Sound of Music – II

About 18 months back, I had written a post about my failed experiences in learning violin—Sound of Music… Even after repeated attempts, somehow I couldn’t learn to play violin. Then, my doctor told me not to try learning it again, as it was causing severe shoulder, scapula, and back pain.

Even though, my violin career crash landed before it took off, I didn’t completely drop the idea of learning a musical instrument. I thought of learning something easier—a keyboard. Since it only required pressing the keys, I thought it would be easier on my shoulders and back. So in 1998, I bought a Yamaha PSR-730 and started practicing on it. Initially, I started practicing in the Carnatic style. But due to various reasons, I couldn’t continue my practice. So I bought a nice cover for the keyboard and kept it safely.

One of the decisions that I made this year was to learn a musical instrument—more precisely the Piano. I had another reason for making this decision. A few weeks back, while I was reading the medical breakthroughs newsletter, there was a mention about Alzheimer’s disease. It mentioned that Alzheimer’s as the third-leading cause of death, only behind cancer and heart disease. According to the article, one can prevent or at least delay the onset of Alzheimer’s by doing activities like crossword puzzles, reading books, learning musical instruments, or learning new languages.

I often do crossword puzzles and read a lot of books. That left learning new languages and musical instruments. I had tried learning a few languages—Spanish, French, and Latin—but had failed miserably. I was not able to learn anything substantial except for a few phrases and words. So learning to play the Piano seemed the only new thing that I could do.

Yamaha PSR-730

I took out the keyboard from its case; luckily it was in mint condition, just as I left it 8 years ago. This time, I didn’t want to make a mistake. So, I decided to test whether I have the patience and aptitude to learn Piano, before hiring an instructor. Self-study meant that I wouldn’t be able to continue learning the Carnatic style as there was no documentation. So I decided to learn the Western style of playing the Piano. I searched the Web and found an excellent instruction kit. It had a 90 day trial period and had great reviews. I downloaded the kit. It was more than 180MB of stuff—instruction manuals, practice lessons, mp3 files, videos that demonstrate the fingering techniques, software packages to help in reading music and so on.

One word about reading music scores… I never anticipated this problem while planning to learn the Piano. Learning to read music is a subject in itself. It is mind boggling. There are staves, clefs (treble, alto, bass, and tenor), notes (A, B, C, D, E, F, and G), rhythm values (semibreve, minim, crotchet, quaver, etc.), stems, slurs, flags, beams, rests, time signatures, and many more. These are like the alphabets, punctuation marks and grammar of music. You have to learn these things before you can start reading the music score.

Piano music is written mainly on two staves—treble clef and bass clef. The right hand usually plays the treble clef, while bass clef is played with the left hand. First one has to learn to read the treble and bass clefs individually and the read it together. Similarly, to play the Piano, after mastering to play the treble and bass clefs individually, a pianist must learn how to play the two clefs simultaneously. So, when one is learning the Piano, one is also learning to read the music—much more difficult than learning a new language…

To make matters more complicated the order of the notes on the different clefs are completely different. Reading it is difficult, but playing it is nearly impossible. But, the instruction manual was quite good and there were a few software programs too in the kit. The manual advised not to get overwhelmed by the complexity, but take a few things at a time.

One of the software packages was for training how to read music. It is like a game with different levels—from very basic to very complex. One could practice with a single clef or both the clefs. You keep on identifying the notes as the appear on the screen and you get points for each correct answer and once you have used all your ‘lives’ the game will be over and your score will be displayed. As one moves from easier to more difficult levels, the speed and the number of notes that appear at a time increases. It is a very good learning tool and also gives your mind a good workout.

After practicing for about 3 weeks, I am reasonably comfortable in reading the treble clef and playing it. To make things more interesting and see whether I was getting somewhere, I wanted to play a few simple songs. I found one such song, which could be played completely using the right hand—the treble clef. It was the nursery rhyme “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star…”1. I started practicing that song and in a few days was reasonably comfortable playing it—at least I thought so.

One day I was practicing on the keyboard while my nephew came to my room. After listening for a few minutes to the various exercises that I was playing, he asked me, “Don’t you know how to play a song?” I thought I would play the “Twinkle Twinkle…” for him. I played the first few lines and asked him, “Do you know which song this is?” “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star…” pat came the reply. I was overjoyed. At least, I could play a few lines of a music which could be understood even by a 5 year old kid. But my happiness was short lived. When my brother came, my nephew asked him to identify the song. “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep…” he replied2. I was disappointed. But the crushing blow was dealt by my three-and-a-half-year old niece who told me that the song was “Ente khalbile…” from the Malayalam film Classmates!!!

But I have not given up; I still have hope. I think if I continue practicing for about 80 minutes a day—four 20-minute sessions for the next 4–6 months, I will be to play a few songs with everybody agreeing on the song title :-)


  1. A common misconception about “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is that the music was written by Mozart. Mozart did not compose the original French melody “Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman“, but he did write 12 variations on it.
  2. I should not have been disappointed. In fact, I played the song correctly. Both “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” shares its melody with the French original, “Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman.”


  1. kajan Said,

    January 31, 2007 @ 9:14 pm

    Hi Alexis,

    Great to read another excellent post of yours. My own muscial adventures are just like your previous one. Had tried to learn the piano, but gave up, maybe too quick. Then tried to teach myself carnatic vocal and keyboard, and failed in it as well:-) But there maybe hope yet.

    Good luck with your playing. Maybe in the next year or so, I might get to see an instrumental blog from you!

  2. Nariyal Chutney Said,

    January 31, 2007 @ 9:49 pm

    Alexis , The fact that your 5 year old nephew recognised it is actually a very good sign . The only thing that is going to matter is your motivation if health permits . Waiting to hear some of your songs through this blog :) . KeepTrying . ATB :D

  3. thanu Said,

    January 31, 2007 @ 11:06 pm

    Time to get my Guitar frm under the bed…. where it has been sleeping for more than a year.

    Great inspiration.

    waiting to hear ente Kalbile ;)

  4. Alexis Leon Said,

    January 31, 2007 @ 11:24 pm

    kajan: Thanks Kajan. I think you should resume your training. It feels nice to play an instrument or sing a song well. Instrumental Blog…I don’t think so… I just want to learn for my own entertainment and relaxation. But who knows!

    NC: Thanks NC, Let us hope for the best…

    thanu: Yes, its high time :-) So you know how to play guitar…Great. I think it will be a long wait to hear ‘Ente Kalbile…’ Long way to go…

  5. smile Said,

    February 1, 2007 @ 12:02 am

    I have been to your blogs several times but this is the first time I am writing a comment. I do not blog.. but I just had to write to you to tell that you have raised my spirits several times through your different posts.. and I am really amazed at your simple thoughts and the determination to try out new things inspite of a lot of struggles. This is to let you know that you truly inspire me and you have been a great person to know through your writings.

  6. mathew Said,

    February 1, 2007 @ 2:25 am

    nice to see your entry after a long time..I share your infatuation to learn a musical instrument..because I never had a oppurtunity to learn when I was a kid..but now after reading this I feel inspired to learn again..

    But you must thank your nephew didnt presume it to be a eminem sound track..I should have say ‘Quits’ by then!!:-P

  7. lalitha Said,

    February 1, 2007 @ 3:26 am

    Alex..keep up the practice. Perseverence will get you through. I have to admire you for not giving up.

  8. thanu Said,

    February 1, 2007 @ 4:08 am

    No I don’t know how to play, I wanted to learn so bought it and now it sleeps peacefully under my bed.

  9. James Bright Said,

    February 1, 2007 @ 5:41 am

    That is great news. I love to hear some music from you one day.
    I have no music talents and I am completely useless in that aspect as that of I am in most of the other things!

  10. Alexis Leon Said,

    February 1, 2007 @ 12:40 pm

    smile: Thank you very much for your comment and the kind words.

    mathew: My second attempt was after I joined TCS. This is my fourth attempt. Hope this will reach somewhere :-) Yes, you are right… I should thank my nephew :-)

    lalitha: I will. This time I hope to continue irrespective of the results.

    thanu: Now you have decided to start learning, I wish you all the very best :-)

    James: Thanks James. I have no music talents and I am completely useless in that aspect as that of I am in most of the other things! Come on James; don’t be so modest ;-)

  11. kajan Said,

    February 1, 2007 @ 1:46 pm

    I have tried to search for a good tutorial online since I read your post:-) But nothing satisfies me. would you mind giving the link of the site you used?

    Now I am jealous. A guitar(sigh). Now, I hope no one comes saying they know how to play the sax. I have been spellbound since I heard the music of Kadri Gopalnath.

  12. Alexis Leon Said,

    February 1, 2007 @ 2:49 pm

    kajan: The tutorial is created by a guy named Ashleigh Southam. The site name is called Rocket Piano. The link to the site is Wishing you all the very best in your musical journey…

  13. Paresh Said,

    February 1, 2007 @ 7:51 pm

    Aha!! This is what I call Persistence :) Your ‘Sound of Music I’ is my sentimental favourite as that was the first post I read on your blog (or was it Pondicherry post, I’m getting confused, maybe pre-senile Alzheimer’s :D ), and started getting to know the details of how my Hero lead his life.

    Best of Luck.

    My musical experience is limited to listening :) though there is a craving once in a while to learn something, but after a few days I get over it considering the limitations. :)

    My interest was hightened when I read Anita Desai’s short story ‘Accompanist’ about a Tanpura player who accompanied famous Classical singer (in pre-degree text book) and later when I read Vikram Seth’s ‘Equal Music’.

  14. Suji Said,

    February 5, 2007 @ 7:31 pm

    All the best for your musical quest Alexis. I have always wanted to learn music and to play the veena….maybe someday……sigh!!!!

  15. Kusum Rohra Said,

    February 5, 2007 @ 9:39 pm

    Remember I had told you that I also am learning to play the violin. Had stopped my classes but started again recently.

    And I completely agree with you, reading music is quite difficult. All the best. Maybe someday we can jam together :D

  16. Jo Said,

    February 6, 2007 @ 12:01 am

    Hey Alexis,

    Am so glad to hear that you started playing keyboards after 8 long years! It’s a good sign. Please do continue learning and let us have the pleasure to have one more audioblog in the blogosphere. :-)

    Best regards.

  17. venus Said,

    February 8, 2007 @ 4:20 am

    my knowledge of music is: when u turn switch on, it starts playing ;)
    I’ve had few lessons of EEEEEEEE A B C D EEEEEE (u can make out how elite i am in music here :) )
    but didn’t go too far… i do play synthesizer with saa re ga ma when i get a chance until everyone around looses patience :)

  18. Chackochan Said,

    February 12, 2007 @ 4:21 pm

    Alexis .. guitar was one of my favorite musical instrument. i tried to study guitar after my degree, but couldn’t continue it as i came here. here am not getting enough time to study guitar.

    Actually am very sad and shame that i don’t know to play any musical instrument :(

  19. Pradip Somasundaran Said,

    February 12, 2007 @ 10:07 pm

    Alexis, Nice to see u post again! Am back to blogging again after my short absence. Was great to read on your exploits on the Piano.I myself had this urge to learn Guitar first and then got one Ibanez Hollow guitar which cost me aroung Rs. 8000. I started learning from Sunny Master and went for three weeks. Then i knew that this was not for me. After that I thought I would learn Piano and then went to kess Bhavan and troubled FatherThomas there for some days..then I knew that I neither had the time and patience for that. Now I have realised that I do not have the line on my head or I am not destined for that. My Guitar, I presented it to my dear friend and composer par excellence Philip V Francis. I know that it would get moksha in his able hands and find joy in seeing him play that!
    I hope that you progress to the point that we could jam one day!!
    Keep the practise going…I will visit you once to check out:-)

  20. Alexis Leon Said,

    February 13, 2007 @ 10:14 pm

    Paresh: Thanks Paresh. I have not read Tanpura, but I really liked Equal Music. But keep the stories coming.

    Suji: Thanks Suji. Veena is a very nice instrument and you should definitely try to learn it. You can always find time, if you really want to :-)

    Kusum: Hope you violin classes are going on well. May be… but I am sure you will kick me out with the first 5 minutes :-)

    Jo: Thanks Jo. But no audioblog. My goal is reach a level where I can perform for my own relaxation; but I don’t want to torture others :-)

    venus: That is really good definition. Simple and neat :-) I also can play the first few line of a few songs on the keyboard using the sa, re, ga technique. But I chose the Western classical music, because I wanted to learn it properly. But it is more difficult than I thought :-(

    Chackochan: Yes, it is sad. We should have learned something when we were in school. It would have been a lot easier then…

    Pradip: Thanks Pradip. Yes, the guitar would have created magic in Philip’s hands just as you create magic with your voice. I think, I will have to stop all the things I am doing and just learn Piano for at least 5-6 years to be able to jam with you. I don’t have that as a goal even in wildest dreams :-) BTW, the Valentine’s day special song (Vida Tharu) was just awesome.

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