On Piano lessons & Prodigies

I lived in the UK for 2 years when I was young, and the primary school I attended gave a great amount of importance to music. Children as young as 7 years of age are introduced to the recorder, and then over the consecutive years of Primary 4-6 they are offered the chance to learn either the violin, the flute, the clarinet, or one of a few other instruments. Classes happen in school, and a few seemingly talented students who show interest are chosen from each class to pursue this new skill.

When I joined this school in Primary 7, I had the background of having learned a year of piano, and decided to not continue to learn. Despite this, I had the opportunity to join the entire orchestra – playing percussion – on one of their performances. And of course, there was the choir that I was a regular member of.

Different people in different schools in different countries all have different ways of approaching music. Some places devote large amounts of time and resources to developing their students’ musical abilities, others mainly focus on vocal training with the occasional theory class about instruments, and still others don’t consider music a subject to be taught at all. I know that in my school in India, we had a “Western Music” teacher with very little knowledge of much good Western music, at least in our opinions, and an Indian Music teacher who taught us a number of typical Hindi songs until the 8th grade. A friend of mine, I must add, attended a school in the same city where they had a brilliant Western music teacher – so let it be clear that I am not generalising all the schools in that area.

There has also always been a thriving music community around, if you know where to find it. Between my private piano teacher at age 9, the music lessons of my school in the UK which included basic practical lessons on the guitar, keyboard and drums, and my years studying music at Gurgaon School of Music (later renamed Performers Collective), I feel like I have a rich knowledge of music. I’ve learned theory of reading and writing music, been trained to understand rhythm and pitch and key, and spent hours memorising dynamics and other directions. I’ve practiced scales and arpeggios, learned to sight-read and play pieces with utmost precision, and played for hours on end to perfect my examination pieces. Preparing for my Grade 5 piano exam took a lot out of me, but it was something I thoroughly enjoyed and emerging from it with merit was incredibly satisfying.

A few months later, though, I realised that I had lost my direction. Since the exam, I no longer had focus, and practicing the piano had become a chore. I quit my classes, resolving to play more just at home for myself, and for a good while I did just that. The highlight of that was certainly the time when my sister, my mother and I played Ave Maria for my cousin’s wedding – on the violin, vocal and on the piano respectively. Till date, that remains one of my favourite pieces to play and sing even just for myself.

I haven’t had a formal lesson in over 3 years now, and I must admit that I play a lot less often than I wish I did. To balance that out, however, I managed to find a different outlet for my musical knowledge. I now have two young students!

My students, who are two sisters, are both musically inclined. They knew the basics of music theory and piano, and over the past year I have worked with them on taking that to a higher level. It’s most gratifying to see them improve, and it especially inspires me to watch the older one play. At 11 years of age, she plays by ear more skillfully than I could ever imagine. She picks up tunes that she has heard and liked, improvises on them, and is currently in the process of composing her own song. She has no interest in playing Classical music, or learning the way I did. She simply plays, and I think that’s brilliant.

What makes her so brilliant, in my eyes, is the simplicity with which music comes to her. It’s something natural, something instinctive. I’ve always had an ear for music, but never been able to pick out tunes or play accompaniments easily. Improvisation was always something that I envied in others, but sort of just accepted that I couldn’t do. But now, with the motivation of finding news songs for her to play, I have once again found myself sitting down to pick out the chords and sing along to a random song every so often.

I think what I’m trying to say is, appreciate music however you do. Don’t like it because it’s cool, don’t learn it because you’re forced into it, and if you have talent, make the most of it. Maybe you can play brilliant classical music and you desperately wish you could play by ear. Maybe you pick up tunes all the time, but find it incredibly difficult to read and play long complicated pieces. Or maybe, like me, you sit somewhere in the middle, a little bit of ability on both sides, while simultaneously always reaching for the ultimate.

I’ll end with the link to a cover of the Epilogue from La La Land which I came across last week and thoroughly enjoyed, and which I aspire to be able to play like someday. If you don’t have the patience to sit through the entire thing, just watch till 1:00. You won’t regret it, I promise.


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