Three weeks ago, we decided to try a “socially distant group hymn” with church members. The idea isn’t unique, but it felt like a fun way to join together virtually. It was tough to convince people to send me videos of themselves singing, but eventually we had 28 people who participated. Editing it was more of a challenge than I expected as even my beefy new PC had trouble rendering all of those video streams at the same time. But I was able to render out each row by itself and then combine those rows into the final video. We used it in our online service last Sunday and then posted it by itself as well. Enjoy!
Last August, Tyla and I saw the Piano Guys playing in Marymoor (so many people in a crowd! That seems unthinkable now!) Jon Schmidt is the amazing piano player half of that duet and for my birthday, I received one of the piano books he has published for his solo work.
The songs are very advanced so when I picked the first one to learn, I started with the one he said was the easiest piece in the book: Tribute. I didn’t post that one before, but I’ll include it below.
When it came time to pick the next song to learn, I opened to the first one in the book and thought, “Hmm, why not this one?” Then I fired up Spotify and listened to him play it. WHOA. So many notes in 3 minutes! It took me a few months but I was finally able to play it to my satisfaction (albeit about 15% slower than he does it and with a few more bad notes along the way.)
I feel a little silly posting these because obviously if you want to see him play the songs, you can just look them up on YouTube, but I do record almost all of my songs when I learn them because it’s fun to look back at them. I like to record them at church because that piano sounds so nice in that huge room.
I make pretty heavy use of my Spotify subscription, especially at work. Around this time every year, they provide a bunch of stats about what you listen to. Here are some of the stats and top 5 lists that they gave me:
- Top song:: The Arcadian Wild – Silence a Stranger
- Top 5 artists:
- Jason Mraz
- The Arcadian Wild
- The Senate
- Jonathan Coulton
- John Mayer
- Top Genres:
- Neo mellow
- Stomp and holler
- Progressive bluegrass
- Indie pop
I’ve never heard of most of those genres but sure, why not. If you know my listening history, you might be surprised to not see any country on there. That’s still a favorite of mine, but I keep this work account totally focused on the type of music listed above. If I start to mix it with country, the recommendations get very confusing and useless. If I stick with one area, the “Discover Weekly” list is much more useful.
In 2007, I purchased a Korg C303 digital piano. It was a good size for the condo that I lived in and the ability to plug in headphones was a huge bonus. The headphones are still paying off since most my playing is done while Elijah is in bed.
Anyway, when I bought that piano, I didn’t have any music so I headed to Half Price Books. I somewhat randomly picked a book of some classical favorites. I got home, opened to page 1 and it was the first movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto. Umm… way over my head. At some point, I struggled through the first page and got to where I could sort of play it.
Fast forward to May 2019 and I was watching a video from Mike Boyd about how to stick with really hard learning challenges. He used learning a difficult guitar song as his example and for some reason the whole thing reminded me of that Bach piece. I decided to actually learn the entire first movement well enough to play it in church. How hard could it be, right? As Randall Munroe said in his latest book, “Playing the piano is easy. The keys are in order and easy to reach. All you do is memorize which keys make what notes, then play them in the order written on the sheet.”
The good and bad thing about the internet today is that you can fire up YouTube and see tons of examples of people doing all kinds of things extremely well. This piano piece is no different, so after watching videos of 10 year olds playing the song in a little over 4 minutes (from memory), I set a timer to see how long my first attempt would take. 25 minutes and it didn’t sound even remotely like Bach. I had a long way to go.
For six months, I’ve played that song almost exclusively nearly every day. I played and I played and I played. And then I played and played and played some more. I think it’s fair to say that I averaged about 20 minutes of practice per day for 6 months.
This had clearly become an obsession for me, but no matter how many times I hit a wall and eventually broke through it, I could never get the level of polish that I wanted. Eventually I decided that me learning this song was like the average person sitting on their couch and deciding to run a marathon. They’re not going to win the marathon but finishing alone is a huge achievement.
So I set up a date to play it in church and went for it. Was it perfect? Nope. Not even close. If you want to hear how it’s supposed to be played, there are lots of other YouTube videos that are perfect renditions. But I feel like I’ve accomplished my impossible goal. Not only am I proud of the accomplishment… I’m very excited to start playing something else!
While not unique to learning this specific song, a few things struck me:
- At least early in the learning of the piece, I felt like I retained more if I practiced close to bedtime than if I practiced earlier in the evening or in the morning. There are some scientific studies that back this up as well.
- It’s a really weird feeling when you realize that you made a huge leap in learning from one day to the next. It’s hard to explain but there are some days where a previously difficult passage suddenly feels dramatically easier.
- There’s some sweet spot of concentration that is difficult to maintain. I often find that I play worse in public than I do when practicing because I’m concentrating too hard. But if I don’t concentrate enough, all of a sudden I’ll find that I’ve lost my place on the sheet music and my fingers ran out of notes to play. And if I think about not concentrating too much, that doesn’t work either.
- Through the process of playing the song over and over, I memorized probably 90% of it, but aside from the first page (and the last page which is a repeat), I’m not confident enough to play without music. I think to totally polish off the song, I’d need to memorize it completely and not be staring at music along the way.
- If I was going to really get serious about this, I’d need some serious therapy around playing with other people present. Just trying to have Tyla stand next to me and turn pages brought out tons more flubs in my playing even when she wasn’t doing anything. And when I finally get to the point of playing it in church, I end up a bit sweaty and shaky by the end of the song.