I took piano lessons for 7 years when I was a child. You would think I was a pianist for how much I practiced and for how long I took lessons, but I am not.
In fact, I can barely read music.
For me, learning piano was to memorize what I heard. In some ways, I absorbed the notes, timing, tempo, and form enough to keep moving forward, but relied too heavily on my ear. I always wanted to hear my teacher play a song first so that I could copy her.
But just listening was never quite enough to keep advancing with the music pieces I wanted to play; I needed to learn to read the sheet music the way they were written.
This left me swirling a lot, caught between enjoying the music and hating it. Reluctant to do the work of applying myself to both my musical ear and musical theory, I wanted to reap the reward of being a good musician but not experience the pain of the process.
The last piece of sheet music I tried to learn felt painful to me. I was so excited to play it and mastered the first page to memory, but the turn of notes on the second page proved challenging. I remember coming back to my lessons, week after week, only to be sent home to practice the same measures all over again. This frustrated me because each week I was sure I was playing it right. I couldn’t hear or see the song any different from I what I was doing and only wanted to get on with the rest of the melody.
But instead of continuing, I quit.
I didn’t stop playing the part of the song I knew, in fact, that part was so engraved in me that I didn’t even have to think about it when I sat down at the keys. But eventually, my ease with the measures that were familiar kept me from getting through the ones that weren’t; I started playing less and less.
That was the time I began teaching myself guitar. Memorizing finger placements and copying people’s rhythm to learn felt more like my style.
To this day I still prefer to play my guitar; mostly because it feels comfortable. But I’ve never lost my love for the beautiful sound of a piano and now as an adult, I wished I never stopped playing.
Several months ago my mother gave me a stack of old piano music from when I was a child. The song that gave me so much trouble long ago was included in the bundle and when I saw the familiar sheet music cover I remember thinking there was no way I could possibly play the piece now.
I took the music home anyway but discarded it all in a pile next to the piano I rarely ever played.
Since then I’d forgotten that specific piece of sheet music existed, or was in my house for that matter, until tonight. As I shuffled some things around in our living room it was there, wedged between the Les Miserables piano book and an old hymnal.
I still knew the first page like the back my hand; it was part of me. Without fail, it flowed from my fingers without even thinking anytime I sat down to tinker with the piano keys.
But it always ended abruptly; unfinished, in the place I never learned.
Feeling ambitious as I eyed the song, I planted myself down in front of the ivories and opened the sheet of music.
As I did, an involuntary gasp slipped from my lips.
I’d forgotten about the flats. No wonder this piece gave me so much trouble. I always had a certain distaste for any song in a key with more than one flat.
Sighing, I propped the sheet open on the music rack and played the first page from memory. As my fingers glided over the keys I tried to follow along with the notes on the page but quickly realized I had no clue where I was. I couldn’t register what was written and all of the printed ink on the music sheet overwhelmed me as if I were trying to read a foreign language for the first time.
A signal shot up; this was too hard.
What was the point in trying to learn this piece now half-way through my thirties? Why struggle through something from so long ago?
Against my better judgment, I decided to stay and see if I could find the place where I last left off.
As I sat there contemplating how much effort to give, I found the measures I never learned and leaned in to take a closer peek at the music sheet. Squinting, as if it helped dust the cobwebs from my brain, I plucked at the notes and tried to find the written ones with my hands. The sound that came from my fingers resembled that of a toddler smashing their hands on the keys in an attempt to join in on a song they didn’t know. My fingers felt stiff as they wrestled to work in a way they hadn’t in years, skipping form out of habit and fudging notes without even trying.
But something began to happen. The more I tried to play, the more my desire increased to hear the written melody flow smoothly through my fingers.
I had been taught to break down the sheet music and focus only on the treble clef before attempting to combine it with the bass clef, so I did. However, simplifying the process didn’t make it feel any easier, in fact, it made me realize just how much I didn’t actually know.
Again, another signal fired inside.
I couldn’t help but notice how familiar this all felt. Not the beat of the notes or my struggle to read the music, but the innate desire to dismiss something challenging and the resistance to lean into the uncomfortable. It was always there, faithfully adjusting its tune to the situation and growing louder with ease when life felt hard.
As a thirteen-year-old, it had me closing the fall over the black and white piano keys. As a newlywed it had me hurrying through the measures like I knew what I was doing. When I struggled with infertility it kept me from practicing vulnerability for fear of the notes that fell flat. As I walked through life it had a way to make rely on my ear alone to mimic the notes of someone else.
Even now, as a mother, it had me wanting to force the tune my own way. As a pastor’s wife, it had me wanting to call it good and move on. As a writer, it had me wondering and contemplating if there was even a point in trying.
Now, with this musical piece from my past connecting with my thirty-five-year-old self, I leaned into this small but significant moment. As I tried to train my fingers to find the written notes, I realized I would always be learning how to read the music of my life. There was a melody waiting to be heard through my own hands; it wasn’t so much about getting it perfect but about showing up to keep practicing. It was never too late to try and play the next right note, even if I had no clue what it meant or where it was going.
My fingers struck a chord and I started to recognize the tune; almost like I’d known it all along. The notes registered with my fingers, connecting with my mind and my heart, and the measures I didn’t know started making sense.
It wasn’t just the song from the piano I could hear, it was the melody of my own. Created from beginning to end, but becoming known. A masterpiece.
If I never wrestled with my fumbling fingers and defaults, or simply quit showing up to practice, my song would be left to accumulate dust. Existing, but silent.
It was written to be played, and I was the one to play it.
Leaning into the difficult part of this piece, I started to delight in the process. Stumbling over the keys, my fingers found all the flat notes and played them along with the natural notes; all holding purpose in contributing to the song as it was created. The melody flowed through me.
As the notes pieced together from the sheet music to my head and through my hands, my heart lifted. After all these years I was actually getting it. The measures that gave me so much trouble long ago were finally making sense and I was playing them as if my fingers were made to hit these exact notes today.
Finally, I could read the music that was once impossible to see differently and I played a part in my own song that I never played before.
Written by: Kristina M. Ward
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on KristinaMWard.com
Featured image by Jordan Whitfield