My main "fun" activity so far this year has been playing the piano. I've flirted with learning the piano for many years, ever since I gave it up, aged seven, after a year of lessons. I grew up with huge admiration and quiet envy for jazz pianists, but I was always put off trying it myself: it was too technical, took too much work, and in any case I lacked any natural affinity with formal musical notation. So I didn't touch it for years, despite admiring those who did. The piano was clearly something that only very good musicians could master. I stuck to the guitar, with the other scruffs.
But a couple of years ago I realised something. The piano is basically just a big box that makes noise. Everything else is just stories we tell about it. Sure, if I want to be the next Dinu Lipatti or Keith Jarrett (and I'd love to be), knowing the theory and recommended techniques is important; but supposing I just want to play for my own amusement? Why can't I just make it up as I go along?
Each piano is a predictable system, and any predictable system can be learned by trial and error. Since I made this realisation, two things have happened: firstly, and most importantly, I've started playing the piano. Lots. And I'm loving it. So that in itself is cause for celebration. And secondly, I've had a series of polite arguments with almost every pianist I know about why I'm not just learning to read music and do it properly. I may well do just that at some point. But the answer, for now, is this:
When I was a little younger and I wanted to be a writer, my father said something very helpfully blunt to me: "all writers have one thing in common: they write. And you don't." Wanting to do something, for me at least, isn't the same as actually doing it. If I wanted to be a writer so much, why couldn't I enjoy the simple pleasure of writing a few lines in a notebook? We should enjoy the process, not just the end result.
In the case of writing, my current strategy is to write a blog - badly - and see where that takes me. With the piano, what unstuck me was the sheer impetuous joy of refusing to learn the boring bits and focussing on what I love, which is improvising by ear. I have resolved to take as many shortcuts as possible on my way to a basic level of competance. I have chosen role models (a key component of "sociable learning") who were way beyond my capability (Keith Jarrett, Thelonius Monk, Brad Mehldau, Dr John) and I've tried to impersonate them. And not only am I learning far more quickly than I expected, but I'm also really enjoying myself.
That's more than can be said for those listening to me of course, and at some point, I hope that I will qualify to "do it properly". But I am quietly hopeful that I can get to a respectable level without forcing myself to learn like everybody else. It's all about keeping the faith. I borrowed my dad's Teach Yourself Jazz Piano book over Christmas, and found the following in the introduction: "how many times do parents tell a child: 'Stop making that noise and play something properly'? Conquering this feeling of guilt is a prerequisite of learning to play jazz: for it is only in experiment that the association between note and sound can be learned."
So on I go, but in the interests of sociablism, I have also resolved for 2008 to find myself a piano swami who can guide me in my defiant approach to the instrument. The word educate, whilst having its roots in the raising of children, is related to the Latin ducere, to lead: it is the process of drawing out what is inside, not simply of giving instruction. Too often we forget this, or else perhaps we need a new term for this process of educetion (ah, another crime against the English language - Andrew Keen would be so proud). I would like someone to help draw out my inner pianist. All applicants please write to this address, etc. and so on.
So, the next time you want to learn something, repeat after me: I already have this in me, otherwise I wouldn't feel an affinity with it. So what is the best way of drawing it out of myself? Start from there and you can't go wrong. Or rather, you can go wrong as much as you like and as long as you're happy, who cares?! So happy learning, happy noise-making, and a very happy New Year to you all.