Instant Piano for the Busy and Lazy

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The human genome project has found that any two people are, genetically speaking, 99.9% identical. And a universal gene that scientists are sure to discover is the one that makes all adult humans regret that they didn't stick with piano lessons. I lasted only a year, when I was 12. This summer, on vacation, I passed a mahogany upright in a hotel lobby, and my fingers itched to open its lid and conjugate the verb "to tinkle." Of course, there was a sign taped to it that read, "Please do not play the piano." No problem. They might as well have asked me to please refrain from solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I do still occasionally noodle around playing Elizabethan ballads on my soprano recorder. But I do this in private because the recorder hasn't really been a "party" instrument since about 1685 — hence my renewed interest in the piano. Just as every sociable grownup should be able to cook at least one tried-and-true meal, shouldn't she be able to play at least one song from memory, just in case she bumps into a baby grand?

I considered signing up with a private teacher for another crack at lessons, but I know myself and my schedule well enough to imagine that teacher becoming my own personal Greek god of guilt. So I turn to that famous refuge of the half-assed hobbyist: the Learning Annex, New York City branch. I sign up for a three-hour, $39 course called "Instant Piano for Hopelessly Busy People." It's taught by Martin Moser, a sprightly ragtime fanatic. The course requires only that students be able to read music in the treble clef and be able to point to those notes on a piano keyboard. I'm there.

Moser teaches according to a "lead sheet" method, in which only the melody of a pop song is read and played on the right hand, while the left hand — contrary to classical notation — follows along with chords that are written down as letters above the melody line. Moser leads us through what he calls "baby stuff" versions of Tom Dooley and When the Saints Go Marching In. The two most useful things I take away from the first lesson are a chord chart and Moser's advice on how to practice: "Swear in the name of Scott Joplin always to learn the left hand first."

Moser advises us to track down a "fake book," a collection of lead sheets to popular songs. I go to a music store and buy a fake book of jazz standards. I'm a very corny person, and if I'm learning one song, it will have to be the corniest possible chestnut. At first I think I'll go with My Funny Valentine, then decide I don't want the single piece in my repertoire to sound sad. Well, that, and the chords are too hard. I settle on one of my favorite Sinatra songs, Rodgers and Hart's The Lady Is a Tramp. It's lighthearted, recognizable and such a crowd pleaser that I may have to master another tune because that one calls for encores! Plus, I agree with the lyrics: much of California is cold and damp.

I'm familiar with only the third-person Sinatra version of The Lady Is a Tramp, so I am surprised to learn that Lorenz Hart's original lyrics are in the first person. So when this lady learns to play it, it will have an autobiographical ring of truth. After all, I too eschew crap games with barons and earls.

With apologies to Joplin, I confess I can't resist picking out the melody on my right hand a few times before tackling the chords. Then I get down to business, spending hours and days making my left hand move from F major to D major to G minor. I consistently stumble over the two phrases "I'm broke/It's oke" because of the four tricky chords punching them up.

Then I start practicing both hands together. About the first 200 times, I play the song slower than Billie Holiday would have sung it on the day she died. "I — get — too — hun — gry — for — G minor — at — eight." The old gibe about how to get to Carnegie Hall is true: practice, man, practice. Eventually, magically, I start to recognize a song emerging from my fumbles. But something is missing: an audience.

Lucky for him, it's my friend Geoff's birthday. "Have I got a present for you!" I say, putting the phone by the keyboard and eking out The Lady Is a Tramp. My first public performance: only 14 mistakes, tops! "That was — good," Geoff tells me, "but maybe it's just a little — I don't know — slow?"

"I'm still practicing," I reply defensively. "See you at your party." Oh, well, good thing I bought him those steak knives.

— Sarah Vowell, a contributor to public radio's This American Life, writes a monthly column about her continuing education. She played The Lady Is a Tramp without error for