Just pick up your notebook. Read a few lines. Take the cap off your pen and make a note. This small step will lead — eventually — to more.