Growing up, I didn’t like to practice the piano. My mom paid for many, many lessons for me, and it didn’t really stick. I would hide the book if I didn’t want to play out of it, and my teacher had to look for it (an embarrassing show of passive aggression.) Because of the resistance/low payoff, when a teacher moved or something, we never found a new teacher, and lessons kind of fizzled out.
But then I went to BYU, and some of my peers were really good at the piano and I felt way under qualified to breathe air in their presence. I decided I wanted to learn, so I would spend a few minutes at the piano every, I don’t know, month.
When it got closer to our move away from Piano Land, I wanted to learn well enough to be able to accompany hymns in church. So I would carry my baby and some toys to the community room in my apartment complex and practice Hymns Made Easy until she mutinied. I did that enough to graduate from that particular book. Go me.
And then I moved to Virginia, and I was called to be the Relief Society Pianist. I thought it was awesome. I hadn’t told anyone that I wanted to be able to accompany hymns at church (I also hadn’t told anyone that I could). I don’t know the circumstances in the Ward Council preceding my calling, but my circumstances at home were no piano, two kids under two, and a husband who worked late. Friends and family expressed gratitude that it wasn’t them.
I said yes because I had read so many Ensign articles about women who accepted that calling with a skill level lower than my own, fumbled through the first weeks or months, but slowly got better and now find joy in serving and joy in music.
I knew this calling would be good for me. I want to learn how to play the piano, and this is the only way that is motivating enough to me. I wasn’t going to leave my kids with someone so I could drive 15 minutes to play in the dark, empty church, just for fun.
But I still felt intimidated because I knew there were several women in my Relief Society who could play way better than me. It’s kind of embarrassing to practice every day and still make mistakes on the Simplified Hymn Book while accompanying women who could sit down cold at the piano and play the real version of the same song perfectly.
I developed the following attitude to protect my scared little heart.
- The Bishop didn’t ask them, he asked me.
- They probably enjoy a break from music callings.
- They can practice their charity.
Bryan’s new calling prevented him from being able to take Peter with him, so I had to find someone to hold him while I got up there and made a bunch of mistakes, then I’d take him back. It rocked.
I really tried not to express my uncertainty to anyone in my ward. I didn’t want to shout to everyone, “Hey! Bishop made a mistake! Feel sorry for me!”
Everyone was so kind, though. A counselor in the Relief Society Presidency chooses the hymns a week in advance and emails them to me. A friend gave me her Simplified Hymn Book. My husband watched the kids while I drove to the church and practiced. My husband’s parents brought their keyboard on the plane with them when they came to see us. Several women take Peter without complaint, and with joy. My friends insist that they don’t notice that I don’t play the real hymn or that I mess them up.
This is probably because my brother Erik gave me lessons over Facetime. Here are his principles which allowed me to fake my way into knowing the piano.
- Practice both hands together. One week, I didn’t do this. I spent 20 or 30 minutes learning each hand separately, and then had to start all over trying to put them together.
- Find a metronome. I tried to find a good, free app, and I never did. You need one that goes up one click with the push of a button, not a scroll wheel or bar. I muddled through it until I got my keyboard, which has a metronome built in.
- Choose one phrase.
- Set your metronome to way below normal tempo, slow enough that you can play a phrase perfectly with both hands. Sometimes this is really, really, slow. Really, really, really slow. You can pretty much guarantee that there is a speed slow enough for you to get every note right.
- Choose a fingering and play it the same way every time (or your brain has to learn several different ways to play a song, instead of just one way).
- Practice until it is comfortable, then increase the speed by one click, one beat per minute. Your brain doesn’t really notice a difference, so practicing that until it is comfortable doesn’t take too long. And then the next click. And the next. Each step is easy, and eventually you get it up to speed. Oh, and then you choose the next phrase and start over. 🙂
When you are up to tempo, you will have played the song 30-50 times. The alternative is to play it up to speed from the beginning, making several mistakes in every line, and different mistakes every time. When it is time to perform, you probably will have clocked 30-50 repetitions, but they all have mistakes in them. Sure, the last 10-15 are pretty good, but then you only have 10-15.
The better I stick to this routine, the better I play on Sunday.