As a teenager I tried to master the piano. One of the first songs in the book was Three Blind Mice, and I remember one day where I was just really struggling with it, making mistake after mistake.
Every wrong note I struck felt like a knife being stabbed into my chest. There was such a gap between where I was and where I wanted to be: my friends in school were busy playing Bach concertos and playing gigs in the East Village and here I was having trouble learning a nursery rhyme for five year olds.
And I was beating myself up about it so much that I couldn’t understand or process the fact that there was actually nothing different between me and my peers who could play the piano, other than that they 1) had started a few years before me and 2) had already made the mistakes I was making.
At the time I genuinely believed that the difference between me and them was the fact that I just wasn’t naturally gifted enough, and that was why I was having such a hard time learning (as if they all had popped out of the womb playing Sonata No. 17 in C Major).
But contrary to what teenage Jesse thought, it wasn’t a question of natural talent, and it’s not like my friends never struggled—of course they did. They had already paid their struggle dues to get past this level I was having such a hard time with, whether it was with Three Blind Mice or some other song that was once frustratingly beyond their ability.
While I thought I wanted to master the piano, in hindsight I didn’t only want to master it—I wanted to master it immediately, without any failure, wrong notes, sacrifice, or struggle. I felt entitled to success, and thought if I was just naturally good enough I could skip all that boring beginner stuff, and that I was playing so many wrong notes was ultimate cosmic proof that I wasn’t good enough, would never be good enough, and should just quit and stop embarrassing myself on that small black bench.
Of course, the truth, which is easier to see without the veil of teenage self-absorption, is that the wrong notes that felt like failure were the exact mistakes I needed to make to improve.
In the context of Three Blind Mice, then yes, every wrong note was technically wrong. But in the context of actually getting good at the piano, those wrong notes actually meant progress, because every wrong note taught my muscles to reevaluate the distance between the keys, where to position my fingers in relation to each other, and to reach about a centimeter further to hit that A sharp in the third bar.
Getting it right is simply a byproduct of getting it wrong many times. And the entire process will be both quicker and more pleasant once you can accept that. Once you’re willing to hit the wrong notes for the sake of improvement, everything gets lighter, easier, more fun.. and you get better.
On the other hand, if you resist the fact that mistakes are inevitable, necessary, and conducive to improvement, you’ll probably have a miserable time, make less progress, or even give up altogether.
The first time you play Three Blind Mice perfectly might feel like a victory, but it’s not. It’s just a byproduct of the victory.
The real victory is showing up every day with enough patience, discipline, and respect for the craft to sit and practice for hours and hours, plunk all the wrong keys, calibrate accordingly, and rinse and repeat for years. The piano doesn’t owe you anything, but if you honor it enough to repeatedly make yourself vulnerable in front of it, show it how badly you want to improve, maybe one day it will be willing to hear your case, drop its stiff upper lip, and grace you with a touch of skill.
But the piano is smarter than you think. If you sit on its bench with the arrogance that you should instantly be a virtuoso without putting the time in, it will know. If you beg for a shortcut, or skill without putting in the work, it will expose you. The piano doesn’t owe you can anything, and it can tell when it’s being cheated.
When you sit down to practice, ask yourself: are you trying to steal from the piano, or are you respecting it?
If you pay it enough attention and respect over the years, the piano will slowly acknowledge your dedication and warm up to you. But this process can only begin after you’ve decided to honor the instrument above your ego.
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