Learning the Piano and Doing the Impossible

3 minute read

Recently I started using Synthesia to try and learn piano again. It has been amazing so far.

The interface is like guitar hero. The notes scroll down and you have to press and hold the keys for the correct time. As straightforward as playing a simple video game. Here is a cool video to get you excited (and scared):

Requiem for a Dream Piano (Difficult version)

Oh my god, look at that. That is too difficult. Rather, probably impossible. You have to be a genius to learn that. I can’t learn that. I’m a normal person. I won’t ever be able to do something that amazing. And I only have two hands and no time.

I had a piano teacher when I was a kid. Once he showed me three songs, so I could choose which one to learn first. First one I said it was easy. The second I rated as difficult. Third was impossible. He said: “That’s it. We are starting with the third one.”

That sounded insane to me. When I questioned, he said: “As soon as you learn it, the impossible becomes easy. The difficult will still be difficult and require lots of practice.”

That didn’t make since to me then. But now I understand.

When I first started learning the piano, I had to think about what I was doing. I had to aim the finger on the correct place, at the correct time. And of course I had to do this one finger at a time.

This process was a little frustrating for me, because I never really realised how much a had improved. I wasn’t getting any rewards or congratulations. So how was I supposed to feel good?

It turns out that learning, even though it can be fast, is very subtle. In fact, it’s even a little misleading. The more you learn, the less you have to think about what you’re doing. With the piano, your fingers seem to move by themselves, going to the exact place they should go while you watch. That’s all you do. Watch. And listen.

Now that’s not really a problem, is it? I would say it is the whole point of learning. That moment when you can finally play a song and hear how amazing it sounds without having to make a huge effort. You’re actually enjoy it.

That’s awesome! Do that whenever you can and feel it as a reward. But that is counter productive to learning.

That’s where Synthesia comes right in. It allows you to tackle this situation. Whenever you want to learn, open Synthesia instead of just playing that amazing song you already know. It has two modes, and here is what you get on each:

Melody practice: On this mode, the song won’t move forward unless you press the correct keys. It waits for you to get it, then it moves on. It sounds horrible at first, but you get a score and a percentage of how much of the actual song speed you achieved. With practice, you go from not being able to play to 70% of the actual speed incredibly fast. You don’t need to try and score points, but you can see your scores, number of errors and actual speed, which is great for feedback.

Song practice: The song plays at a hundred percent speed and you have to follow. So it won’t wait for you, and it counts both notes that you miss and extra notes as errors.

I usually start with melody practice until I can finally get to end of the song. Seems impossible to ever play that thing any faster. With some practice, it just comes naturally, and I can see my scores increasing. I also found out that sometimes I like to alternate between melody and song practice. Other times, I just keep improving and improving until at some point my score goes down and I can’t seem to play anything correctly. It’s time to take a break. I guess this is just how our brain works.