Learning the piano, all over again

It’s not like riding a bicycle; you do forget. But I’ve found great joy in making music

Dave Nimmer practices Amazing Grace at his new keyboard.
Dave Nimmer practices Amazing Grace at his new keyboard.

Those who claim that relearning, or picking up, an old skill is like riding a bike — you never forget how — are not living in my body or dealing with my mind.

After 60 years away the keys, I’m trying to learn how to read music again and play the piano (in my case a keyboard).

Let’s just say that after three months, not only am I not ready for a public performance on a concert stage, I’m not prepared for a private set in a barroom basement.

But I’m kind of proud of my persistence, patience and, yes, perspiration, in pursuit of a skill set that allows me to play simple melodies and pick up old standards like Amazing Grace and the Kingston Trio’s It Takes a Worried Man.

I got the notion to do this a year ago after attending monthly Taize Prayer sessions at the Basilica of St. Mary that involve singing repetitive, uncomplicated songs, uncluttered with too many words.

The melodies are lovely and lingering and I got to thinking: Maybe I could learn to pick these out on a keyboard and sit in the privacy of my den and hold my own “service.”

I mentioned this to a friend and one day awoke to find a box from Amazon on my doorstep with the morning paper. He’d been planning to buy a keyboard for his son’s birthday and decided to make it two. And I got one.

At first I tried to follow the instructions on how to play the thing, using the small screen on the keyboard that shows you where to put your fingers for any of the 90 songs in the Casio book.

I couldn’t follow along; the images were too small and moved too quickly.

So I decided to learn, again, how to read music, starting with the treble clef. OK, that’s middle C, and then it’s D, E, F, G, A, B and back to C. It took me about a week to get that straight and transferred to my right hand.

Oh, I hit some clinkers at first, particularly when playing pieces with sharps or flats. Missing those little road signs sent many a pretty little melody of mine into the ditch.

But I got better, noting that F sharp and C sharp were the most common and that old B flat hung right behind.

So I got the right hand moving with some alacrity and assurance, but then I had the left hand to worry and wonder about. I mean, what is a B on the treble clef is a D on the bass clef. C on the treble is E on the bass, and on it goes.

I’ve managed to put both those clefs, and the hands that play them, together on a couple of simple pieces — Ubi Caritas and Calm Me, Lord.

I’m spending about 45 minutes to an hour a night at this keyboard — starting, stopping, looking, searching and stretching. I don’t seem to have forgotten how far it is between octaves; it’s just that, at 75, my fingers don’t stretch so easily anymore. Sometimes, I have to smile as I struggle and sweat. But the reward is worth it.

I’m learning something. I’m using my mind. I’m stimulating the synaptic connections somewhere in the back of my brain. And a doctor friend of mine tells me there’s evidence that such stimulation wards off early onset dementia. More than that, it’s nice to believe I can still learn something.

While I’m practicing, I’m not watching television. Of course, I’m missing such enlightening features as Pawn Stars, The Bachelor, Keeping up with the Kardashians and Pit Bulls and Parolees.

I do, however, find time for the CBS Evening News and Blue Bloods on Friday night.

Most important of all, I’m making music. However simple the melody, it’s still music.

And I am the guy with my fingers on the keys.

Dave Nimmer has had a long career as a reporter, editor and professor. Now retired, he has no business card, but plenty to do. Send comments or questions to [email protected].