reflections on a year of piano lessons by a dedicated (and untalented) student

The covid lockdown began on March 17, 2020. On March 20, I began piano lessons.

I took piano lessons from age 6-10, before switching to violin (a mistake), then quitting. I later resumed piano lessons as a teenager -- a very positive experience that ended when I left home for university. 

It was always assumed that I would one day inherit our family piano. That didn't turn out as planned, but that magnificent heirloom has stayed in the family, and in a wonderfully random way, I ended up with a piano anyway. I told this story here: why it is interesting and significant that i own a piano.

As soon as that happened, I decided that I would find a way to take piano lessons again. The pandemic presented me with the perfect opportunity. I did some research, and easily identified Pianote as my method of choice: in which i begin re-learning how to play piano -- using pianote.com.

And now I've been learning piano for one year! So... some thoughts.

  • Pianote has exceeded my expectations. It is a fantastic program, a brilliant combination of self-directed learning with a huge array of resources and support. I now have a lifetime membership -- an investment in myself. 
  • Learning as an adult is great! I use the methods and resources that work for me, and ignore the ones that don't. (More detail on this below.)
  • Shorter practices are better.
  • For the first six months, I practiced every day. Never missed a day! But at some point my practice routine had grown ridiculously long and tiring. With advice from Pianote teachers, I shortened and simplified the routine. Now my practice fits in better with my life and my (in)ability to concentrate. I now practice five or six days each week for roughly 30 minutes per day. On days I feel too rushed or stressed to practice, I've adopted the habit of at least playing some scales or other warm-up exercises for five minutes. 

  • I actually remembered a few things from my childhood lessons!
  • I did not remember how to read music, but I was able to recognize certain notes. I also remembered the mnemonics for note-reading and, strangely, the pattern of the major scale: whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half. Perhaps I should have expected some bits to be lodged in long-term memory, but still, it amazed me.

  • I am seeing progress!
  • Up to now, my playing has been hampered by my almost constant need to look at my hands. I'd unintentionally memorize bits of a song, and look at my hands while playing it. Then, looking up at the sheet music, I'd be lost. This kept my playing sounding very hesitant and choppy. Just now, after a full year, I find myself able to sight-read without looking at my hands! Which leads me to conclude that...

  • My learning is very slow.
  • I have zero musical aptitude, and learning to do something you are not naturally good at is very challenging! Which leads to my number one rule...

  • Think small!
  • When something I am trying to learn -- any challenging phrase, any rhythm, any tiny bit of hand independence -- becomes less difficult, when I move from painfully trying to a basic ability, that's a win. Any. Tiny. Thing. Because really, what is learning if not a collection of tiny wins, strung together?


    Regarding Pianote, here's what I ignore -- and what I adore.

    The Metronome. The principal instructor at Pianote -- who is amazing -- believes that using a metronome for some part of every practice is essential. Free digital metronomes are available online (google metronome) and I did try it, but ran away screaming. My hearing isn't great, and my concentration is even worse, and I just couldn't stand it. So, no metronome!

    The Q&A. Pianote features a weekly live Q&A with instructors, with questions submitted in advance. (The session is later posted as a video.) Pianote students from all over the world participate in this, a group piano lesson and hangout. I tried this a few times, but I found it tedious and time-wasting. If I have a question, I'll post it to a forum, leave a comment below a lesson, or if necessary, email an instructor. So, no live Q&A for me!

    The Student Review. Similarly, there is a weekly live lesson. Students submit video clips, then get support, advice, and critiques, as well as some experience playing in front of a (virtual) audience. Many students regard this as Pianote's best feature, and what sets it apart from other online learning experiences.

    I tried this once. I didn't find it at all helpful -- except to clarify that I have no interest in playing in front of an audience of any kind. It's simply not part of my learning goals. So, no more Student Review!

    To each their own, eh?

    But there are so many features of Pianote that I love!

    I love the beautiful set of books that complement the Foundations course. I read them all while working my way through Foundations, and I continue to use them for reference.

    I love the ability to download and print sheet music.

    I love the "Quick Tips" -- short mini-lessons focusing on one specific technique, practice tip, or challenge.

    I love the Planner, a beautiful book that helps me track my progress.

    I love the fluidity of learning both ear training and sight-reading, and using a combination of various methods and learning styles to learn to read music.

    I love learning music theory, and Pianote's approach to it. It feels like unlocking the mystery of how music is created. 

    I love the supportive community, and although I don't spend a huge amount of time there, I do enjoy supporting other students, and seeing different perspectives and styles.

    I love the incredibly user-friendly website that really leverages design to support learning.

    I love learning at my own pace and through my own path.

    And above all, I love the amazing teaching staff, headed by the incomparable (and Canadian!) Lisa Witt.


    roots and icebergs: decolonizing community spaces: a workshop

    I recently attended a six-hour workshop called Decolonizing Community Spaces. The workshop was led by two facilitators, one a Native American speaking to us from her traditional territories in Montana, and the other a Filipina-Canadian. 

    About 30 people attended; I believe all were health and service providers in the province of BC. 

    All the other participants raved about how much they learned, and how they will change their daily practices accordingly. I don't know if they were exaggerating, or if they were starting from a different place than I was. I encountered few, if any, ideas that were new to me, and was left feeling hopeless about the prospects for change. This was clearly not the intended result!

    Making the invisible visible

    Much of the course was spent on activities aimed at making visible the many invisible forces and conditions that shape our world. My graduate school experience in Information Sciences often involved similar exercises. One often-used example is uncovering the bias embedded in classification systems, whether the Dewey Decimal System, the dog breed standards, or any other. You quickly learn that no systems are purely objective; there are assumptions and biases built in to every human-made system. 

    This is turn reminds me of another favourite topic of mine: how certain beliefs and actions outside the mainstream are labelled "political", while the dominant narrative is thought of as apolitical. For example, my choosing to sit as the crowd in a ballpark cheers a military display is political, but the war display is -- ridiculously -- not thought of as political.

    I read a wonderful article once about academic freedom, how professors can enjoy that so-called freedom as long as they don't voice certain opinions, among them "questioning the naturalness of capitalism". 

    Trees and icebergs

    In seeking to make visible the constant presence of contemporary white supremacy and systemic racism, the course used these analogies: a tree, sometimes called "The Oppression Tree", and an iceberg.

    Here are some images of the Tree of Colonial Oppression and the Tree of Liberation, borrowed with gratitude Indigenous Solidarity Ottawa

    We can contrast the Tree of Oppression with a Tree of Liberation.

    Another handy visualization is the iceberg, which (obviously) implies that most of the forces that shape and direct our world are beneath the surface. 

    Here are two iceberg visualizations, one very simple and a pear-shaped iceberg that is more fleshed out. (These images seem to be passed around without attribution, so I apologize for not crediting someone's work.)

    I find both the tree and the iceberg very useful -- especially the tree. I believe that history is constantly affecting the present, so seeing colonialism, slavery, and capitalism named as constant root forces is satisfying. It feels right.

    The view from the leaves

    So how do these metaphors apply to our communities, our institutions, and our organizations? 

    Here is one tiny example of how institutions and organizations are influenced by these invisible forces, and thus perpetuate the structures of the dominant, white, European-derived culture. 

    A new service organization is being formed. In order to achieve official non-profit status so it can legally raise funds, hire staff, and operate, the organization must have a board of directors. 

    The interested parties conduct a search for suitable people to sit on the board. They claim they are reaching out to a broad and diverse group of people, and, in all likelihood, they truly believe they are. The people on their list of potential directors reflect a diversity of skin colours, perceived ethnicities, and genders. 

    But who is considered for boards? Who is in a position to serve? 

    Whose background is deemed "professional"?
    What formal education have they had that led to this professionalism?
    What familial and cultural background supported their early education, and put them on a track that would lead to this professionalism?
    Who has a comfortable retirement, so they can participate in this context without earning income?

    In other words, who has the privilege of fitting the profile of board material? 

    Thus the search for directors is superficially diverse, but it sees only a small subset of society. 

    In 2021, thanks to changes (forced by popular movements) over the past decades, that subset appears more diverse than it did in, say, 1941 or 1971. But the diversity is still very narrow. 

    Large segments of our society are precluded from this participation, almost from birth. Poverty, poor nutrition, substandard education, family violence and disintegration, foster care, incarceration, addiction, mental health -- often all of the above. The fact that a tiny percentage of people faced with this suite of barriers manages to overcome them changes nothing. 

    The privilege of time

    One long thread of discussion in this workshop looked at Indigenous ways of knowing, contrasted with the modes of the dominant (western, white supremacist) society. 

    Those not familiar with the term "Indigenous ways of knowing" might like to google and read about it. I had never heard the expression until I took the Indigenous Canada course online. (It's free! Open to all! Go for it!)

    Indigenous ways of knowing reflect an entirely different worldview than that of the dominant society. And while there are hundreds, thousands, of Indigenous cultures, most or all Indigenous societies have this in common. 

    I'm not at all qualified to teach this concept, but here are some graphics that speak to the general ideas.

    Kalantzis & Cope, Works & Days

    Full Circle: First Nations, Metis, Inuit Ways of Knowing
    Resource from OSSTF/FEESO; more sources found at link.

    Combining Two Ways of Knowing

    Combining Two Ways of Knowing


    Combining Two Ways of Knowing: more sources at link.

    In a world that didn't reflect colonial oppression, our interactions would be more relational and less transactional. We would make decisions more by consensus and less by top-down authority. To create change, we could try many different approaches, then come together to discuss the results and collectively decide how to more forward. 

    I have worked within structures like this, in grassroots activism. It is generally a slow process, which can lead to deep feelings of trust, solidarity, and friendship among members. Unity is forged from shared values and purpose. Leaders emerge naturally, and they serve more as coordinators than authority figures. 

    This model has its drawbacks, of course, but working within this framework can be a deeply satisfying experience. It is a framework that exists outside of official, established institutions.

    What is possible?

    In our work lives none of these things are possible. We have deadlines. We have limited funds and, above all, limited time.

    We must justify our time, and in order to continue receiving funding, we must demonstrate results in a manner defined by external sources. For most organizations, funding relies on statistics, and those statistics must be generated on a regular basis.

    All this is embedded into the organization. No matter how much good that organization seeks to do in the world, its processes and practices reflect a top-down approach. It is a tree that grows from colonial, capitalist, patriarchal roots.

    Where does that leave our prospects for creating change in our work?

    Many librarians and library administrators care deeply about reconciliation. We want to acknowledge the deep roots of colonialism and the many poisons that have grown from that tree. We want to welcome all people as equals. We want the community's needs and wishes to determine the direction our libraries take.

    But we cannot change roots. Roots are history, and history can never be changed. 

    We can pull back the veil to reveal levels of privilege. 

    We can seek and create opportunities to use our privilege for the greater good.

    We can shut up and step back. We can let others take the floor and we can listen to them when they speak.

    We can build relationships, creating opportunities for community input.

    If we are white, we will inevitably hear racism from people who look like us, and when we do, we can speak up.


    We cannot change how a board of directors is chosen. 

    We cannot change top-down governance in the organizations that employ us. 

    We cannot change a system driven by statistics meant to justify the use of public funds.

    Thus this workshop left me feeling despair about the prospects of decolonizing our communities.


    five negatives and five positives of living in a remote region

    Everything in life is a trade-off. 

    Everything has pros and cons, advantages and pitfalls, clouds and silver linings. I honestly can't think of anything this rule doesn't apply to, including the Big Life Choices that are the most obvious and clear to us.

    This post has an additional disclaimer, more like a geographical quirk. 

    Aerial views really emphasize remoteness.

    Although we live in what most people would consider a small town -- population approximately 4,200 -- Port Hardy is actually a regional hub. The next-largest town clocks in at population 2,500. The other communities in the region have populations of less than 500, many in double-digits.

    Because it's a hub, Port Hardy has more services than many towns of its size -- primary healthcare, a hospital, a few restaurants, a café, a large supermarket that is open every day (and serves the entire region), more than one hardware store, two hair salons. There's an airport!

    But the northern end of Vancouver Island -- the "north island" -- is considered remote. Each small community is at least a 30-minute drive to any other. Many communities are accessible only by water or dirt roads. 

    Five negatives of living in a remote region

    1. There is a shortage of practitioners. If you're in a larger town, there may be one chiropractor, one dentist, one physiotherapist, one massage therapist. They are very busy! 

    In Port Hardy, we have primary health care and an emergency room. For appointments with specialists, we drive three hours each way. 

    2. There are very few restaurants. 

    Unless you know the area, regional maps can be misleading.
    Some places on this map are tiny, isolated communities.

    3. Gas and groceries are more expensive -- although not nearly as bad as advertised.

    4. Travel is expensive and time-consuming. 

    Although Port Hardy has an airport, commercial flights are only connectors to Vancouver; they are infrequent and expensive. Connecting to Vancouver by car and ferry is extremely time-consuming and also expensive. This means that travel, other than road trips, takes an additional day on either end and can easily cost an additional $500 per person.

    5. There is very little diversity. 

    For the most part, people in our area are either white, of European descent, or Indigenous. Non-indigenous brown people are so rare as to stand out. 

    Some things that could be negatives, but aren't:

    1. The dearth of shopping choices. I don't think I could have lived here pre-internet. For me, being able to have anything delivered makes this area livable. 

    2. Conservative politics, which one often finds in small towns. In our area, most jobs are union, and most people vote NDP. There are conservatives here -- and this area has had Conservative MPs in the past -- but a leftist viewpoint is not odd or marginalized.  

    3. There is "nothing to do". See below.

    Five good things about living in a remote region

    1. Affordable real estate if you earn a middle-class salary. 

    There is a serious housing crisis here -- a principal reason it's so difficult to attract practitioners to the area. But if you can find the right place for sale -- which may mean living in temporary housing while waiting for a house to go on the market -- the housing prices are insanely low, compared to large metropolitan areas.

    2. It is beautiful. Nature is everywhere -- mountains, water, forest, wildlife.

    3. It is quiet

    The quiet is not just aural; it is visually quiet. One of the things that constantly irritated me living in suburban sprawl (in the Toronto area) was visual pollution -- being surrounded by crushes of parking lots, fast-food restaurants, advertising, logos, strip malls. Everything just looked so ugly and noisy. 

    4. It is slow. No one is in a rush. 

    5. There's nothing to do. 

    Of course there is plenty to do outdoors! But having spent my adult life in areas where there were seemingly limitless cultural options, I always felt a certain amount of pressure to partake in some portion of them. Having nothing to do is heavenly. I enjoy my cozy pastimes with zero guilt or pressure.  

    * * * *

    I loved living in New York City, despite the challenges. I always felt that NYC's challenges made its strengths possible. 

    I love living in Port Hardy in much the same way. The challenges enable the strengths. If the area was more accessible, it wouldn't be so peaceful and undeveloped.