Nobody asked but I will tell you how my piano lessons have been fairing on.
Taking it from the top.
I have been taking my lessons since early January. I take the lessons in the mornings at our daughter’s school, in the music room upstairs. (Her school has both kindergarten and primary. Muna is in kindergarten until March, Inshallah, when she will graduate to grade one. Woop woop.)
My tutor is called Mr Ngatia, he is the music teacher at the primary school.
Mr Ngatia tutors me and other private students across the city. He makes home visits and whatnot. His rate is different when he tutors you at home, with your own piano. And yes, you need your own piano at home to learn.
I figure I am the only adult he tutors at the school’s music room upstairs. I haven’t bought my piano… yet. The piano I want is way out of my current budget but I would rather save up for that rather than buy something right away, something I am almost certain I will later develop buyer’s remorse for.
I sometimes think that it is in bad taste to steal time at the school’s music room, but I counter this niggling thought with an argument – that the piano does not wear out from my use. Haiishi, ha-ha. It was built for this, after all. I am not misusing it by playing it, actually to let it sit idle would be the real misuse.
Mr Ngatia is a busy man with a schedule as tight as a gymnast’s leotard. I can only get him for an hour a week early morning, 40 minutes on both days. The rest of the time, he is elsewhere tutoring other students and preparing curriculums and grading papers. He also has a young family. And his band (Sweeet!) And he is also mastering the saxophone.
I pay Mr Ngatia per lesson, for the lesson on Wednesday only. The Monday lesson is a bonus.
Lesson time with Mr Ngatia is limited to 30, 40 minutes a week, from 8a.m, but practise time on my own runs ad infinitum.
Practice time is where the dilettantes are separated from the diehards.
I have been disciplined and committed to have my lessons every Wednesday and most Mondays majorly because I have no excuse to be anything but. I mean, surely, I have the lessons right there, upstairs, after I drop Muna in school.
(My days to drop her are Wednesday and Thursday, we alternate with GB for Mondays.)
I am doing what author James Clear refers to as habit stacking. I have sandwiched my piano lessons between dropping Muna at school and heading out to work. These are two tasks I must do. In the morning. One after the other. Chaining and association.
I will very likely not take my lessons when Muna closes school for the April holidays. The chain links of the association will have been broken, like a lover’s promise. All that discipline and commitment will be flung right out the window.
I am what they call an adult learner.
You can equate me to those 70-year-old jailbirds who sit their KCPE years into their life sentence; one of those chaps who make it into the newspapers, page three of the ‘Daily Nation’, those inspirational human-interest stories that remind you of the ever-open door of second chances, that it’s never too late to realise a dream you harboured. The jailbird takes his 15-seconds of fame to dress up in some terrible school shorts that expose his spindly hairy legs and ashy knees. He has the spirit of a freedom fighter.
Being an adult learner means I am easier to teach, at least that’s what Mr Ngatia says. I have the life experience to approach music in a wholesome way. I can connect the dots, identify the pattern before it’s pointed out to me, see the end at the beginning.
May I give an example?
I am already reading sheet music, I didn’t think we would be reading them this early in. Remember all those concepts they taught us in the music lessons of class five and six, under 8-4-4? Remember the G-clef and the F-clef? What about the semibreves and quivers and crotchets? Remember using our music books to draw these symbols on?
I don’t know about you, but all these things made little sense to me.
Mr Ngatia and I covered them in the last lesson and by Jove, it was like mastering one plus one. It’s not that they were easy, it’s that the patterns made such perfect sense. I didn’t need to cram the notes or use an acronym to take them to heart, ati Every Good Boy Deserves Football.
I looked, I identified, I mastered.
They will become tattooed to my brain the more I practise them.
My word of the year for 2020 and 2021 was ‘Start again.’ (My word for 2022 is ‘Wholesome’ but I am not connecting with it in the way that I desire. I just may ditch it for something else.)
I love that combination of words because it suggests hope, another opportunity, a beginner’s mind-set, an attitude to learn, the bravery to falter and arise again, the humility to recognize my own limits as an urban girl. My demeanour says, ‘I am not afraid to let you see me give it another shot.’
I am that 70-year-old jailbird.
A few weeks ago I was in the music room practising my major scales and one of Mr Ngatia’s students was curled up in that misplaced couch in the corner, reading from a book. I have heard her play before. You can tell that she was being honest when she said that she has been playing since kindergarten.
Practice time is where you make all your mistakes. And the music can sometimes not sound like music at all but like noise. A racket that hurts the senses. It takes a certain level of vulnerability to practise while someone else is in the room.
The school bell had rung and she shut her book, stretched like a pampered domestic cat arising from a nap, straightened her fleece sweater and braids then headed out. She stopped at the door and with her hand still on the handle, she turned around and told me, “Why don’t you try playing with one hand only? Start with the right hand then go to the left.”
My first instinct was to dismiss her as a juvenile mouthy, but a different part of me saw a new perspective. This was a girl who was young enough to be my daughter, me old enough to be her mother. We are a generation apart.
Yet in that moment, we were not separated by age or defined by generation – we were brought together by the beauty of music and the desire to master this craft. She was me and I was her. She was playing like me nine years ago and I wanted to play like her nine months from today.
I smiled like a donkey and said, “Let me try that, actually. Thanks!”
I started playing again.
You remember Mike Muthaka? Mike used to write here some years back, ran that column he had named ‘Dusty Rugs’? Mike is now a senior copywriter at an ad agency making good money and running the ship at home.
Mike confides that he feels like he traded his soul for money. He sometimes comes into my WhatsApp and whines like a Broadway actor on set, “It’s gone, Bett. All gone. The best years of my writing were when I was writing for ‘Craft It’. Now it’s all gone. I will never go back to such writing again.”
I usually roll my eyes at this. Mike, ever so dramatic.
Here is what I want you to remember, dear reader.
(By the way, do you like it when I refer to you as ‘dear reader’? I started doing this at my Saturday Nation ‘Culture’ column, now it has found its way here. Do you like it or does it make you sound like a cardboard cut-out?)
Anyway, here is what I want you to leave this story with, dear reader. You can always start again.
You always have the opportunity to start again.
I mean, look at me, how many times have I been off this blog for years at a time then I return and pick up from where I left off, as though I never left? I know it’s in terrible taste to pick you up and drop you off as I feel – and I apologise for making you feel that I don’t value you as much as you need me to – yet there is also the fact that you take me back as I am.
You don’t ask for anything more than what I am able to give you. You don’t give me a windy lecture, pinkies raised in the air, ‘Bett, this is the last chance we are giving you. If you don’t shape up we will ship out.’ Ha-ha. Instead you tell me, almost too casually, ‘Glad to have you back.’
What would you call that if not the opportunity to start again?
In 2017, I had GB sign me up to the gym that neighboured the gate of our old house. I made him pay for a full year couple’s package because they were offering it at a discount. GB paid. He paid because he believed me when I told him that I wanted to lose the baby fat and get my sexy back. (L.O.L) He also believed me when I told him that I would be at the gym at 6a.m every morning, me being a morning person and all.
I showed up to the gym inconsistently for three months, give or take, and one evening, when it was leg day and I was lifting weights, there was a power cut. By the time the power returned some seven minutes later, I had left the weights where I stood and had vamoosed from that gym like a bat out of hell, I was never to be heard from or seen again. I became an old warning tale that was told to new signups.
In 2018, I wanted to get into photography and videography. I wanted to be shooting my own photos to complement my writing. I had my kid bro ship in some pricey equipment for me from Amazon: camera, lenses, tripod, sijui prisms. My bro had reassured me that photography is all about practice. I shot about 20 lousy photos before I dropped the pursuit altogether – there was just so much about basic photography to master.
I figured to hire a photographer to shoot the photos and videos while I interviewed craftsmen for stories. This arrangement with Will worked beautifully…for a few months. Running the YouTube channel required a lot of money, money I didn’t have at my disposal at the time.
I have several more examples of pursuits I have engaged in for a short while then dropped when they became more difficult than I had anticipated.
Some of these pursuits are such as, some side-hustles. Taking the kids to church every Sunday. Running at least an hour thrice a week. Having Muna’s hair plaited afresh every month. Getting the laundry done more frequently. Going back into the kitchen. Printing those studio family photos I didn’t finish selecting….
I used to feel horrible about this start-stop game I played with myself. (Never mind how many projects I have started and finished, but my mind will focus more on the aborted attempts than on the quiet triumphs. That’s how our brains work.) Playing the piano however has reminded me that starting then stopping does not define your general approach to your pursuits – you are not a non-finisher, you are not a failure, be kinder to yourself.
There are days when life gets in the way of my practise but when I return to the piano, I play as though I never stopped.
As long as you have started something you always have the chance to start it again.
Doors shut but they are not locked, they are waiting for you to open them again.
You can be everything behind that open door.
Nine years ago, in April 2013, I walked away from audit and finance to become a professional creative writer. I have been writing full time since, dabbling as an accountant for my side-hustles, crunching numbers for my personal finance columns. The attitude to start again and reminded me that that door is still open – my ACCA certification is still intact, the principles of accounting haven’t changed. I can go back to accounting and audit anytime I feel ready to.
I will pick up the camera at some point and start again.
I will call Will and hit the road with him to shoot our interviews, we will start again.
I will sign up to the gym and start again.
I will go to church and start again.
I will apply for finance jobs and start again.
The only difference is, this time I will start as a beginner with the experience of having tried the first time and not nailed it.
I will be starting from somewhere other than zero.
I will be hitting that unpause button.27