🧭 My Piano Journey: How I Started Playing Piano - Part 1

How I Started Playing Piano

This is my personal story of how I started playing the piano. Part 1 starts when I was 9 years old and ends when I was 14 years old. I hope you enjoy! 

Embarking

I hopped in my mom’s van after swimming lessons, tired and wet, wrapped in my beach towel. 

“I did it!” she said. “I bought a piano!”

My tired eyes lit up. While I was in swim class, she drove to an estate sale and immediately bought a spinet upright piano for $700. That evening, a warm night in June, the breeze wafting through the sheer curtains of the living room, a small walnut Acrosonic sat in our living room by the stairs. I was told that it wasn’t just my piano; my brothers would learn too, but over the next 7 years, I was the one who played it the most.

My approach to learning piano was unorthodox. Using knowledge from general music class, choir, and teaching myself flute, I taught myself to play the piano. I remember first learning Liebestraum by Franz Liszt from the Faber Classics 2A book. With hesitations, I deciphered the music while holding down the pedal, missing many notes and creating a murky, dissonant noise. I was learning piano, albeit alone.

I briefly took lessons at the local music store beginning that summer. I remember learning simple classical pieces from The Developing Artist Preparatory Piano Literature book. The music was pedestrian, but I still fondly remember Little March by Türk and Melody by Beyer.

At my first recital, I proudly and confidently played Send In the Clouds from Faber Popular 3 (they have since revised this book and it is now in the Adult Piano Adventures Book 2). I remember my former classmate, Lauren, being present and she complimented me. That performance was my first experience with the flow state while performing. I was in the zone and so calm and focused, loving every sound coming out of that baby grand. I felt elated when I left the stage.

Stumbling Block

One day during recess, my friends and I were playing leap frog over serpentine-shaped bike racks. After jumping over one hump, my foot caught a crack in the sidewalk and my right hand slammed into the pavement. I sustained black bruises at the base of each finger of my right hand and I had to cease piano lessons at that point. I got a custom brace from the doctor and I recall asking the nurse if I would be able to play piano after my hand was healed.

“No!” she said, annoyed, and left the room. As a sensitive 10-year-old girl, I began tearing up. My mom told me that it was an old joke. 

“Doctor, will I be able to play the piano after the operation.
“Yes, of course."
“Great! I never could before.” 

I did play piano again after it healed, but, much to my dismay, I was without a teacher for about a year following that incident. There were piano teachers in my city, but they were in high demand with long wait lists. 

My Tour Guide

“Every night in my dreams, I see you, I feel you…” 

I delicately played the notes to My Heart Will Go On from my easy piano songbook. Channeling Céline Dion, I would play with marked intensity at the key change. 

“YOU’RE HERE, there’s NO-O-THING I FEAR…” 

I remember dramatically pausing at the climax of the song because of the new key signature. With no framework for understanding keys other than C Major, it overwhelmed me to keep track of the additional sharps. 

Soon after learning this piece, my mom found a college student named Billie to teach me piano. I played My Heart Will Go On for her to show her what I could already do. She created a sticker chart to help me learn my one-octave major scales. With her help, I tackled Level 3 and 4 of the Faber Supplemental Library and early elementary classical piano literature. My favorites were Song of the Dark Woods by Elie Siegmeister, Carol of the Bells from Faber Christmas Level 4, and a fairly difficult piano arrangement of Awesome God by Rich Mullins.

A Bump in the Road

For my middle school talent show, I played Maple Leaf Rag from Faber Ragtime and Blues 3. I remember the band teacher who auditioned me saying he was impressed that I could play ragtime. That boosted my confidence.

I played the piece on a brown upright piano in the middle of the gymnasium, perfect for that saloon-style, honky tonk feel of the rag. The first show for the 7th graders went really well and I received a loud applause and cheers from the bleachers. I didn't really know how to bow, so I just stood in front of the crowd with a wide smile. But I suffered a memory slip in the second performance for the 8th graders, my grade. My fingers twisted up, like being tongue-tied, and I kept repeating the same cadence trying to get to resolve to the final chord. I was embarrassed and I left the gym quickly without acknowledging the audience.

My feelings were hurt when a close friend of mine later said another pianist put me to shame. But I know now that wasn’t true. He started playing when he was 3 years old and had nearly 10 years of experience. Meanwhile, I started when I was 10 and had 3 years of experience. It made sense that he was accomplished and playing a complex, high level classical piece. Still, her comment stung and I believed her at the time.

A Creative Path 

One day, I came home from school and composed a piano piece on a whim. I named it the Legend of Kanali, picturing an adventure fantasy story for which this could be the soundtrack. The D minor composition was a repetitive melody and used descending open chords.

My brother really enjoyed listening to it. I began creating more original tunes and my dad noticed my interest in writing music, so he purchased a composition software for me called Music Write. I recall using it on my Compaq PC, creating scores for my family to play. My dad was really excited for me and even told me he would pay for me to file my copyrights with the Library of Congress, but I never took him up on it because I feared I wasn’t good enough to be a real composer.

Scaling the Mountain

The notation software had Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2 by Chopin as an example file. I printed it and began learning the hardest piece I had ever attempted to that date. In addition to three flats in the key signature, there were a plethora of accidentals. I remember writing in the notes one by one and pushing myself to learn this piece. I wanted so badly to play it like Maria João Pires, the Portuguese performing artist who has the best recordings of Chopin’s Complete Nocturnes ever.

Billie was very impressed when I played the Nocturne for her and she soon decided that she would be my piano coach instead of my teacher because I was self-guided and surpassing her level. With her support and encouragement, I entered the Solo and Ensemble Festival in my state for solo piano. 

The adjudicator was writing notes from the previous performer and he asked me to warm up while I waited. I played much of the Nocturne exactly the way I had practiced. He interrupted me to say not to play too much before he was ready. He also told me this was his favorite piece. I smiled nervously and butterflies started flying in my stomach.

When I started playing, my hands began to shake and my performance sounded nothing like my warm up or my practice at home. The ending, however, was clear and calm. He told me that I needed to see the forest for the trees; that the ending was beautiful, but I didn’t seem to understand how the whole piece fit together. I left feeling dejected. Why didn't I sound like Maria? Billie told me that had she been in my shoes, knowing this was his favorite piece would have done the same thing to her. That's a huge order to live up to!

Becoming A Guide-In-Training

In eighth grade, I was assigned to do a job shadow project as part of my career development. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do as a career. I had narrowed the category down to music, but who would I shadow? My mom thought for a moment, "What about your music teacher from elementary school?" Bingo! Being a teacher had always been in the back of my mind. What about combining that interest with music? 

The job shadow went really well and I was so happy to reconnect with my music teacher. I believe to this day that my brothers and I can improvise and compose with our respective instruments because she taught us to sing, to recognize major and minor tonal patterns, and create and understand many rhythmic patterns in elementary school.

At the end of eighth grade, Billie graduated college and moved away. She was so encouraging about my progress thus far, that when she started teaching me, I was "all fingers." She said she was excited for my future with piano and that she believed I would be very successful; that when I grew up she'd be able to say, "I knew her when...".

On My Own Again

The following year, I entered Solo and Ensemble Festival with Rêverie by Debussy. I was thrilled to be given a Superior medal and the ability to enter the State Festival. My dad was super excited for me as well. With the absence of a piano teacher, I spent the month in between learning the required scales and a required Bach Invention. I asked my orchestra teacher for help with the Invention and he loaned me his Bach study score. 

“It doesn’t have any fingerings,” Mr. K warned.

Even so, I plugged away at it until the two-voice contrapuntal piece was complete.

My dad drove me to the State Festival and was gushing about my accomplishment. At the State Festival, I played through both pieces sans mistakes. I was on a stage with bright lights in an auditorium playing on a baby grand. 

The feedback from the adjudicator was that it could be more dream-like. Rêverie means daydream after all. While I was disappointed to get an Excellent rating instead of Superior, I felt good about what I had learned. After all, I had never played a two-part contrapuntal piece before. Even though the Bach Invention in F major is one of the easier inventions, it is difficult. 

Future Outlook  

My goal was to get a bachelor's degree in music. I was in high school and I needed a serious college-prep teacher as soon as possible. Once again, the studios in my area were full. It seemed that no one would be able to take me on. But then one day...

To be continued

What is your piano story? Let me know in the comments!

-Jenny

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