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I Tried It

I Tried It: Group piano class

How does a busy adult learn a new instrument? With a little help from Billy Joel.

By Evan Judd

A few months ago, my wife bought a piano for our home. I’ve played guitar for two decades, but piano had long interested me. Like guitar, it’s one of those instruments that people just happen to have — a keyboard in a friend’s living room or a grand piano at a parent’s house — and it always frustrated me when I came across one and didn’t know how to play. So I took it as an opportunity to tackle an entirely different instrument.

But I have a demanding job, a toddler, and a baby on the way, so I was doubtful I’d find lessons that fit my schedule. I also felt suddenly ancient; I imagined that wherever I took lessons, the only other people close to my age would be the instructors and people dropping off their 7-year-olds.

Apparently, my issues aren’t uncommon; a growing number of music studios cater entirely to adults. A quick Google search turned up Musician’s Playground, a Boston studio that offers group classes, evening and lunchtime schedules, and the occasional mimosa-accompanied jam session. It has a business model similar to a gym membership: a monthly fee grants access to as many classes as you can get to.

I imagined that wherever I took lessons, the only other people close to my age would be the instructors and people dropping off their 7-year-olds.

So one evening after work, I found myself on the fifth floor of a downtown office building, sampling a group class called “piano fundamentals.” The elevator opened to a large room full of electric pianos. The previous class was finishing up, headphones on; the only audible sound was the clicking of the keys on their instruments. This came as a surprise: I didn’t exactly expect to be confronted with a cacophony of asynchronous pianos playing chop sticks, but I certainly didn’t expect near silence.  

I had never considered it, but using regular pianos would make a group piano class next to impossible. The floor directly below Musician’s Playground houses a 24-hour call center; the electric pianos likely also prevent the studio from being evicted.   

My classmates and I settled into our seats and put on our headphones. Our instructor, Alyssa, began with a breathing exercise, for which I was grateful. Most of us in the class were coming straight from our jobs, and it’s tough to learn something new when you are focused on whatever annoying thing happened at work that day. “Leave behind whatever stresses you may have,” she said, her voice coming through the headphones.

We started with a lesson on playing simple five note scales. Beginners used one hand only; more advanced students focused on playing with two hands, or adding variations. Alyssa moved seamlessly among the students, carefully watching their hands and assessing their playing ability, providing instruction when needed, and giving additional challenges.

For the second half of the class, Alyssa handed out sheet music for the song we’d be working on for the next few weeks, Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” I can barely read music, but even I could tell it was a hilariously simplified version.

I quickly learned that what we had been given was a “lead sheet,” which contains only the chords and a simple melody. The way we were learning, the goal was not to play a piece perfectly at a recital, but to know the basics well enough to improvise our way through. It’s a teaching style amenable to group classes: Beginners start with just the melody or chords; advanced students focus on more complex chord and melody variations. I spent the remainder of the hour with my left hand locked down in a C-major chord, the right haltingly eking “It’s nine..o’clock on a Sat-ur-day” in straight quarter notes.

As the class wrapped up, I started getting anxious about practicing for the following week. When I was taking guitar lessons at age 14, I had all the time in the world to practice. Still, I started each lesson making excuses for why I hadn’t learned the material. Now, my mornings start before 6, my evenings are filled with daycare pickups, baths, and bedtimes, and I collapse like clockwork at 10 p.m. I wanted so badly to find just a sliver of time to spend on “Piano Man,” and I was angry at my 14-year-old self for squandering all of that free time.

As if reading my thoughts, Alyssa ended the class by saying, “Don’t worry about practicing at home. This class is your practice.” Freed from the pressure, I went back the following week. And the next. Now, my “Piano Man” still sounds comically simple, like a music box version of the pop hit, but it’s at least recognizable — good enough to sing along to the next time I pick up a keyboard at a friend’s house or sit down at my mother in law’s grand.

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Evan Judd is a biomedical scientist based in Boston. 

 

Illustration by Dom McKenzie

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