I started playing piano when I was 5 years old.

My piano teacher was a quiet man at the local church. On Sundays, he would accompany the choir, and throughout the week he would see student after student, each of us waiting patiently on the green leather couch by the entrance. When one student would walk down the long aisle, you could hear their shoes clap-clap-clapping as they made their way. As they rounded the corner, their face would often reveal how things went.

Usually somber. Tears were common.

I would take my seat at the piano and my teacher, a middle-aged man with a strong build and his white dress shirt tucked tightly into his jeans, belt fastened around his waist, would begin to pace along the front pew. I was on stage. And almost as soon as my fingers would press down on the keys and the first chord rang throughout the hall, he would shout, "Slower, slower."

My nickname was The Madman.

On the days my pieces were not polished and prepared, he would grab a pencil from his leather briefcase and write little reminders on my sheet music: Legato here. #A, #G, E flat.

On the days my pieces were a mess, he would take that same pencil and really dig into the music. Every note was bolded, underlined, and circled aggressively.

And on the days my pieces had clearly remained untouched, my fingers not yet acquainted with the keys, he would reach for that same leather briefcase, pull out a red colored pencil, and retrace all of his notes again in blood.

My old stacks of sheet music look like maniacal plots for melodic destruction.

They're practically unreadable. 

What I Learned Practicing The Piano For 15 Years

I studied classical piano up until I was 18 years old. By the time I graduated from high school, I had a repertoire of music that I could audition with to become a music major, or even land a music scholarship. For a short stint, I continued on to study piano performance for a semester in college, as well as another tangential career paths like music production, but none of them fully resonated. I loved music, but I had always had an affair with words.

I decided to study creative writing instead.

In many ways, I think of my years playing the piano as foundational not just for my writing, but everything I have done since. Practicing a musical instrument is an extremely intimate act. You hear musicians talk about their violins, for example, as if they are their child. I can say with confidence that whenever I go back to my parents' house and my fingers touch the naked keys of our grand piano, I feel as though I am stripping myself bare. Once you've learned how to play, and play well, a single note is as revealing and vulnerable as your deepest, darkest secret.

The sound you make is you.

However, it wasn't always this way.

Just like everyone else, I struggled in the beginning. When I was young, my fingers would hurt from trying to reach for chords too big for my hands. I despised my scales, and would avoid them by any means necessary. I hated learning new pieces, relying more on my ear than my eyes and the notes on the page in front of me. Chopin was hard. Bach was hard. Mozart was the standard and anything less was inferior.

Learning classical piano was a journey. But it also taught me one of the most valuable lessons of my entire life:

You can't judge success by the day, the week, the month, or even the year.

You have to judge success by the decade.

They say it takes about 10,000 hours to master your craft. With consistent and diligent practice, that comes out to roughly 10 years of practice.

With music, and with most respected art forms that have been around for centuries, ten years barely scratches the surface. I played classical piano for a long time. I started at a very young age. I grew up in an extremely musical family. When I wasn't practicing the piano, my sister would be practicing the violin, or my other brother would be practicing the piano, or my other brother would be practicing the violin. There was always classical music playing somewhere. I had an incredibly talented teacher. I grew up practicing on a very expensive instrument. I had every resource under the sun to succeed, and even after a full decade I was nowhere near the point of mastery.

I was better than every other kid in my high school, sure. Probably most of the high schools in the state. Who knows, maybe the country.

But I was not good enough to go to a recognized music school. I was not good enough to call myself a "pianist on the road to success."

There was something very humbling about that experience, because it showed me the level of dedication it truly takes to master something. And also, the amount of patience you have to have for the journey.

When I hear people talk about how they're frustrated with how slow things seem to be happening for them, I don't know how to respond. They start something, stick with it for a few months, and then give up. "It's not working," they'll say.

In that moment, I can't help but think about how many times I wanted to quit playing the piano because whatever piece I was working on was "too hard."

Or worse, I am also muted when people say things like, "I don't know what my passion is. I'm not good at anything." Meanwhile, they haven't stuck with anything for longer than a year. Maybe two.

Let me tell you something: 2 years is when you start to realize all the things you still don't know.

What playing classical piano taught me about being great is that greatness doesn't happen like you think it does. It's not a year-long in-and-out process, guaranteed. It's not even a two or three year investment. Greatness is a long haul, and the whole reason you're on board is because you love it.

I didn't always love practicing the piano.

But I loved music. So I was game.

If you want to be great, yourself, then you can't judge success tomorrow, or next week, or even next year. Sure, make little notes of where you are on the journey. See how you've improved and what else you can do to continue moving forward. But don't judge your entire trajectory off something that short lived.

Great things take time.

Published on: Jun 6, 2017
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