Re-learning Childhood Lessons

Christin Chong · February 6, 2020

A friend had recently taken up the piano again after learning as a child, and I was reminded of my childhood piano learning experience. I had quit after passing the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) level 4 exam, and later picked up other instruments such as the saxophone, the ukulele, and the native flute. I play at a basic level for these other forms of music-making, with the pre-conceived notion that piano was just not for me.

I shared my past piano experience with this friend, which dredged up a lot of painful memories. The teachers I had were the old-school Chinese type–always playing to metronome, whacking of the hand for playing the wrong notes. (I also remembered that because the piano was situated in the living room, and felt shocked whenever someone walked by behind me since I couldn’t see them coming.) I recalled the strict British ladies at the ABRSM exams who would just stare quietly as I desparately try to prima vista sight-read a piece I had not seen before.

But my friend snapped me out of these personal stories with a simple remark–“playing the piano is like typing on the computer. You match the key to the note.” Of course musicality is composed of more than just playing the right notes and we both know that, but the simplicity of that statement encouraged me to re-investigate my memory to a high level of precision. What exactly were my roadblocks when I was learning as a child? I was curious how I can be empathetic to my younger self with my adult perspective in learning-how-to-learn.

Here are a few recalls and the new spins on how to address them:

  • Sight reading: I have an ok grasp on the treble clef from playing the saxophone, but the bass clef gives me trouble. As a kid, I would stumble over playing the wrong note, and inadvertantly keep playing the same wrong note repeatedly. As an adult I see that it is a skill that should be learned separately from playing. A post on the r/piano subreddit recommended this Udemy course by Benedict Westenra, which uses language learning as an analogue for sight reading. So far, it seems to rely a lot on mnenomics, which clicks well with my brain.
  • Practicing: My friend recommended The Fundamentals of Piano Practice, which synthesizes a huge amount of piano teaching materials and provides a fresh take compared to what I was taught (or not taught!) One fundamental difference is the emphasis on memorizing chunks of the score. As a kid I would try to sight read and play through the piece, often times backtracking when I played the wrong notes. I would also try to play the piece at the prescribed rhythm on top of that. I plan to peruse the The Fundamentals of Piano Practice book and learn more helpful habits. The funny thing is, I now know the importance of not practicing the wrong notes/move from…Olympic style weightlifting! My coach emphasizes doing movement drills in a precise way, and that practicing with bad movement is worse than not practicing at all.
  • Musicality: In an attempt to revisit my memory, I searched for examples of level 4 ABRSM songs on YouTube. I marveled at the fact that I ever passed the exams–these songs are complex! But I was awestruck because as a child, I had never heard the music as meant to be played. The teachers never demonstrated the songs, and I did not have any recordings of them. That’s an advantage that we all have as learners now–we have access to way more resources than ever before.
  • Rhythm: This is an area I am unsure how to tackle at the point of writing. But I feel more confident that it’s addressable! I joke that my heart does not even beat regularly like most people. Let me know if you have any thoughts on learning rhythm.

If you are like me and wrestle with the idea that “it’s too late” to learn a motor-based skill such as the piano, here’s a humorous shitpost on r/piano to snap us out of it. Please reach out and let me know your thoughts on re-learning as an adult. Is there a skill you tried to pick up as a child, and are there memories worth revisiting from an empathetic perspective?

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