Three years ago this spring I began to learn to play the piano. As I am preparing a set of photo tutorials and planning for a workshop this summer, it helps me to reflect on the creative process of acquiring a brand new skill, and the personal barriers we all bring to getting better at anything.
This all started when my mother-in-law got rid of her digital keyboard, and I took it. I barely knew where middle C was, even though I had a couple years of piano lessons as a kid. They didn't take--they were the sort of lessons that put me off learning music for decades. But noodling around on the keyboard, I was enraptured with how, when I played a scale in different keys, I felt different. There was a profound emotional range just in starting a series of consecutive notes from different places on the keys. It was like making these feelings arise out of thin air.
I scoured YouTube video tutorials, I relearned how to read music from Bach's Prelude in C, and I quickly found a piano teacher who fed my thirst for how this all worked (He didn't say hello when he opened the door. He'd bark, "What is the order of Sharps?")("Fred Can Get Drunk At Every Bar", I answered.) I quickly graduated to a real piano, an upright Steinway that I got for a song.
My attraction to music has largely been the mysterious conversation I watch between musicians at play, that place they go in a tune where the magic happens. It's been a serious subject of my photography for ages, reaching a kind of apogee in my travels across Ireland over a decade ago. I'd listen to and photograph pub sessions all over the West of Ireland, and when I'd return I'd see my photos posted on the pub walls, which was a kind of acceptance from a culture reluctant to grant it. I got into the music in the way I knew how, by observing it deeply with my instrument, the camera. I learned to dance the sets, those vigorous quadrilles whose footwork is so distinctive and regional that you can tell what county you're in by the sound of the floor. When I came home to dance contras, they seemed so plodding and slow.
For the last two years I have been a closet pianist. When I could, I'd be on the piano every day after lunch. Half an afternoon would vanish sometimes. I got lost in a New Age piano ghetto for a bit (Einaudi in particular), but soon made Bach my piano touchstone. I loved playing, but I couldn't play around anyone else, and the time or two I tried to go to a music jam it was disasterous. My social anxiety swamped any weak skill I had achieved, and the shy introvert part of me rose to the fore.
Lately I've been attacking that barrier head on. Last year I found a welcoming session that played Portland Collection tunes at a slower speed. I got a piano teacher from within my music community and I'm learning both English and Contra accompanyment. At New Years Camp on Vashon Island, I played for more hours with other people than for my entire piano history up to then. It ramped up my confidence tremendously.
I just joined a "real" weekly session that intimidates the hell out of me. It's got some of the best players in town in it, and I so feel like an interloper. I'm at a point that I'm able to tolerate being scared, but still stay on task. They're preparing for a gig next month, a half hour set at our annual contra dance marathon. I haven't commited to joining them, but I'm practicing the tunes as if I could.
Music is a technical, physical act that require embedding a lot of neural pathways, many by rote. Paying attention to what's going on outside my internal experience, which is what else I'm working on in my music, is one of the hardest tasks I've ever tried to learn.