Barry’s keyboard

About this time last year, I got bored of the guitar and bought a Yamaha Piaggero NP-11 on Facebook Marketplace. Barry said it was a good instrument, just it wasn’t loud enough for his needs. This was a sweetly ironic statement: Barry’s profile photo exuded badass rock band vibes, while in person he was a tubby, softly spoken guy.

Anyway, about the keyboard. As a child, I had taken Kids on Keyboards group lessons for a few years but showed little aptitude. Later, as an unemployed adult in Canberra, I passed the time by teaching myself a modified version of Claude Debussy’s “La fille aux cheveux de lin” and Wendy Matthews’s “The Day You Went Away” on the piano my (more talented) sister had picked up off Gumtree.

Then the day I went away, to Sydney, I no longer had a piano to play on. By the time I picked up Barry’s old Yamaha, there was no way I could come close to executing either of those pieces.

Ólafur’s song

Initially I just refamiliarised myself with basic chords and triads so I could sing along to the songs I like. Then towards the end of the year, I found the sheet music to “Saudade” by Ólafur Arnalds. The piece is the perfect balance of challenging and doable for my current piano level. It’s a beautiful song, so I don’t get sick of hearing it, plus it’s short, so playing it through isn’t an arduous task.

I know how to read music thanks to Kids on Keyboards – but I can’t sight read, ie. I can’t play just by looking at the notes and bars. So I cheated a bit and pencilled in, next to each note, the corresponding letter. This allowed me to group each bar into sets of notes, formations.

Now I’ve played the song so many times I’ve essentially memorised it. The sheet music in front of me serves more as a prompt than something I actually read.

The process of learning to play “Saudade” has reminded me what a remarkable thing muscle memory is. There is a magic in how my fingers now know where to go. They play without me consciously thinking about each key I’m pressing down. (In fact, when I occasionally drift into awareness of my fingers, that’s precisely when it falls apart and I start jumbling the notes).

Mastery vs noobery

It’s nice getting to a point in our lives where we’re actually pretty damn good at a couple of things, whether it’s handling Microsoft Excel or making spaghetti bolognese or our knowledge of all things The Lord of the Rings. Or, if we’re lucky, our job or how to wrangle our kids.

But then we take our skills for granted. We forget what a wondrous thing it is that we learned these things, that we got good at them. The mastery that comes with age actually comes with practice, with repetition.

Even the act of reading, let alone writing, is an exercise in muscle memory: our eyes no longer read every letter, nor do they trace the lines and curves of each letter of each word. 

Photo credit: Ben White.

And perhaps, as we master certain skills and even start teaching others, we also start avoiding things we’re not good at. Once free of the high school curriculum, we don’t really have to learn anything we’re not good at. Adults say things like “I’m not musical”, “I’m not artistic”, “I’m not sporty”, “I’m not good with numbers”.

When I look back on my young adult days, it was a time in my life where I developed a stronger sense of self and the confidence that comes with that.?Much of what preoccupied me was finding something that I was good at that would be useful in the world. I’m fortunate enough to have eventually found my place, career-wise, in nonprofit communications. And I have been continuously growing in that area, staying up to date on content marketing trends and techniques, acquiring skills and knowledge as I put new things into practice at work.

But this sort of professional development, while valuable and satisfying in its own way, hasn’t given me what Barry’s keyboard has.

Rediscovering discovery

It has been a joy, this process of basic learning. Which is to say, in my mid-to-late thirties, I am once again experiencing the beauty of sucking at things – and embracing that as the first step towards mastery.

Photo credit: Brett Jordan.

At first I couldn’t play the melody of “Saudade” through without making mistakes. Then I could play it through with my right hand. Then I could play the left hand part.

Combining right and left is always tricky because we naturally want to move the same finger on each hand at the same time. “Saudade” is easier because unlike most songs, the timing of the notes is uniform across both hands, across the whole piece. Still, needing to use different fingers on each hand was tricky and would trip me up if I thought too much about what I was doing.

I would make mistakes when I changed positions. I would be painfully slow in rearranging my fingers on the keyboard. Gradually, the gaps between transitions began to shrink.

Photo credit: Valerie Maya.

Honestly, I’m not yet able to play this piece perfectly. But it’s been quite remarkable watching the muscle memory develop and deliver.

More things I’m learning

In addition to picking up the piano again, I’ve turned my hand to gardening (definitely lots of sucking happening in this department) and my mind to Japanese (less sucking, because Duolingo is designed to make everyone feel like a champion – except when it comes to hiragana).

I’ve noticed the muscle memory operating as I learn basic Japanese words and grammar: there are moments when I intuitively understand the sentence structure even though it is different from English. I marvel at how this has happened, and happened in the space of a few days.

It’s humbling, being a noob again. Yet witnessing the learning happen in real time has been life-givingly gratifying.


Are you on Duolingo? Add me! @suansita, of course.

Want to play “Saudade”? Ólafur Arnalds is a legend and has made the sheet music publicly available here. You can also find some of his other pieces on his website.

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