I really should learn piano. 

It should be doable. All the signs point to success if I actually sat down and practiced. So in a quiet moment on a weekday evening between eating dinner and cleaning up, I sit down at our 88-key electronic keyboard.

I’m not at square one: with a little fumbling and some mild sighs of exasperation, I can make it through the early entries in Robert Schumann’s Album for the Young. It even starts to sound like music for five seconds at a time.

Reliably, though, I soon hit one too many crunchy wrong notes, jolt my hands up, and bring them back down in an impressionistic chord of frustration. I’m not used to easy music being hard. I don’t like the feeling.

Instead of getting up to load the dishwasher, though, I start doing what my spouse has termed “soundscaping”: playing random patterns of notes all over the keyboard, my brain ceding control to my fingers. Making waves and clouds and storms of sound.

I think I could soundscape for hours. So much of my energy these days is spent worrying over words: words read in a theology book, words written in a history paper, words said to a friend late at night. I could never “wordscape”—sit and write random words for an hour. For me, words have to be at least aspirationally perfect.

Notes are different. Notes are like quantum particles, emerging and colliding and disappearing without leaving a trace. Even when I hit a particularly ugly combination of pitches, it leads immediately to something else, pungency tempered by transience. 

Sometimes I do try to enact order: I play with the modes and chords I learned in music theory classes, striving for the maximally exotic. Or I channel the minimalists, changing one note at a time in a simple pattern to see—wait, no, to hear—what emerges.

Other times, chaos erupts. I play the melody of “Jingle Bells” in one hand while striking the keyboard at random with my other hand on the beat, sometimes below, sometimes above. I turn the keyboard to synth mode and call it Soundscapes in Space. I play “The Mickey Mouse March” on organ mode as a minor-key dirge.

I play anything, and it doesn’t matter.

When I write, I can’t make things not matter. I can’t turn off the part of me that separates good phrases from clunky ones, the wheat of wisdom from the chaff of cliché. Violin is similar: even when I’m improvising I’m analyzing, keeping my tone and intonation under control.

But when I sit down at the piano I don’t know how to play, I can finally get my brain to shut up. Only the piano seems to be loud enough to drown out my thoughts. Only the piano—which, again, I suck at—lets me breathe.

So maybe I shouldn’t practice that Schumann. Or if I do, I’m going to need another soundscaping palette. Maybe a banjo.


  1. Kristi Lemmen

    Love what you wrote!

  2. Paul Spyksma

    Be careful with the banjo. The definition of a perfect pitch is tossing an accordion into a dumpster such that it lands directly on the banjo.


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