This is my first learning challenge, and it is my worst.
I wanted to learn all the piano pieces in the Oscar-winning musical La La Land.
I do not know how to play piano, and I have no teacher but myself and the internet.
I posted my goal onto the Piano subreddit to see if it was realistic, writing that I wanted to teach myself “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme” (the most difficult song in La La Land) and sight-read pieces of similar difficulty within a month. I got the response I hoped for. My goal was “a bit unreasonable,” “could be possible,” “not possible,” “absolutely not possible.”
This was stress relieving. I had been practicing and had plateaued. I flipped through Fundamentals of Piano Practice and Adult All-in-One Course: Lesson-Theory-Technic: Level 1 for answers and found nothing. I thought that this piece was easy and that I was just a slow learner. Turns out, this was just a difficult piece. Though I still might be a slow learner—but maybe not that slow now. That’s the good news. The bad news is that I posted this 3 weeks into my challenge.
Three weeks in and in a song that had 45 bars, I could play nothing but the first eight bars, the easiest bars. Not a good beginning nor middle.
I am a slow learner.
However, identifying notes and finding keys became easy. Though I was still too slow to be able to sight-read anything, I no longer had to take minute-long pauses to find the proper keys then doubt myself and spend more minutes re-checking later. At least something from the last 3 weeks was paying off. But, nonetheless, it had been 3 long weeks and 8 measly bars. It “could be possible” for me to learn 37 significantly harder bars in 1 week, but it’s more “absolutely not possible.” My simple plan of “treat sight-reading like regular reading: learn the names of each note like learning the alphabet and relentlessly practice reading notes via games” was now a stupid plan, so I changed course. Time to be realistic. I began anew by learning the most difficult bars first.
I revisited Chuan C. Chang’s Fundamentals of Piano Practice for pointers. Through grinding alone, there was no way I could learn the next 37 bars any faster than I learned the first 8 bars, so I took Chang’s tip to “practice the difficult sections first.” But how could I learn the most difficult sections in a week when it took me 3 weeks to learn the easiest parts? Because the mistake that stalled my progress wasn’t setting an unrealistic goal; it was thinking I could achieve it with my ignorant and unstructured plan. By following Chang’s Fundamentals of Piano Practice, this was the closest I was to having a teacher by my side. There was no more trial-and-error, only time-tested ideas that got results.
Well—one idea. “Practice the difficult sections first” was the only idea I took. I rushed myself. I did not have enough time to learn Chang’s theories on practice and to apply all of them.
But I was just procrastinating; I had a week’s time. I figured that the less work I put in, the more I could excuse myself for failing. After all, I can’t be called a slow learner when I barely practiced an hour a day. But failing still hurts.
I wasn’t going to be able to learn “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme” in the days that I had left. I listened to the advice on Reddit. Begin simple. Find something easy to start with.
I chose a simplified version of “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme,” found a tutorial, and practiced 3-4 hours per day in my last week.
It’s not good, but it’s not garbage.
Still, I regret that I had not planned better and that I had been lazy and procrastinating. I regret the mistakes I made.
My first mistake was my impulsiveness. I dived into this challenge without a plan. I had no deadlines, no milestones, and no progression of practice. I needed structure, so I found online courses. Why learn through trial-and-error when others have already mastered the craft and the art of teaching it? As Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s right-hand man, said, “I believe in the discipline of mastering the best that other people have ever figured out. I don’t believe in just sitting down and trying to dream it all up yourself. Nobody’s that smart.” My second mistake was laziness. When you do nothing, your plan, no matter how genius or meticulously constructed it is, becomes nothing. My third mistake was my lack of reflection. Even the best plans can’t be followed perfectly. Reflection is the compass which substitutes the map when the map has blanks. It was the tool that would allow me to work around the unexpected.
I made more mistakes than these, and for that I am grateful. After all, as Benjamin Franklin said, “the things which hurt, instruct,” for even though I failed to learn “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme,” I now understand and appreciate the difficulty of learning piano. I now have teachers and a community behind me in Hoffman Academy. I now understand the value that hard work can bring.
This is my first learning challenge, and it is my worst. With my mistakes made and lessons learned, I hope this remains so.