Righting the Left Side of My Brain

For my signature project, I took beginner piano lessons with a certified instructor. One-hour lessons took place once a week for a little less than 6 months.

What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?

Before I had the chance to take part in my STEP Signature Project, I had pretty much written myself off as an uncreative, non-artistic type. Throughout my life, and particularly throughout my academic career, I focused heavily on math, science and athletics. I couldn’t draw to save my life, I wasn’t a great writer, and while I tried getting into drama when I was in the sixth grade, a humiliating performance as the White Rabbit in my school’s rendition of Alice in Wonderland quickly ended that endeavor. Regardless, while I presumed I lacked a knack for the arts, I always greatly admired those who did; I loved seeing symphonies, attending plays, and marveling at art museums. As I grew older, the gap between my interests and my skills widened. I found myself longing for some sort of creative outlet that would let me escape my mountains of engineering coursework and might ever so slightly relate me to the types of people I most revered. Then, when I learned about STEP, I thought it might finally be my opportunity to try my hand at the one creative channel I had avoided thus far—learning an instrument.

Almost immediately after starting piano lessons I realized what I had been missing. There was so much depth and life in the piano. I could sit for hours working on the first 30 seconds of a piece trying to get the timings and pressure of my fingers just right, listening to the subtle variations in emotion and sound as I pressed the pedal, and appreciating the fact that every time I placed my fingers on the keys there was an opportunity for new expression. Practicing piano ignited a totally new part of my brain, one that lied dormant for years but happily presented itself when given the chance. After learning about harmonies and scales I began understanding the logic behind popular music—why it sounds so pleasing to the ear. I had transformed from a passive listener to an active participant in the playing and creation of music. While my skills are still rudimentary, I am learning more and more every day and I am confident that the piano has cemented itself as a now inseparable part of who I am.

What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those
affect you?

The obvious relationship to discuss is that with my teacher, Kelvin Lee. From the first day until the last, Mr. Kelvin was kind, patient, and incredibly gifted in both playing and teaching music. Before lessons began, I was worried I might be treated like an overgrown toddler, spending the first month of lessons monotonously tapping the keys to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” However, I was quickly reassured that that wouldn’t be the case. Mr. Kelvin wasn’t at all discouraged that I started music so late in life; he told me he was overjoyed seeing a young man trying something new. After every single lesson he assured me that I had made the right choice. Mr. Kelvin helped me realize that growing older should never be an excuse to deny myself a new challenge or experience.

One of the fundamental skills I learned during my lessons were scales. Going into lessons, I knew essentially nothing about music theory. As far as I was concerned, notes that could be played pleasantly together or in succession sounded nice and made me happy. There was no need for me to figure out why that was the case. Learning about scales, however, was my first real opportunity to peak behind the curtain and watch the wizard work his magic. For instance, a major blues scale contains as little as six notes, and, for the most part, playing those six notes (or chords) in any random order resulted in a perfectly pleasant blues song. The wonders of music no longer seemed so mystical and otherworldly. While I once thought I could remain blissfully ignorant to how and why music was made, after learning some basic music theory, I now hope to participate in the music-making experience myself someday.

The most important milestone for me was finally learning to play “Engagement Party” from the movie La La Land. I’ve included my first successful recording of it as part this blog post. As I discussed in an earlier question, I’ve always appreciated good art, cinematography, music, etc., and when I saw La La Land for the first time, I instantly fell in love. The music in that movie hit me like a truck, but the fact that I had no way to play it myself made me melancholy. Once I had a few weeks of piano lessons under my belt, I decided to try my hand at the seemingly simple, but emotionally rich “Engagement Party.” It is by far the most complicated piece I’ve learned thus far, but the results were certainly worth it. I felt an astounding sense of self-satisfaction once I finally sewed together the last several measures and I was so excited to show someone all that I had learned. As a result, this was the first piece I ever played in front of my grandmother. She was overjoyed to listen to my performance and afterwards, we talked for hours about her prior talent with the piano. I realized this love of music had the power to genuinely connect two individuals generations apart.

Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?

Going into this project, I made it my personal goal to become a more rounded and emotionally intelligent individual.I felt as though my psyche was lopsided, too heavily focused on cold logic—often to the point of cynicism. I viewed the world largely through the lens of math, science, and engineering; problems existed and should be fixed in the most efficient way possible. After taking the mental discipline accumulated through academics and applying it to my practice, that internal scale has tipped closer to equilibrium. I realize now more than ever the importance of self-expression, creativity, and music.

I have experienced the elation that comes with mastering a new piece and the unquenchable thirst for new material and exercises. I finally have an outlet for my day’s frustration, sadness, joy, confusion, and when I sit down in front of those keys, the rest of the world washes away for a couple of hours. Having an emotional outlet has become so important to me, especially during this tumultuous, ever-changing time in my life. Even as I hop around the country to different internships, co-ops, and opportunities, as long as I can bring my piano with me, I know I’ll be ok.