Without a doubt, the music question I get asked the most is, “How did you learn how to play the piano.”

No, I do not read notes. I play by ear. That wasn’t the original plan, of course. My mom sent me to a few teachers, but they all grew weary trying to get me to read sheet music.

Finally, my mom decided that instead of wasting money, she would have me sit at a piano for 30 minutes-a-day. The rule was…I could play anything I wanted, but I had to sit and play. I guess she knew 3 things:

  • TIME = EXPERT: As an accomplished portrait painter herself, she knew the value of spending time practicing. Yes, it would take time, patience and mistakes…but that is a necessary part of learning.
  • PASSION: I had an inherent passion for music. She knew that. It didn’t matter the genre, I loved the experience of listening to a good song. I loved reliving those moments as that song took form underneath my fingertips.
  • INFLUENCE: I was always surrounded by music. Though my parents weren’t musical, my mom was always exposing me to different styles of music. My sister, Theresa, was the church pianist; so I was always hearing her play arrangements and watching how her fingers moved over the keys.

Over the years, I would develop my own way of playing, hearing, reading and writing music. I never did learn to read sheet music. I have, however, learned several systems, so I can learn-from and communicate-with other musicians.

Most importantly, the way I learned piano has stuck with me. It has become a part of me. I can’t separate music and piano from who I am. It isn’t notes that I read on a page, it is an emotion, or a conversation I create using the piano.

So mom and dad, if teaching your kids music has become a challenge. Let them play. Make them play. There is more to music than ink on a page. There is a balance that needs to be met between studying music and playing music. One without the other is either bland or unpleasant.