Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 21, 2024


Swindle reflects on how her relationship with the piano has changed.

When I was seven years old, I started to learn the piano. I had a wonderful (albeit strict) teacher, who taught me a lot about how to place my hands on the keys, read bass clef and approach three-octave scales. I graduated from intro exercises to sonatinas after a couple of years and started performing annually at my teacher’s recitals.

I was by no means naturally gifted, but I learned quite a bit from my piano playing, and not just technical skills and music theory. First and foremost, I learned what it meant to practice — really practice, not just play a scale and be done with it — and how to improve. I learned to repeat difficult notes and rhythms over and over until I could play them easily, to slow the tempo on fast pieces and to separate the left and right hands during practice when necessary. I learned how to perform, too — how to walk on stage so the audience couldn’t tell my knees were shaking and how to play in tempo even when I was nervous.

I stopped taking lessons after I moved to New Jersey in the sixth grade. My piano, thus, sat virtually untouched in the corner of my living room for several years. I’d play “for fun” occasionally, but, honestly, I wasn’t sure if I knew what that meant. I enjoyed music, but in my experience as a halfhearted member of my school bands and orchestras, practicing was always an obligation and rarely ever a hobby. I don’t remember ever looking forward to learning new pieces or revisiting old ones.

My piano gradually accumulated a thin film of dust on its dark cover — resurrected only in (rare) moments of boredom or (even rarer) moments of inspiration. I forgot about it and, every time I sat down to practice, it was aimless — practicing had always been a means to an end, and now that the end was taken away, the practicing itself seemed unnecessary, a waste of time.

This semester, though, something changed. I don’t know what it was exactly that shifted my mentality. But, in an effort to venture beyond my bedroom during winter and spring break, I brushed the dust off my piano one afternoon, opened the lid and placed my hands on the keys. They were colder than I expected. They felt unfamiliar.

My first performance was not ideal. I regret the music (if it can even be called such) that my parents must have endured at my hands. I played old pieces, ones I learned years ago — from sixth-, fifth- and even fourth- and third-grade pieces when I’d exhausted the newer ones. I recycled them all and replayed them too. I re-learned the bass clef and realized how weak my left hand was compared with my right. 

But the strange thing was, though it must have been a struggle to listen to, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot, actually, so much so that I went back again the next day and took out all the old pieces which required little skill or technique but always sounded pretty to me. I started learning new pieces too — film soundtracks and the rest of the sonatinas in my piano book. I played for hours.

It’s important to note here that I’m not a professional musician and, with my eccentric approach to practice, I almost certainly never will be. If my piano teacher were to hear me play now, she’d likely cringe in shock at the way I butcher phrases, learn notes incorrectly and play so softly that sometimes you have to strain your ear to hear a note that isn’t speaking at all.

So no, I will never be particularly talented at the piano. I could play for hours and my skill might increase only a fraction if at all, given the sheer frequency of moments when I realize I learned some key rhythm incorrectly and now have to re-learn the piece all over again.

But I’ve noticed something important about the piano through this (non)musical journey. Without all the insecurities about my playing and the pressure of upcoming concerts, I’m more comfortable with my instrument than I’ve ever been. Without the pressure to practice, I’ve finally learned to play.

Lana Swindle is a freshman from Princeton, N.J. majoring in Writing Seminars. Her column views her everyday experiences from a different perspective. She is a Copy Editor for The News-Letter.

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