Opinion: How he taught me the piano: it's never too late to become yourself

In the early 1980s, my father acquired a Baldwin upright electric piano. My dad had played the piano as a child and in college. He had performed live, improvising soundtracks for silent films at a Connecticut arthouse.

I wanted to learn to play because I wanted to be like him. My father put stickers on the keys and hand-wrote the letters of the notes on each one. He showed me “Yesterday” by the Beatles and “Heart and Soul,” which I loved, especially when he riffed on the right-hand melody, a flash of that virtuosic improvisation he had perfected on film.

I also watched my best friend, Sarah, learn “Für Elise” and figured out how to play it myself. But that was the extent of my repertoire and my father didn't teach me anything else. When he was 12, he moved to a smaller apartment and gave away the electric piano.

I didn't think about playing the piano again for more than two decades. When I had children, I anticipated that they would receive lessons. When my friends were getting rid of their half tail, I sent a moving company to bring it to our house.

At 8 years old, my daughter was the right age to start learning right when COVID hit. Instead, she took voice lessons via Zoom. Last spring she took my son's turn. I enrolled him in a weekly piano class at a music school in northeast Los Angeles, where we live. She seemed to enjoy it, although her teacher mentioned that she preferred the drums. They began to dedicate half of the lesson to percussion.

Then, last June, the music school sent out an email offering a week-long songwriting camp. My heart started pounding. I was terrified, but I knew instantly that I was going to sign up. I will learn I thought. I emailed to ask if the camp was open to adults. It was and I was in.

The first day I woke up feeling like a fool. She was almost 45 years old. He didn't play any instruments. I imagined walking into a room of children who knew how to read music. Would they write songs about YouTubers, while I wrote songs about death?

The school was inside a small converted house that seemed frozen in '90s suburbia: gray carpet, wood-paneled walls, Christmas lights on in the summer, and stereo equipment everywhere. Mouth dry, I prepared for awkward introductions to my fellow preteens. A wiry man about my age in black skinny jeans and Converse sneakers was sitting by the window in the small waiting room. This was Danny and he was the only other student.

The next five days were like a dizzying descent towards love. We learned about keys, chords, rhythm, harmony. Then we went to the studio and recorded tracks in GarageBand, the music software. For me it was the revelation of a secret language by which our thoughts and feelings could be transmitted to another person's soul through the precise arrangement of sounds.

We made a beat, then a chord progression, then a baseline, then a melody. There were steps, we learned. There was a method. And there was also mystery. One choice leads to another, then alchemy takes hold: a composition emerges from some other unknowable place.

The third night I went home and wrote lyrics. I thought about my first love, sitting in his bedroom as a teenager in Brooklyn, with the snow outside. I wrote about how years later I would try to act like it didn't mean that much.

By the end of the week, we had made a song. It wasn't finished and maybe it wasn't very good, but it felt amazing. By autumn, he had forgotten much of what he had learned. She listened to Taylor Swift, trying to discern why her songs were so compelling. I would sit at my used piano wishing I could play like my father, wishing the music would wash over me like a wave and then spill over the keys.

It became clear that my son didn't have time to play the piano, but I had paid for the next month of lessons. So I took them, partly to connect with my dad, mostly to connect with that mysterious place from which creativity emerges. That month turned into two, then three and I keep showing up.

The humility necessary to continue is sometimes unbearable. Every week I imagine that it will be the last, that I will tell the teacher that I don't have time, that it is too expensive. And then I sit down and learn the next part of a song. I discover a little more about how music works and recommit myself.

Mastering a skill is satisfying, but surrendering to a beginner's mentality can be life-changing. There is power in doing things that intimidate us, that make us feel small at first and then allow us to grow. Still, it requires a constant reminder that it is difficult to become ourselves. Maybe I'll write a song about it.

Emily Ziff Griffin is a screenwriter, producer, author, and essayist living in Los Angeles.

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