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Life out here by Bret Kofford: Banging away

April 04, 2001

I swear I can feel the synapses of my brain clicking as I learn to play the piano.

There are still challenges in my life, both professionally and personally, but learning at age 42 to play the piano tries my head, my hands and my heart.

I have longed to be able to do something musical for a long time. Although I am not reluctant to sing in public, I have been told I carry a grudge better than I can carry a tune. I would bang or blow into instruments over the years but I never made a concerted effort to learn to play anything more than my CD player until I was nearly 40.

I took piano lessons for about a year a few years ago before my teacher, a wonderful Cuban woman named Mrs. Del Rio, decided to move to the Sacramento area. I thought a bit of her departure might have been related to my ham-fisted piano playing, although she steadfastly denied my cacophonic key-banging had anything to do with her heading north.


After Mrs. Del Rio left, I searched for an appropriate piano teacher for more than a year before finding one in my own brother, the family piano prodigy. My brother and I both took piano lessons when we were little guys. My mother soon decided that my brother had a great talent for music and I had a great talent for doing the dishes (just a little joke, Ma), so my brother's hands continued on the blacks and whites while my hands went into the hot water.

My brother stuck with piano and has made his living throughout life almost exclusively from music, while I did a variety of things until I came into this business, a place from which I have managed to avoid permanent expulsion for nearly two decades.

And as much as I like writing and editing and coaching baseball and all the other things I do, when I practice or take a lesson I can feel my brain working as it hasn't in years. I have to figure things out, have to read the music and make the piano respond, have to somehow make it all sound like music, like a song.

It is hard but it is invigorating, and I am learning something. For example, I can now play the classic song "Louie Louie" … all three chords.

If music does this much for a stale old mind like mine, just think what it does for fresh young ones.

I have been fortunate the last couple semesters to teach aspiring elementary school teachers at San Diego State University-Imperial Valley campus. What I try to teach the students in Liberal Studies 300 is to observe and appreciate the world and cultures around them, so they can pass that on to their future students. In the class we read essays and watch documentaries about different cultures, we listen to many kinds of music, we go to events and on field trips, we have speakers and we create fairy tales, we talk about learning and the brain.

Since I have become a music student myself, I am that much more cognizant of how music education can prod open minds, so I try to pass that on to my students. (My wife and I live what we preach. Our son plays guitar, piano and trumpet, all well.) I also try to tell my students that music education is important in elementary students because it may be an avenue to find special talents in children who otherwise might not excel.

Each semester in Liberal Studies 300 we watch a documentary called "Buena Vista Social Club," which is about a group of elderly Cuban musicians who have, because of the political situation in Cuba, essentially not been playing music publicly for decades. Yet music remains in their souls, and when they are given the opportunity to perform, these men, mostly in their 70s and 80s and 90s, have the smiles, the charisma and the hips of Ricky Martin (OK, maybe not the hips of Ricky, but they try). Despite dire poverty and repression, these old Cuban gentlemen are happy and vibrant, and it is obvious that has a lot to do with music.

I feel the same way when I play the piano. The other day my brother told me that I had a nice sense of rhythm, my hands worked pretty well and I could hear it when I played incorrect notes. Those traits mean I actually have some ability at the piano for an adult student, said a man not exactly overflowing with compliments for his baby brother. My teacher/brother telling me that I had potential at music made me as happy and proud as anything anyone has ever said to me.

Learning to play piano is good for my mind and body and soul. It just isn't good for other people's ears.

Not yet anyway.

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