Playing the piano

One of my few distinct memories of when I was six years old was going to a dinner party at a family friend’s house, and deciding impulsively (as little kids often do) that I wanted to learn how to play the piano. At the time, my parents had been in near-constant communication with their friends from school, work, and the general Asian-American community, so it was almost a foregone conclusion that I would be signed up for piano lessons the moment I expressed any interest whatsoever.

Piano quickly became my primary extracurricular activity, taking up an increasingly large proportion of my after-school hours and keeping me inside for much of the day. It didn’t take all that long before my initial interest wore off, and I viewed the hours spent practicing as more a chore than a hobby. Of course, it didn’t help that I wasn’t particularly good at it: I was all too aware that I had friends who I just couldn’t compete with, in practice time or skill alike. I (still) am not able to play a piece or two from memory: though I made my way through the MTAC Certificate of Merit tests at a fairly constant rate over the course of middle school and high school, I realized that I forget how to play even the pieces I spent months practicing the moment I lose sight of the sheet music.

Certificate of Merit
The MTAC Certificate of Merit was part of most of my childhood

My saving grace during performances and recitals was muscle memory — turns out that if you go through the same motions enough times, you can repeat that even without seeing the musical score. With weeks of repetition, I figured out how to pass the tests and meet my parents’ high standards.

But I can’t say I enjoyed the time I spent on the piano. As soon as I had a fairly legitimate excuse to stop lessons in high school, I reallocated all of the time I’d once spent practicing to clubs, school, and other fun. Months went by where I never so much as touched a piano key, and I happily discarded a decade of music for science, math, debate, and robotics.

As it turns out, I was far from the only one to quit: that friend of mine who had originally inspired me to start lessons stopped during middle school, and few of my close personal friends continued through to the end of high school. It seemed almost as though the Asian-American pattern of piano and violin was a failed attempt to get us second-generation immigrants into college (for a time, playing a musical instrument would give you a bonus for college admissions in China).

It might even have become self-defeating: where a resume of music and strong academics might once have succeeded in distinguishing college applicants from one another when test scores and GPAs failed, the fact that nearly every Asian-American student had those credentials made them almost meaningless when applications came around. As I recall, music was only a resume line item on my applications, and some of my friends neglected to mention their own musical experiences at all.

A digital piano in my dorm room

It wasn’t until I left home and went to college that I realized how valuable that musical training really was — not so much as an individual skill, but more as a way of connecting with others. Especially as interests diverge in college, with some students studying the sciences, others mathematics, and still more the humanities, it becomes increasingly useful to find common ground with others outside of school. Certainly it would become monotonous and stressful to be talking about academics all the time.

And so, despite my initial disinterest, I found my musical training to be an incredibly useful resource — all the more so because I wasn’t good at it! As might be expected, those who are truly passionate about music are invariably better at it then someone who learned the skills just because that was what was expected. But having spent that initial effort put their accomplishments into perspective: I knew enough about music to understand what they were trying to do, and I knew that I could never hope to do the same.

I also realized that, in the process of listening to music with friends, going to performances and concerts, and a myriad other musical activities, I’d rediscovered a love for music. As I had long accepted the fact that I would never be a great musician, I could freely practice without worrying about tests or performances.

So after a year or so of random bursts of practice, I decided that one of my goals for 2014 would be to start playing the piano on a regular basis again. Hopefully things will be more fun the second time around!

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