Why Piano Lessons?
I remember my first time being driven to my piano teacher’s house the summer before starting elementary school. Mom didn’t ask me beforehand if this was something I wanted to do, nor was her objective to provide exposure to the instrument towards the broader end of discovering what it is I wanted to do. Mom believed that a classical music training was an essential part of becoming a well-rounded individual and like my sisters before and after me- we were going to take piano lessons while we were being raised under her care. Piano didn’t come naturally for me as it did many others, and my primary passions resided with more athletic endeavors. But despite my biannual protests that I was too busy with other pursuits for piano, lessons with Mrs. Vandersall were a weekly Monday occurrence for the next decade or so that were missed only during major national holidays. In retrospect, Mrs. Vandersall was a wonderful teacher but growing up in this regime, my favorite day of the week was Tuesday and I often dreaded weekends as I would have to cram in several hours of practice to prep myself for Monday’s lesson.
I suppose the best analogy to describe my experience all those years would be how friends of mine who were English and Literature majors described their experiences in having to take several semesters of Advanced Calculus. They struggle through it begrudgingly and wonder all along how/why derivatives and integrals have any relevance to “real life”. I was able to get through the lessons and recitals but piano was clearly not my forte and I was quite certain that since I was never going to use this stuff when I grew up.
I took nearly 500 lessons over the course of a decade and my parents shelled out the equivalent of a year in college tuition. But like most decisions my mom made on my behalf, I am grateful that she ignored my protests and stood firm on her convictions. I sometimes think that it is precisely because I didn’t love playing piano as a child that the experience continues to serve me well in my adult years. This is far from an exhaustive list, but here’s what comes to mind when I think about the benefits of all that investment in learning the instrument:
Similar to sports and academics, learning piano was a way for me to focus my mind and energy on something for an extended period of time- something that kids today are in dire need of given how easily distracted we are through digital means.
It was immensely satisfying to begin a day with a greenfield introduction to a piece of composition and, after a long day of practice, be able to reproduce the sounds on a keyboard to the delight of mine and my family’s ears. This feeling was akin to how one might feel after putting together a difficult thing with legos, or getting a computer program debugged. It gave me a sense of agency and accomplishment that comprise the building blocks of internal confidence.
I’m pretty sure that developing the musical side of my mind was essential to my developing an aptitude and affinity for applied mathematics. Research in neurobiology attests to the link between structure found in melody and rhythm with calculus and algebra.
Finally, practicing and preparing for recitals gave me an appreciation for the difference between being able to execute a piece at home when it was just me and the instrument, and doing it at a recital in front of a crowd of people. As they often say in golf- everyone hits it perfect on the range, but something happens between the ears when you step up to that first tee.
Most of the aforementioned benefits of a musical education are pragmatic and as a parent today, I certainly value giving my child the skills to prosper in professional environments. But perhaps most surprisingly, I enjoy classical music today in a way that would not have been possible without some formal training. I may identify much more with the fictionalized Salieri than I do Mozart in the film Amadeus from a competence perspective, but I can certainly appreciate the genius of the latter’s gift while doing without the enraging jealousy of the former. And even more so than the pragmatic side, this is a gift that will keep giving long after my productive capabilities decline.