Living Picture Narrative

My Piano Journey

Our student IDs couldn’t swipe us into Sereno Hall, so we waited outside until someone walked out. When we finally snuck in, we rushed towards the lounge, and there it was. A glossy black, upright Samick. It had several fingerprints, but that didn’t take away from its beauty. My friend, JT, approached it, cool and composed. He sat on the stool, cracked his fingers, and cupped his hands on the right end keys of the piano. He started off slowly, fingers gently caressing the keys. Suddenly his fingers started accelerating, dancing on the keys, and moving like spiders down the left. The pitch descended and the volume rose. I immediately recognized this opening tune. This Warner Bros tune was his grand opening! The power and skill he commanded was a statement, as if he was telling me “Eyes on me! I’m about to show you that I’m the real deal!” The medley that followed took us from the iconic Kingdoms of Mushrooms and Hearts, through the plains of Hyrule, to a galaxy far, far away. This was the performance that finally unleashed the raging desire deep within me, built up over the past several years, to learn the secrets of those elusive black and white keys. I was witnessing with my own eyes what I had been aspiring to become!

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It all began with a couple of geeks wanting to play their favorite video game theme songs.

.  That was the first time I ever heard video game songs live on a piano. Althouth that was the day I embarked on my piano journey, other experiences had set me on this path long ago. For as long as I can remember, every time I played through a video game or watched a movie, I’d listen to the soundtracks very carefully. When I searched YouTube for these songs, I would find piano arrangments on the “suggested” column. Listening to certain piano arrangments has always evoked this strange, intense, euphoric feeling in me. One of the first times I remember experiencing it was when I watched Kyle Landry, a famous YouTube pianist, play his interpretation of Utada Hikaru’s “Passion”, the opening song to the game Kingdom Hearts II. The graceful intro to the song spurred powerful imagery and a soothing wave of serenity. It was as if I was in a dream; I could see waves of cerulean and sapphire blue with streaks of bright yellow-orange lights, giving the illusion of a twilight sky underwater. When he transitioned into a powerful forte, the streaks swirled and the intense surge of passion hit me. After that performance, I had to learn piano to play this song. At that point, I would never have been satisfied with my life if I never learned to play it.

From then on, my free time was sunk into YouTube. I watched pianists perform iconic theme songs from Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy, and other games and movies. My piano interests only kept snowballing as I discovered new artists and genres every day. I learned about the muisc composers behind the scenes of Disney, Studio Ghibli, Nintendo, and many others. At one point, I started learning about classical music, a genre I never thought I would ever touch in my life. I listened to the big classical pianists like Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, and Liszt. All of these artists would soon become the inspirations for my repertoire of songs I would learn to play later on.

Even though I listened to all these amazing performances and pianists, I never had access to a piano or keyboard. My whole family and I lived in one room, so there wasn’t enough room for a keyboard at home. However, last year, when I moved to Davis for my freshman year of college, I discovered that many dormitory halls throughout school had upright pianos in the lounges. This was my chance! Everyday after class, I’d text my friends, JT and Rony, who also took an interest in piano after me, saying, “*Piano Emoji*. U down?,” and I’d be followed with a “Hell yeah!”. We played around with the keys, trying to figure out cool patterns and all kinds of neat tunes. Other days we’d go into JT’s room and have him teach us how to play a song on his keyboard. Even though JT was self taught and didn’t know music theory either, he’d share the secrets he had already unveiled himself. He’d teach us how to sustain notes longer with the middle foot pedal and the fingering positions for different notes that made playing feel natural. Our practice time together with JT was limited though, since we each had different schedules. Progress was very slow until I finally found a way to practice consistently every day.

That November, I took advantage of the holiday sales and used my personal savings to treat myself to my very own Yamaha keyboard. From that day forth, I practiced like a mad man! I’d spend several hours a day locked up in my room, trying to uncover all the secrets of those keys. Not knowing how to read sheet music, I’d watch YouTube tutorials and relied entirely on my ears. This meant that I had to memorize every single song I learned, so it took longer than it needed to for me to make progress.

The toughest part about the beginning phase of playing piano was synchronizing both hands to play at the same time. I never imagined how difficult it would be at first! It felt damn near impossible! Many times, I questioned whether piano was for me or not since I had seen so many pianists play with both hands effortlessly, even little kids! I’d smash my hands onto the keyboard after repeating the same mistake over and over again. It frustrated me to no end, yet I couldn’t stay away from the keyboard. Even when I was away from my keyboard, I’d imagine the piano keys under my hands and tap the notes in the air, on desks, and any surface I could get my hands on. Some friends teased me and said I looked like a zombie when I walked while playing air piano, with my hands held in front of me with my fingers curling and moving.

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The trio of friends gathered every Friday night and wandered the Segundo dorm lounges, enjoying the calm of the night and each others’ performances.

As the school year progressed, I became obsessive and piano began to consume not only my free time, but my study time as well. When focusing on school work, the tantalizing keyboard would always stare back at me, waiting for me to crack; “take a break,” it told me. My performance in school suffered and took a huge nosedive. I wasn’t devoting enough time to finish homework assignments. My calculus midterm scores fell below average. However, by spring quarter, I managed to pull myself together.

The piano exposed my weaknesses and forced me to learn how to allocate my time more effectively. This period of self-discovery allowed me to develop study habits that cater to my strengths. At first I studied as far away from a piano as possible. My mind then remembered what it was like to “get into the zone” for studying. I made it a habit to practice workbook problems very often, just like I did for piano. I had learned self-restraint. The piano no longer had me under its clutches; it was under my command.

When I first started, I’d spend almost the entire day playing. I rarely skipped a day of practice. At most, I missed a session once or twice a month. I invested at least five hundred hours of practice that year, and I’m certain it was more. Furthermore, my new time management skills translated well into my piano practice. Since my practice time was more limited now, I focused on learning certain songs or skills rather than tackling as many of them as I could at once. I knew I was seeing results when I could finally duet with JT. I could sit on one side of the piano with him on the other, and we were able to improvise off of each other. No exchange of words at all, as if I we were one entity.

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Finally, I had reached a level at which I could keep up with one of the musicians who inspired me.

However, being able to play improvised duets at an experienced player’s level wasn’t my only milestone. All of that practice paid off when I could finally play through Kyle Landry’s arrangmenent of “Passion.” The first time I played the song for an experienced player, she told me I sounded like I had been playing for years! I remember her telling me “it’s so beautiful, it makes me want to cry.” Although I have come a long way, I believe I’m only at a level where I can play pieces that sound “impressive.” Anyone who doesn’t play piano would probably call me “good,” but I don’t think I would get that response yet from a teacher and those who have played for years. Due to my lack of music reading abilities, I had to interpret each song on my own, so I know that there’s many mistakes I’ve made. To get to that next level, I have to formally learn the fundamentals of music.

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In this next step of my journey, I will uncover the secrets and beauty of music through a solid foundation in music theory.

In the current stage of my journey, I am establishing a solid foundation of music theory. I am enrolled in an Intro to Music Theory class at UC Davis and I’ve been applying everything I’ve learned from that class to my playing. I’ve printed out the sheet music for my favorite songs and have heavily annotated them. When I have the means to do so, I will seek out a teacher to guide me where I am lost. With more practice, I will reach the level when another fellow experienced pianist will call me something more than “good.”

 

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With nearly a whole year worth of practice, the pupils are ready to join the master JT and other musicians in playing In The Key of Davis.

 

Video I recorded of myself the morning this ePortfolio was due. Excuse the mistakes, as I still have a lot of practice to do. Medley I played includes snippets of:

  • Mario Galaxy: Rosalina’s Observatory Waltz
  • Kyle Landry’s arrangement of “Passion,”
  • “This Game,” opening song from anime show called “No Game, No Life”
  • Besaid Island”  from the game “Final Fantasy  X”
  • Chopin’s Op. 25, No. 5,  AKA “Wrong Note” etude

 

For those who are curious and want to hear something out of this world: This man in the video below is the reason I started playing piano.

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