The Piano Paradox

When I was a teenager, I used to mess around on the piano.

My parents wouldn’t get me lessons so I just self taught on an old keyboard and picked up some things from my friend Mark. Mark had a full sized upright and he was much better than me. He’d show me how to play songs that I’m sure are relatively easy for established players but seemed like magic to me.

I never got very good and eventually I went off to college with no piano or keyboard. Didn’t touch a key for four years. And when I moved into my first post-college apartment I barely had room for a bed, never mind a piano.

My friend Jim played guitar really well and showed me a few things. When I went to visit his family in Memphis, he took me to a pawn shop to buy my first guitar.

I’d play with Jim once per week and practiced a lot on my own. Eventually I called this great guitar shop on Bleeker Street and asked them to recommend a teacher. I started taking lessons with Dave once per week for a few years.

When that seemed to run its course I pursued other teachers which led me to some rough parts of the city and put me in front of some really interesting characters. But those stories are for a different post.

Ultimately, I got to the point where, maybe for 5 minutes, I could trick you into thinking I was a very good guitar player.

Since I started as a trainer, and then had a child and then ultimately started a business, I haven’t played much. I’d pick up the guitar and noodle for a few minutes on a Sunday, but that was about it. And I hadn’t so much as looked at a piano in 30 years.

But this quarantine has changed all that. And my current diligent practice of both instruments for the greater part of the month has reaffirmed one of the guiding principles of training.

I now practice both instruments pretty much every day. I’ll get up, do some work, and then spend about 30 minutes on the piano. Then, at night, after everyone is asleep, I’ll be on the guitar for anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes.

Now, I am a MUCH better guitar player than pianist. The guitar is sort of the proverbial “riding a bike” for me. My hands instinctively know where they need to be to make proper chords. My picking hand seems to have two brains of its own. My thumb playing steady bass notes while my fingers simultaneously pick out a melody. It’s the type of basic thing that all fingerstyle guitarists can do, but when you are a non-player or beginner seems like absolute impossible wizardry.

But I love the piano. LOVE IT. If I could instantly attain a skill that takes people a lifetime to master, I would pick playing the piano. But, as of right now, I’m a rote beginner.

So it may seem strange that I would spend more time on the guitar (which I am better at) than the piano (for which I need a lot of practice). But there is a very specific reason why laboring at the piano for extended periods of time doesn’t work for me. It’s too great of a skill.

I make decent progress in my 30 minute practices. I end up in a much better place than where I start seemingly each day. Apparently “newbie gains” are not limited to the bench press.

However if I go much longer than that in one sitting, not only does progress stall, it seems to go backwards. I just don’t have the physical or mental stamina for more. Suddenly chords that I was automatically making 10 minutes ago sound like clunkers. I’ll get lost or confused in the middle of playing. It’s like I only have so much focus and then, poof, it’s gone.

With guitar, I have a real solid understanding of what I’m supposed to do. And the more complex pieces rely on repetition. With guitar, that repetition is fruitful. I have the skill, I just need to perfect the pattern.

As I alluded to, training is much the same way. I’m a good deadlifter. I’ve been doing it for years. For me to make progress, I need a lot (A LOT) of stimulus. Otherwise there is no challenge. No overload. No progress.

However, something like muscle ups or double unders – neither of which I can do – need small bouts of focused attention. Breaking it down into little pieces in order to practice the skill. There is no doing 100 double unders before you can do two in a row. That is just how skill development works.

In science-y training terms this is called the SRA curve. You need the proper amount of stimulus (S) and a meaningful amount of recovery (R) in order to drive optimal adaptation (A). Too much or too little of any of those factors and you aren’t maximizing the effects.

So if you find yourself struggling with a movement pattern (olympic lifting really comes to mind) don’t fool yourself into thinking that two hour practices are the way to go because that is what the best people do. The best people can do that because they are already the best. It’s not necessarily what they did to get them there.

In the simplest terms, the more difficult or unfamiliar the skill, the more focus you will need to accomplish it. And focus comes in very short supply.

Once you get good, you’ll need a lot of exposure to get better. This is the point at which good pianists spend 4 or 6 or 8 hours a day trying to get great. But there is a reason that most child piano lessons are 20 minutes long.

A final note on this, I’m loving pursuing both of these instruments. It’s been a bright spot in what has been a really challenging time. Whether in the gym or on the keys, skill development is really rewarding. It’s something we should always strive to pursue.

Also, I have to give Mark and Jim a call. Maybe we can get a band going over Zoom.