Piano Lessons Made Me Think, But I Still Can’t Play Piano

Oh, my poor piano teacher.

For the most part, I think I was an pretty easy kid. (I guess you’d have to ask my parents.) I wanted to help underdogs and lend a hand to old people. Have pets and play with my friends. Ride horses and hang out with friends.

But I did not want to take piano lessons. Or maybe I did in the beginning, but that changed soon after starting.

Growing up, my mom worked full-time, and my dad traveled for work for extended periods of time, including over the summer. So my mom needed to find things to keep me occupied after I became old enough not to require a babysitter anymore. What better thing to schedule than piano lessons? There are so many good things about piano lessons — music appreciation, ability to read musical notes, musical interpretations, music history, hand-eye coordination, and motivation to improve on a skill.

Mom did everything right. She scheduled lessons for me once a week, paid for them, encouraged me to practice, and reminded me of days I had lessons. I was given this opportunity not just in the summers, but throughout the school year too. I don’t remember how many years I took piano lessons, but it was probably far too long for my piano teacher. I’m glad she was compensated for her time.

She (we’ll call her Janis) was the local piano teacher for so many kids through the years. In a town with a population busting over into the 300s, many of us kids had this one music teacher in common. Her oldest son was in my class from Kindergarten through high school. Piano lessons were taught in her home, which meant her son (the one whom girls often took turns crushing on) might be there. I might have been able to catch a glimpse of him! Even better, he might have invited me to the basement to play on the Roller Racer scooters that looked so fun on TV but never materialized under the Christmas tree at my house. Each time I entered the back door into Janis’s kitchen (likely late for my appointment), the last thing on my mind was piano lessons.

Some of Janis’s students were stars. One of those stars, my great friend (we’ll call him Bono), was what I would call a piano phenom. Sure, there are other people in the world who are famous because of their musical abilities, and I believe that, had Bono desired, he could have pursued a music career too. He quickly advanced under Janis’s guidance, practiced diligently, and perfected his skills. He could play anything and eventually exceeded the coaching abilities of Janis! I’m sure he was an absolute pleasure to teach.

Then there was me. It’s not that I didn’t have the ability to play piano. It’s more that I didn’t want to do it, especially if I was being made to do it. I no longer had the desire to engage in piano lessons. As easy as some things may have been for my parents, this special type of defiance was not one of them.

Over the years, I skipped countless piano lessons and did not enjoy practicing. In fact, I infrequently achieved the very achievable goal of practicing two to three songs per week and performing them competently. Janis would use a pencil to write the next week’s appointment date on the top corner of the page which displayed the songs I was expected to master. It was not uncommon to have five or more dates on any given page. That means it took a minimum of five weeks just to competently play some of these songs. Sometimes I think Janis just passed me so she wouldn’t have to listen to me chop through songs that should have sounded much more elegant. As if weekly lessons weren’t bad enough, there were recitals too! Aaaghh! I was horrified when I had to perform at these local recitals to put on display the songs I learned for the sake of proving to others I could do it. At least that was my perception. In reality, these recitals were small treats to a small community and gave me experience on a public platform.

As motivation for her students, Janis had a collection of plaster statues of historical musical figures to offer when milestones were met. If memory serves, I think I collected about five or six of these. My friend, Bono, had a shelf full and exhausted Janis’s options. These statues were pretty cool and a nice reminder of accomplishments in my piano career. However, I mostly paid attention to them when I had to dust the shelf upon which they sat. They were in my way.

When asked by Janis or my mom if I practiced, I consistently guaranteed that I did.

…I did not practice.

When my mom would insist that I practice while she was home to witness it, I pulled out the piano bench, rustled around some papers to make it sound like I was retrieving my piano books, and started pounding away at the piano keys and foot pedals as she sat in a different part of the house within earshot. I poured out my soul in fake music, trying my best to compose emotive sounds. Astoundingly, what I pounded out sounded more like music than when I tried to pound out written music from my lesson books. I sat there and made up my own songs that apparently were good enough to fool Mom into thinking I could play piano competently. My fake practices kept me out of trouble, perhaps even made Mom unfairly doubt what Janis said about my demonstrated abilities!

Well…that game bit me in the ass because I think my fake songs were so good that Mom believed piano lessons were working! Gah!

I had to keep going to piano lessons until finally Janis had had enough of me. As a fifth grader, I got fired. It was one of the happiest days of my life. The weekly burden was taken off my shoulders.

I can look back now at this experience and articulate better that extrinsic motivators (like the plaster statues or that type of goal-setting) don’t really work that well for me. In fact, they’re counterproductive. When extrinsic motivators are offered to me, I have always felt like they were offered because I was working toward someone else’s expectation or goal. Extrinsic motivators often have good intentions, but more often than not, they don’t work.

I had no intrinsic motivation to be a star piano player, let alone meet goals set by some unknown system that defined success by lesson completion. Of note (pun intended), I actually enjoyed playing the piano — under my own terms and with my own intrinsic value placed on the output of my playing. The evidence was in the product of playing off sheet music I bought of songs I wanted to learn. I knew how to read music. I knew how to play the piano. But I was unconsciously determined not to succeed because I wasn’t going to do it for someone else. Whew! What a parenting challenge!

Extrinsic motivators are used all the time. Just look around in sports, business, school, and families. Lots of research has shown that, although extrinsic motivators might work for short-term, simple goals, they become counterproductive for higher-complexity processes.

Here‘s one of my favorite TED talks by Dan Pink on extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation that further explains why extrinsic motivators stop working at a certain point. What I find so fascinating is that I felt this as a kid — in sports and in school especially. I identified this problem for myself as a kid, except it manifested more as a middle finger up to the people who tried to make me do things without appealing to my own intrinsic value.

This phenomenon happened to me not only in piano lessons, but definitely in sports and in the classroom. I believe I had more potential in sports and in the classroom than what I exhibited. For instance, if we ran drills and a coach yelled at me to be stronger, do better, or run faster, instant insurgency kicked in because I was not going to do it for the coach, for that extrinsic reason. If I wanted to achieve something intrinsically for myself, I knew I had the capability, and that was enough for me. I didn’t need to prove it to anyone else. That makes for a pretty crappy team dynamic when an individual acts this way. I see that now.

Today, I feel it heavily and witness this same phenomenon in organizations. Many people have lost purpose in their work. Purpose is what drives intrinsic motivation. Yet, we all still seem to bang our heads against walls trying to figure out how to make people more productive. Why aren’t organizations spending more time at helping to support intrinsic drivers of their employees? Because numbers, statistics, survey results, budgets, and other metrics are dictating their productivity measures without taking into account the human element. Those numbers would improve if leaders focused on supporting the humans who make productivity roll.

Unfortunately some leaders can be made to feel ineffective when outcomes aren’t as expected or desired. Leaders in larger realms are often punished in some way for not meeting objectives. This feeling of ineffectiveness is precisely where the shift needs to happen in leadership theory. Leaders and followers need to acknowledge the importance of purpose, recognize that there’s a difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and they need to be given the autonomy to feed others’ purposes. I use the term ‘leaders’ loosely because leaders come in many forms — parents, cooks, teachers, bosses, managers, CEOs, co-workers, janitors, friends. Title, status, and position do not make a leader.

This topic has been on my mind for awhile because I have three very different children whom I want to support in ways to make them the best humans they can be. If that can be achieved, they’ll have more purpose in their own lives and become more productive in whatever they choose to do. This parenting challenge is NOT easy. So I ask myself questions about how I’ve done so far, how I’m doing now, and observe others for the same:

Did I push my kids at sports to the point of creating tears or anxiety? Did my monetary offers to do chores ever work? Have I ever thoughtlessly belittled my kids because I thought I knew their potential better than they did? Do I ever force them to achieve goals because of my own expectations of them?


Did I work to discover intrinsic value for my kids in their studies and other activities? Did I seek out people who support the reality of the benefits of intrinsic motivation for myself and for my kids? More importantly, do I spend time searching for and helping them to discover their intrinsic motivators?

I will tack on at the end of this post that my parents were fantastic at allowing me to be myself and find my own purpose, even through difficult times as a kid. Had I been more honest about my lack of desire for piano lessons (and not been so damn good at fabricating such well-composed songs on the fly), this experience may not have drug on so long — for me or for poor Janis.

Thank you, Janis, for putting up with me for all those years, sitting next to me on the piano bench doing your best to coach me through songs, and for teaching me fundamentals that I still remember and use today in life. Despite my lack of seriousness in learning piano, every person who has touched my life has created a lasting impact.