Learning to Play Other People's Songs Is Weirdly Comforting Right Now

When things are out of your control, sometimes a simple distinction—like "right note" vs. "wrong note"—is all you need to feel sane again.
May 14, 2020, 7:44pm
Image via YouTube

In Kitchen Confidential, the late Anthony Bourdain explains that was the "absolutes" that drew him to the restaurant business—a set of unspoken but inviolable rules, like arriving to work 15 minutes early and never asking another cook to cover for you, that provided him with a sense of simplicity and consistency at a time when he was no stranger to the doldrums of directionlessness and sadness. "What little order there has been in my life is directly related to this belief in clear right and wrong—maybe not moral distinctions, but practical ones," he wrote.

He was referring, of course, to the "mindless, unvarying repetition" of working on the line—with "the same series of tasks performed over and over again in exactly the same way." But it's a logic that could be just as easily applied to life during quarantine, where each day blurs dully into the next and simple decisions—like figuring out what you're going to have for dinner, and how you're going to procure it, and how you're going to muster the energy to wash the dishes after you're done when you're exhausted from work, or from trying to find work when work is not forthcoming—can be cause for paralysis. At times like these, it's easy to gravitate to simple, repetitive activities that make life feel a little more cut-and-dry—and for me, that something has been learning to play other people's songs on the piano.

Please don't think I am flexing when I say that I have been using this time to learn how to play an instrument. I have zero patience for the idea that being cooped up inside means we're all obligated to create a career-defining masterwork; I let go of whatever professional independent music ambitions I once had a long time ago, and as one writer put it recently, emphasizing productivity at a time like this has a "whiff of that Protestant Work Ethic" to it.

But if you have to take up a hobby, I'd argue that the sweetest, most satisfying kind of hobby is one that has nothing to do with your chosen career—and that's exactly how the whole piano thing started for me. Using an iPad my mother received as a birthday present but decided she didn’t have a use for, I stumbled upon a platform called Piano Academy, which describes itself, very simply, as an "app that teaches you how to play the piano." I started messing around with its on-screen touch keyboard and doing the first few elementary exercises, which you can access for ten minutes at a time using the free version, in addition to ULTRA stripped-down versions of songs like Rihanna's "Stay," One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful," the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun," and Schumann's "The Merry Peasant." Perhaps because it felt like an excuse to stop refreshing Twitter every few minutes and worrying about lost work, I was immediately hooked.

As I progressed through the lessons—which typically involve watching a short video by a friendly instructor named Jeff, doing a few finger or sheet music-reading exercises, and playing increasingly complex transpositions of classics like "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" and "Say Something"—the music became too complex for me to play on the rudimentary, 20-note touchpad on the app. So I asked my partner to get me an inexpensive keyboard for my own birthday and decided to get serious, investing in the $15.99 monthly paid version so that I could spent more than 10 minutes per day on the app's "Academy" feature (ie, the lessons, though non-paying users still have access to the "Songbook" feature, which features dozens of playable compositions). It seemed a bit pricey for an app, but I figured that if I played around with it every night out of the month, 53 cents a day was a small price to pay for feeling better.

As social distancing recommendations shifted to a stay-at-home order in my city, I started looking forward to sitting down in front of my makeshift music station at the end of a long day of work—after the dishes were cleaned and surfaces were wiped and my partner retreated to the den to burn off stress in front of a PlayStation. Like other piano-learning apps on the market, such as Flowkey and JoyTunes' Simply Piano, Piano Academy uses machine learning to detect what note you're playing on an outside device (or piano), and it wasn't long before I started noticing the parallels between what my partner's video game obsession and my addiction to the piano. To advance to the next level on Piano Academy, you need to play a certain ratio of correct notes to wrong ones. And if you do a good enough job, each exercise wraps up with a celebratory explosion of stars (one for a reasonably good job; three for an extra-good job).

Don't get me wrong: This "gamefied" version of the traditional piano lesson is no substitute for being taught by a real human; and given the fact that musicians are in extremely tough place right now, I encourage you to pay a live person to teach you (even remotely) if you can afford it. There are also some flaws with the app that occasionally drive me insane. When you're trying to learn a song, you can't zero in on a particularly difficult passage and play it over and over again; you just have to start the whole thing from the top. And as the app's FAQ acknowledges, Piano Academy will sometimes misinterpret the sounds it "hears" you play, which means that it sometimes registers right notes as wrong ones, and wrong notes as right ones.

Once I started playing chords, this meant that I would sometimes end up deliberately playing with a slight lag between my left hand and my right so that the app could hear every note I was playing. (From a strict "learning to play in time" perspective, this seems bad). And while I'm genuinely amazed that I've managed to use thing to teach myself how to read and play elementary sheet music with both hands, there's not much room for self-expression, or genuine musical catharsis, when you're playing along to a digital grid and your primary objective is simply NOT to make a mistake.

Still, when you're wrestling with a nagging feeling of impending doom, that simple distinction between "right note" and "wrong note"—however antithetical it may be to what we think of when we think of "expressing ourselves through music"—is a big part of the appeal of an app like Piano Academy, or any other method you might decide to use to teach yourself how to play other people's songs. Depending on the industry you work in, it can be hard to feel like one has much of a say in the matter of what tomorrow will look like, let alone next week. And at a time when it can be hard to summon the energy to log into Gmail in the morning, much less dream up a whole new genre of music, it nice to feel like there's one area in your life where if you put in the time, and practice hard enough, you'll be rewarded with a golden star, get the go-ahead to pass on to the next level.

Maybe, once we're able to mingle freely again, I'll decide to invest in some real piano lessons, or see if there's anyone in my neighborhood who wants to jam. For now, I'm perfectly satisfied just knowing that at some point soon I'll be able to play through the running arpeggios on Imagine Dragon's "Top of the World" reasonably well, from start to finish, even though it's a song I never really cared for in the first place. And then play it again the next day—because that's just about the only thing I can control.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.