Learn piano, to do what?
June 27, 2010 3:12 PM   Subscribe

When an adult says, "I wish I could play piano," what specifically is it that she wishes she could do?

I've been playing piano for 30 years, and I get this comment often after people hear me play. I'm asking this question from the perspective of a would-be teacher.

My best guess is that when someone says this, she wishes that she could teach herself to play simple versions of songs she likes. The more I think about it, the more obvious it seems to me, which makes me wonder, am I missing a wider range of wishes?

Also, is wanting to be able to play piano different than wanting to be able to play any arbitrary musical instrument?
posted by RobinFiveWords to Media & Arts (55 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
For me at least, the big stumbling block has always been sight-reading sheet music, not so much actually touching keys with fingers and pedals with footies. So yeah, when I tell my pianist friends that I wish I could play what I'm really saying is that I wish I could read music and translate it to beautiful piano sounds.
posted by carsonb at 3:17 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

For some, it's the desire to be able to impress much as one has just been impressed.
posted by thejoshu at 3:18 PM on June 27, 2010 [9 favorites]

She wishes she could play as beautifully as you, but without the years of study and practice.

This also applies to playing other musical instruments, painting, cooking, and singing.
posted by Linnee at 3:20 PM on June 27, 2010 [15 favorites]

Honestly, I think it's more of a daydream and a lament for the path not taken than any specific desire. Piano playing and musicianship and creativity evokes all kinds of wistfulness in people who've never developed that side of themselves.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:22 PM on June 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

she wishes that she could teach herself to play simple versions of songs she likes.

I've said this before. What I mean is what you said above for the most part with the addition that I have tried and not done so well. I'm sure there's a chance that I just haven't applied myself well, but there's also the fact that I have a dastardly difficult time having my two hands doing something different [like the rhythm/melody thing] and it makes it really difficult for me to do the sort of things that are required for piano playing. I have the same trouble with guitar. I do not have that problem with drums, or with a recorder. So, I admire people who can do it and make it seem effortless. It's a neat skill to have.
posted by jessamyn at 3:23 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's just an idle statement really. Saying, "I wish I could do that," to me, generally means that while they would love to have the ability, they don't intend to actually attempt to work on it.
posted by wondermouse at 3:24 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wish I could play violin, but not being able to read music is my personal roadblock. And since math has been a nemesis of mine from grade school onward, I don't think I'll ever be able to learn. I can't make sense of sheet music at all - it looks more complicated than calculus to me.
posted by Anima Mundi at 3:28 PM on June 27, 2010

I imagine just the ability to sit and play the thing. I wish I could draw, but I don't have natural ability, and I don't have the time/money just now to develop technique, and I'd only use it to draw pictures of Elvis in margins anyway which makes me wonder what the point is. Someone who would only play piano when they felt like showing themselves or others that they have the skill probably feel the same - that or the sheer study involved in becoming competent is too off-putting.
posted by mippy at 3:35 PM on June 27, 2010

It means I wish I had done the practicing as a child and not blown the chance then. Because it is too hard now.
posted by SLC Mom at 3:35 PM on June 27, 2010 [11 favorites]

But, yeah. If I could sit down and play simple hymns and songs from musicals and Christmas carols I would be totally content.

And by 'play' I mean read the music and play with both hands.

Also, it would be great to just be able to play a melody in one hand and be able to throw some chords in with the other. Isn't that what they do to make it sound like real music instead of a just a second grader plinking at the keys?
posted by SLC Mom at 3:38 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

For me, it means I wish I could have what I imagine you're experiencing: getting lost, mind quiet, inside music that I love.
posted by MeiraV at 3:38 PM on June 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

I've said this before many times. In my situation I don't really have a problem putting in the time and effort. It always boiled down to three things. The first is expense. I've always heard that piano lessons are expensive and that you have to rent/buy a piano or keyboard to practice on at home. Second is that I was in band for a while and never learned to read music. So, like Anima, I fear that I might be unteachable. Third is that I'm an adult and I'm not even sure if piano instructors would be ok with teaching adults with no previous experience reading music.
posted by GlowWyrm at 3:39 PM on June 27, 2010

am I missing a wider range of wishes?

I wish I could play a small set of upbeat crowd-pleasing tunes. "Chopsticks" on steroids.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:39 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

When an adult says, "I wish I could play piano," what specifically is it that she wishes she could do?

Why don't you ask her?

Also, is wanting to be able to play piano different than wanting to be able to play any arbitrary musical instrument?

Yes. As my friend who's a drummer likes to put it, piano and guitar -- unlike drums, voice, flute, and most instruments -- is a "complete instrument." He means that piano and guitar can play full chords and melodies. Guitar or piano can even play a melody while backing itself up with chords. But piano can do this more easily than guitar. An instrument like violin is theoretically capable of playing multiple notes at once, but it can't even convincingly played a series of chords, let alone back up its own melody with chords.

But that's not all. Piano beats guitar in its implicit analysis of music. On a guitar, every one-semitone interval looks the same: you go from one fret to the adjacent fret. This is a plus and a minus. It's good because you can trascend music theory: take a D 9th chord and move the whole thing up or down the fret board, one fret at a time (e.g. D9, D#9, E9, F9, etc., or the other direction -- D9, C#9, C9, B9, etc.), and you get a cool, funky (I would even say "liberating") effect that wouldn't come so naturally to a pianist.

But the piano is more grounded in music theory. C major is (by arbitrary convention unrelated to the actually listening experience) the pianist's home key, as the C major scale is defined by nothing more or less than all the white keys. Conversely (as I'm sure you know), the black keys are the chromatic notes, the ones outside the major key. If you're in C major and play a black note -- say, B-flat -- you're conscious of the departure from the key, not just through ear training or theoretical understanding but also because you can plainly see that it's a black key. In contrast, this is less noticeable to a guitarist, who's more likely to think of it as a trusty finger pattern that just "feels right" or "sounds good." Of course, a pianist is not going to be playing in C major most of the time, but the pianist -- so familiar with the landscape of C major -- will have a relatively easy time transferring the understanding of that key to other keys. "Oh, we're in G major now, which I know from my earliest piano lessons has exactly one sharp -- #F -- so I can think of the whole key as basically like C major except that there's one diatonic black key and one chromatic white key -- respectively, #F and F natural." (Of course, all this goes for all keyboard instruments -- synthesizers, harpsichords, etc. Piano is just the most common example.) In contrast, if you're trying to explain a theoretical point to someone who plays a non-keyboard instrument, you'll often want to explain things in terms of black and white keys in C major on a piano, because keyboard instruments are more visibly linked with traditional music theory than any other instrument. Of course guitarists and violinists can understand these points, but only on keyboard instruments is everything so conveniently laid out in front of you all at once.

Also, only on a piano can you play incredibly awesome things like this.
posted by Jaltcoh at 3:42 PM on June 27, 2010 [7 favorites]

My parents both play piano, my mom in a fully competent, play-any-sheet-music-that's-in-front-of-her way, my dad in an improvisational creative way. We always had a piano growing up, and both my sets of grandparents did too, and they were used often. I took lessons when I was a kid, but was not very musical, and was lazy and easily discouraged, and now I regret not having stuck with it, for a number of reasons.

I would love to be able to sit down and get the kind of enjoyment my parents do from playing.
I would love to be able to sit down with kids I know and just strike up a song for simple sing-a-longs - this is something that I feel like all adults could do when I was a kid, as a basic skill, and I feel like less of an adult because I can't do it.
I admire people who can play; it's a cool thing to be able to do.

I sometimes think about trying to learn now, but it would be a real investment of time and money. I think of it the way I think of other self-improvement projects like learning a language or running a marathon - boy, that would be great. Yet I'm unlikely to actually do it, since I'm too mired in the day-to-day.

If you're looking for advice about what you can say to people who tell you they wish they could play: say "you know, it's never too late. It really is a lot of fun. I teach adult beginners, and if you're ever thinking about it, you should give me a call."
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:43 PM on June 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

I wish that after 10 years of lessons and practice, I could actually PLAY the piano, instead of having to memorize music and only being able to churn out exactly what I memorized, exactly the way I memorized it, and being very limited in what I'm capable of memorizing. I'm a very good bassist and a competent violinist, and I made a good run at brass, but for whatever reason, I don't have the ability to make my brain and hands all cooperate at once to play piano properly.

Knowing the theory of HOW to do it, and being able to read piano music, and slowly pick out songs (or sight read for one hand at a time), has been ENORMOUSLY useful to me and I don't regret the time I spent on lessons, but oh how I wish my brain and hands and everything would cooperate in such a way that I could actually PLAY the instrument! It's a pleasant and versatile instrument, especially for solo and casual players. (You can't really sing along to yourself playing bass, or fill the room with sound the same way, or provide the accompaniment at a Christmas party, or whatever.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:43 PM on June 27, 2010

And yeah, as SLCMom says: Christmas carols. My mom's family always had the everybody gather round the piano and we'll sing for hours" type of Christmas, and I'm sad that I won't be able to do that kind of thing with my own (hypothetical) kids.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:48 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

For me it was not staying with it when I was a kid and able to learn easier. Attention spans at a young age won't allow most to stay with it. Later in life you learn to appreciate it more. Also, I firmly believe a mind that is music trained is a better one. I think studies have shown that too.

So when you get old, you might have regrets you didn't stay with it because for the first time in your life you deeply appreciate it. I think I allowed my children to quit to soon. I wished I would have encouraged them more.
posted by nogero at 3:51 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

It means I wish I had done the practicing as a child and not blown the chance then. Because it is too hard now.

This is definitely part of it for me. I took lessons in three different instruments as a kid (piano, violin and guitar, so cliche!) and dropped each after a year because practicing was so tedious and unrewarding. I wish I'd stuck with at least one of them.

But with piano and guitar, there are two different, very specific wishes attached.

Piano: I love many of the classical piano concertos like Mozart's Beethoven and Chopin's. I just find them so beautiful and enthralling. I have always wished I could play them, because it would be wonderful to - for lack of a better way to phrase it - live inside of them for a few minutes. I would also feel so accomplished to have done all that hard work to learn them.

Guitar: I just think it would be fun to be able to play the guitar around the campfire.

For whatever reason, I have absolutely no desire to play the violin.

This is a really great question!
posted by lunasol at 4:01 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Good points here. I agree esp. with Linnee and PercussivePaul.

I am a piano-pro too, and I have been trying to figure out the very same question. I have found that people have different wishes:

a) Those who haven't ever played anything and are just daydreaming but unwilling to practice. Many times, they'd like the social idea of being center of the social event as pianist.

b) Those who have played a bit classical piano, but who would like to learn to accompany popular songs and play by ear i.e. utilize their skills in every day setting.

c) Those who have studied, and would like to continue whatever they do.

Unfortunately, I have only found categories b) and c) successful thus far. Probably, bec. those people are focusing more on their personal enjoyment, as LobsterMitten stated.

Interested in hearing more...

posted by Doggiebreath at 4:10 PM on June 27, 2010

NPR personality Noah Adams wrote a book about learning to play the piano at 50--I'll bet it goes into his motivation at some length.

I don't know how to play the piano, but I would love to know how to in order to make beautiful music. I did play the flute in elementary/middle/high schools and could play it now still, I'm sure, but the piano has such greater depth, breadth.

Coincidentally, I've been trying off and on to teach myself guitar for years--just like lunasol says, to be able to sit around and accompany singing. This week I picked it up for the first time in over a year, put in a few days' practice, and finally get the hang of chords and changes in a way I'd never done before. So, old dogs can learn new tricks!
posted by Sublimity at 4:15 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't wish I could play the piano, specifically, but I've wished that about other things. Mostly it means that I wish that, as a child, I had been forced to practice [something] and gotten good enough at it that it would still be something I enjoyed doing. This is often just because something seems like fun, or useful, or whatever, and not because I have any feeling I would have enjoyed doing it. It certainly never means that I intend to take up those things -- I say it differently in that case. It's just idly imagining a very slightly different world.
posted by jeather at 4:33 PM on June 27, 2010

Linnee has it. It's a commonly held misconception that being "good" at anything stems from inborn talent or passion, not years of practice and tedium and sucking. They believe you have natural talent and they don't, and they want that.

That's what the "I wish I could" part means. The "play piano" part you're asking about means, to me, mostly technical proficiency: to be able to play any piece of music (except perhaps the really hard ones) at the correct tempo with no audible errors.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:38 PM on June 27, 2010

I also wish I could paint, and I wish I had genuine dance talent. I wish my hearing was good enough so that I could sing on pitch better. But, really, I wish I could play piano, and had the patience and discipline to learn how.
posted by theora55 at 4:52 PM on June 27, 2010

I wish I could play the piano.


I took 12 years of piano, starting when I was a little tot, and progressed to a baccalaureate and played a few solo concerts. And then I stopped.

And 20 years later, I wish I could play the piano again.

What is the meaning of my wish? I want to effortlessly play music, with the same ease that I am now typing this response. I want to be lost in the music - skilfully. I want to feel it, and feel the ebb and flow of being in control of the music and it being in control of me. I have fond memories actually, of practicing scales, repeating the Kuhlau studies, and working on pieces by Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Debussy over the course of weeks. Once mastered, I would get new pieces to practice (merci Mademoiselle Chabot). It was me time. It was me and my instrument, lost in reverie - yet with rigor. The metronome would join in, now and again, it was the watchful witness to my struggles and my eventual triumphs in mastering a difficult passage.

Why did I stop? Well, there was a wrist accident (tennis) and then there was university... and life got in the way... and a move West. I don't have a piano now, and I am considering attaching a keyboard to my mac. Someday when life is less hectic.

But what I miss, is the /time/ that I scheduled to play, the patient and gradual creation of music, and the pleasure in playing a beautiful timeless piece. And the smiles that it brought out in the people who listened in.
posted by seawallrunner at 4:57 PM on June 27, 2010 [5 favorites]

I wish my parents let me take piano lessons! It's easier, from what I understand, to learn an instrument as a child than it is an adult. Obviously, you had many more years to become as good as you are.

So when I say, "Oh, I wish I could play the piano", it means "Oh, I wish I took lessons as a kid, because I don't have the time or the energy to learn right now."

Maybe you started learning as an adult, but it's still a huge time investment which a lot of adults can't make.
posted by Lizsterr at 5:02 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Mr. batik is a professional musician. Plays piano/keyboards/guitar/electric guitar and has some measure of acclaim and minor fame.
I, on the other hand, though I took lessons for nearly a decade, and write music (melody only w/words), just can't seem to get it all together and have been politely told more than once that I should only play at home for my own enjoyment (which I do). I have often said I wish I could play, by which I mean, I wish I was as musically gifted as my spouse.
However, HE sometimes wishes he was as artistic (draw/paint/fibrearts) as I am.
So, for some, it's just kind of an expression of wishing we had additional giftings that we don't.

I also, though, know of some people who always wanted to learn to play piano, but whose family could not afford a piano/lessons. I encourage them to get lessons, and often they succeed enough to satisfy themselves.
posted by batikrose at 5:14 PM on June 27, 2010

I wish my parents hadn't let me give up piano lessons so easily as a child (hard work and practicing frustrated me). I feel guilty for squandering the talent I had as a child, and afraid that it would be so much harder now. I wish I could relate my understanding of music theory to something I could feel physically instead of just abstactions. I wish i had learned to read music. When I hear the first movement of the Goldberg Variations played by Simone Dinnerstein, it moves me so much that I want to understand it more. That's what I mean when I say it.

(I should track down that Noah Adams book- it could be instructive.)
posted by matildaben at 5:21 PM on June 27, 2010

Third is that I'm an adult and I'm not even sure if piano instructors would be ok with teaching adults with no previous experience reading music.

The right ones will be.

Besides, there is more to playing music than reading music. I suck-SUCK at playing written music, altho I read music, and yet throw some chords in front of me and I can play tons of stuff, to include melody. If a person just wants to be able to play some popular songs, it can probably be done with learning a few chords and the willingness to noodle along and try.

OTOH I wish I could play guitar-but in the few attempts I made I always got defeated by the F chord.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:55 PM on June 27, 2010

When an adult says, "I wish I could play piano," what specifically is it that she wishes she could do?

I'm not a she, but hopeful my answer still counts!

I would like to be able to play piano so A.) that I could play and enjoy music on a different level, B.) I could compose pieces that make use of the wide range of tones and C.) know the joy of having mastered a musical instrument
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:57 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

By the way, adults can and do take lessons. I know private instrumental teachers who have beginning adult students. It's not that bad, and honestly they don't seem to progress any slower than the average beginning child (not talking about prodigies or obvious natural talents). Unless you have a real physical handicap that keeps you from playing, you're never too old to start.
posted by wondermouse at 5:59 PM on June 27, 2010

When I say "I wish I could play piano," I mean I wish I could play it well.

My experience with the piano has been similar to Eyebrow McgGee's above, in that after years of lessons starting from when I was a child, and then some more lessons when I decided to resume piano lessons as an adult, I can sight-read competently, but I'm just not a good piano player. At one point I thought if I practiced diligently, I would become a good piano player, and I did practice. But I still was not good. The upshot of all those lessons for me was the recognition that I have some level of competence, but there's a wall I can't get over. I can hear and feel in my fingers how not good I am. So in some ways the years of piano lessons has been a bittersweet experience for me.
posted by needled at 6:12 PM on June 27, 2010

I'm sure for most people it is variations on the responses above; that they wish that they could play as beautifully as you do but they know that as adults with jobs and other responsibilities, they are not going to be able to put in the time to learn to read music and practice. Or as some others have stated, it is a more general wistfulness about not nurturing their creative side or even feeling that they have no creative side.

However for me, and maybe some of the people who have made that comment to you, it has deeper implications. I wanted to learn how to play the piano as a small child, but family did not have the money, time, or interest in cultural pursuits. So if I were to comment to you "I wish that I could play the piano," on the surface I mean just that, but dig a bit deeper and I am thinking "I wish that I had grown up in a family where that was important, where we had the resources so that I could have had piano lessons, or ballet lessons, or gone to camp, etc." It's not this big regret or chip on my shoulder that I carry around constantly. And I also realize that there is every possibility that if my parents had been in a position to pay for lessons that I may have ended up not being very good and endlessly whined about having to practice. But there is a bit of wistfulness for what might have been if my family circumstances were different.
posted by kaybdc at 6:17 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

As a musician (guitar/drums) who dabbles enough with piano to record but not to play by any means, when I say I wish I could play it's a wish that I'd put the time in as a youngster so that I could play what I hear. I would rather dabble with jazz on piano than guitar, but I would rather put the time it would take to learn to play piano with that sort of proficiency into playing guitar as well as I can.
I had access to a piano but just came to guitar instead somehow and, since then piano has just been a sort of wish in the back of my mind. Every time I listen to some E.S.T. or Bad Plus I would just love to be able to sit on my own for hours on end with a drink and a smoke and improvise.
posted by opsin at 6:28 PM on June 27, 2010

I have a degree in vocal music, play a brass instrument, and understand music theory et al, but cannot play the piano beyond elementary level; I can only plunk out enough to teach myself vocal music. Part of my issue is my extreme left-handedness. I cannot overcome it sufficiently to balance the two-handed action piano requires. The effort it would take to do do is way out of proportion. I am occasionally sad about it becase if I could play, I could make a lot of money accompanying singers and music directing shows.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:37 PM on June 27, 2010

I would guess most people think they would like to be able to play for sing-a-longs around the spinet just like in the "old days". The real answer is, naturally and as usual, to attract members of sex they're attracted to.
posted by ob1quixote at 7:08 PM on June 27, 2010

My own version of the saying - "I would give almost anything to be able to dance like they do. But I wouldn't give what they had to."

Mastery is an awesome thing to have, but it comes at great price. The idea of having mastery, without the price, is deeply deeply appealing. "I wish I had learned" is saying "I wish I didn't have to pay the price - I wish it was already paid back in the days that are already behind me".
"The Matrix" is one of many pieces of fiction that tap this, depicting a way by which mastery can be obtained without its price.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:09 PM on June 27, 2010

When I say I want to play piano I have a very specific goal in mind. I'd like to masterfully play Grieg's piano transcriptions of Norwegian folk music, especially some of the darker and moodier Slatter, on a large resounding upright.
posted by mds35 at 7:46 PM on June 27, 2010

I bought a piano a few months ago. When I hear people play something beautiful and I see their enjoyment, I wish I had never quit. I got a book/DVD lesson and am learning slowly. I think it's been good for my brain, like figuring out a puzzle. At first I couldn't coordinate my fingers, and learning the notation is still frustrating. But there is a lot of joy in the learning process and figuring something out. I know I'll probably never master it, but I enjoy learning and playing the easier songs just as well.
posted by samsaunt at 7:58 PM on June 27, 2010

is wanting to be able to play piano different than wanting to be able to play any arbitrary musical instrument?

To me it is. In my experience growing up, most families I knew had an upright piano in the house. Poor relatives in rural areas had them, we had them in the middling suburbs, wealthy relatives had baby grands. In some houses, the pianos got a lot of use, in some they just sat there. But in my mind, the piano is an instrument that's always there, and in my mental image of a "real house" there's an upright piano in the living room. Along with this, there's a kind of baseline expectation that every adult should be able to play piano at a plunk-plunk, sound-it-out level. If a little kid wants to sing along with the piano they can grab any adult nearby and that adult can play along with them. (In my mind. I realize this isn't the real world I'm describing.)

So to me, being able to play piano competently (rather than beautifully) is among the basic skill set of becoming an adult. It's like being able to play catch, build a campfire, change your tires, type on a keyboard, etc. And other instruments are not like that (to me). They are optional, they're in the set of extra skills, not the basic skills.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:54 PM on June 27, 2010

You said "asking from the perspective of a would-be teacher." I play and teach clarinet and sax. Here's my thinking:

- most adults in a social setting, i.e. when you're playing, are really just kind of making conversation. It's a sort of praise - you're making them happy and it seems like something fun they wish they could do. Because I do teach lessons, if I get a chance I usually say "I teach lessons; give me a call sometime," and hand them a card. I've gotten very few calls this way, but I have gotten a lot of laughs. :-) Most adults are really not all that conflicted about their status as a non-musician. It's like - I dunno - SCUBA for me. Looks like fun, and if I found myself with nothing better to do and a pile of cash, I guess I'd try it, but I have no real inner drive to do it.

- with an adult who seems serious (say they HAVE called you) or a child/parent situation where the child will be taking lessons, one of my first questions is: what do you want to accomplish? You don't usually get a completely well-thought out answer, but it's usually instructive to me regardless. Namely, are they talking about music, and musicians they admire or musical styles they like, or at least concrete performance objectives like playing in church or school, or is it a bunch of gibberish that boils down to non-answers like "I always wanted to play" or "it looks like fun" (which just gets back or begs the question "Why do you want to play/why does it look like fun?"

With younger children I think it's okay for a parent to put them through a little bit of lesson-taking just to see if there's a spark there, but after a short while there needs to be some inner motivation. Music is hard work, not everyone has the talent required to play enough for it to be that enjoyable, I don't think music-making is the only path to being creative, and life is short.

Memail me or start another thread about any questions you may have about logistics of being a teacher. I personally find it rewarding both emotionally and, at the risk of sounding crass, financially. It requires a lot of patience and technique beyond just knowing how to play, though. Pedagogy is kind of its own subject.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:25 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a classical singer. I can sight-sing quite well, and I consider myself a fair-to-middling musician. But I can't play the piano. My hands don't know the shape of the chords, I have to move them by peering at the keyboard and fixing one finger at a time. I can't accompany myself. When I sit down at the piano, I can plunk out a line or very occasionally two, but I can't PLAY it.

When I say "I wish I could play the piano," what I mean is "I wish I was half as competent in this instrument as I am in my main one." Sadly my dyspraxia probably means that achieving this goal would require a lot more work than I'm willing to put into it.
posted by KathrynT at 10:58 PM on June 27, 2010

Wishing to play simple songs she likes -- this is really not true for me. I wish I could play the piano brilliantly. When I was a kid I used to try to compose music on my mom's piano, but gave up out of frustration because all I could do was peck out a melody.

I almost had the chance to learn, but because of poor health and my mom's belief that I wouldn't practice, that didn't happen. Now I'm an adult but I can afford neither lessons nor a piano, and even if I could, I would have nowhere to keep a piano in my small apartment. A keyboard is just not a replacement at all; I hate the feeling of them.

As I grew up I added instruments to my list of want-to-play, such as the pipa. The urge isn't much different. For me, the piano isn't a sentimental object. My mom played, but not enough for it to be a big part of my life. I just feel like the piano, and a few other instruments, can express something that I feel a connection to.

Maybe someday I'll be able to afford lessons. I hope at that time my teacher doesn't assume that I just want to learn to play some simple favorites.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:38 AM on June 28, 2010

I can already read music, and I can play the piano a little bit but I'm not very good at it.

I wish I could play songs I know by ear.

I wish I could improvise - sit at a piano and entertain myself (or others) by just pootling about, in a musically satisfying kind of way, either with no sheet music at all, or taking some sheet music as inspiration.
posted by emilyw at 1:38 AM on June 28, 2010

My perspective, from someone who's played many different instruments.....

I think that what strikes people particularly about the piano is the repertoire. One could argue that the greatest composers in history wrote their greatest music for the piano. So for me there's a fundamental difference between the piano and, say, guitar. If I hear a cool new song on the radio I don't have to think "I wish I could play that" because I know that I can probably look up the chords and lyrics online and strum my way through it. And I think that many other people of modest music talent could. In other words, the music I aspire to play on the guitar (banjo, accordion, etc) are technically very easy.

But when it comes to the piano, I know that the music I love and would want to play are not the kind of things that can be picked up in an afternoon. I know it would take me years to get to the point where I could play Beethoven sonatas and Chopin etudes, and then many many months to learn a single piece.

So when I say "I wish I could play piano" I guess what I mean is that I wish I could play those types of pieces on the piano.

One day....
posted by primer_dimer at 2:40 AM on June 28, 2010

I wish I could play the piano. My wrists are pretty crappy though - rsi or carpal tunnel or whathaveyou. I can play drums and guitars without a problem, but playing piano is extremely painful after only a short while. I can record things on synths without a problem, but weighted keys and the angle of attack on a piano is no good for me at all.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 3:01 AM on June 28, 2010

Wow, lots of good answers here. I play various fretted, stringed instruments and took a few months of piano lessons in high school, but it never clicked for me.

Nevertheless, I wish I could play piano because I see what a useful songwriting tool it seems to be for so many of the songwriters and performers I admire, even those who aren't primarily known for playing piano.

But by and large, I think Linnee has it with:
She wishes she could play as beautifully as you, but without the years of study and practice.
In the foreword of one of Stephen King's earlier books he mentions how people are always coming up to him at parties and saying, "You know, I've always wanted to write." To which he had started responding "You know, I've always wanted to be a brain surgeon."
posted by usonian at 5:01 AM on June 28, 2010

The more I think about it, the more obvious it seems to me, which makes me wonder, am I missing a wider range of wishes?

My brother in law has been storing his piano with us for two years. I've "always wanted to play" so a few times a week I sit down and try (with a book) to teach myself simple chords. Even now, with persistence, two years later I can't reliably play even something as simple as "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star". I just don't have the basic talent for innately understanding which note is higher and which note is lower (I'm not tone deaf, I just ... I don't know how to explain it except that if I don't remember which key comes next I can't ever guess correctly based on what I know about the tune and the position of the keys).

My brother in law is one of those people who, from childhood, can simply sit down at a piano and make it play a song. Maybe not a song you've ever heard of, but a song you enjoy listening to. He's never taken a lesson, but has taught himself to read music and plays (and improvises) beautifully.

I want to be able to do that. But, short of finding a way to rewire my brain, its just not a gift I was given.
posted by anastasiav at 6:02 AM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm put in mind of the "fakebook" style of piano (or guitar) playing: being able to play appropriate chords (with some degree of rhythm) with one hand while playing a recognizable melody with the other seems doable for most people without years and years of painstaking practice. You're probably right that most people who would like to learn to play as adults want to be able to get to the "I can play some recognizable songs for my own pleasure and for others' pleasure" stage as soon as possible.
posted by aka burlap at 6:04 AM on June 28, 2010

I think most people mean: "I wish when I was a child I had been offered and/or embraced piano lessons so that I could now sit down at a piano and effortlessly play any sheet music set in front of me and, in addition, have a series of piano pieces that I could play from memory." It is a wish about a mythical past where they could have learned to play piano skillfully without doing anything different in any other aspect of their childhood lives. I doubt it reveals any current desire to take piano lessons. I would not use it as a basis for offering piano lessons.
posted by hworth at 6:08 AM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hmm, I guess I shouldn't assume I know what "most people" would like. To rephrase: that's what I mean when I say "I wish I could play!"
posted by aka burlap at 6:16 AM on June 28, 2010

When I was seven, I started taking keyboard lessons and whipped through the first few lesson books in two months. I needed a full-sized keyboard, but my parents had just gotten divorced. My mother, figuring it was a phase (and she couldn't spare the money, raising two of us alone), sacked the upgrade and got me a flute; no upgrades necessary!
So now, whenever I see a piano, my "I wish I could play the piano" is more along the lines of: "goddamn, if only I'd known enough about music and how much better the piano is to have fought for that keyboard! The timeless, all-genre piano! Why did my mother pay for my brother's taekwondo lessons? I hate the flute!" Etc.
posted by blazingunicorn at 10:08 AM on June 28, 2010

For me, and I'm sure others like me, when I say "I wish I could play the piano," I mean that even though I started lessons at age four and hacked away at it until age 16, I never "got" it and it's painful and bittersweet to see notes flow off of skilled hands in a seemingly effortless way.
posted by bristolcat at 1:04 PM on June 28, 2010

I want to do this. I've been trying for the last 12 years, but haven't had enough time.
posted by emeiji at 10:04 PM on June 28, 2010

Response by poster: All of these responses have been so, so wonderful.

I spent yesterday evening at the library and left with a stack of books including the Noah Adams mentioned above. I'm going to spend some time studying how people learn to play music, for enrichment's sake rather than with a specific goal in mind.

The best part is that I now feel equipped to build a conversation around "I wish I could play piano" rather than letting it kill a dialogue. I simply didn't know what to say, or what the other person was looking for me to say, in response. Now I see it as an opportunity to learn more about the other person. To the extent that he or she is willing to share, of course.
posted by RobinFiveWords at 1:59 PM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

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