Coty Cockrell

Professional creative site for Coty Cockrell.  Music, Theater, Art. 

Getting Back Into Music -- a Late Bloomer's Question

Hey y'all!  


I recently got a message from a young woman in the Caribbean who is trying to get back into playing piano.  It's something I hear over and over again, so I'd like to share our exchange with you!  I love getting messages from my readers, so keep 'em coming!

She writes:

Hi Coty:

I came across your website by accident, and read your post about playing piano for a ballet company. I love both piano and ballet, so thought that it sounded awesome. Congrats! 
I'm writing to ask some advice, as you're a professional pianist. Basically, I live in Antigua and Barbuda, in the Caribbean, and work in the field of international relations. I have natural talent in piano, but hardly any training. I did have some sporadic lessons as a kid, now and then, but never actually learnt how to read notes. Due to events in my life (mainly being very much discouraged from pursuing anything artistic, and not having the maturity to stick to my guns, as well as not having opportunities to train), I stopped playing for years. Now, at 35, I've decided to go back to piano, and am actually teaching myself how to read sheet music. I can also now play classical songs by ear and memory (Chopin, Debussy, Mozart). I will learn how to read notes quickly, hopefully soon. Since you have extensive experience in the music field, I was just wondering, if you could give some advice as to the options for a late bloomer pianist. I don't have any aspirations to be a concert pianist, or a notable pianist etc.., but I would like to make money from piano in some way, even if it's a side hustle :) The only thing I can think of is perhaps teaching kids if I am able to really work hard to hone my theory skills (in that case, what kind of certification would you recommend? I wouldn't want to go back to University for a BA for music, but maybe a shorter certification) Sorry for the long rant, but if you have any advice about possible options for a late bloomer pianist, I'd be very grateful. I look back on things, and wish that I had pursued a more artistic path, but now, I just want to look forward, and would like to find some practical expression for my abilities, if possible. Thanks so much for listening, and keep up the good work!!! Zeina

My response:

Hi Zeina!


Thanks so much for your message, I'd be happy to share my experience with you!


First off, you've already done the hardest thing: getting started!  So many people have regrets about not making music, and live their lives wondering "what if".  You're doing it!  You're making music.  Congrats, because the first step is the biggest step to take!  


Your questions are very interesting to me because you are a "late bloomer".  I love all of my older students because they approach music with purpose, rather than obligation.  There are certainly young students who are very disciplined, but still in the mindset of going to school, studying, and doing what they are "supposed" to do, whether that means completing math homework or practicing their scales.  Adult students come to music for enrichment and passion -- don't ever forget that!  While you may feel like a late bloomer in some respects, the life experience you have is unparalleled; NO ONE has lived your exact life, and no one has your voice.  That is one of the most important things to remember about being an artist.  This will help you when you get frustrated with yourself, feeling like you need to play "catch up".  Be patient with yourself.


Having said all of that, there really is no substitute for technique.  Piano, like almost everything else, requires some level of technical skill.  If you wanted to become a comic book artist, you would draw in your sketch book every day.  If you wanted to be a top level pastry chef, you would practice in the kitchen every day.  Piano is no different!  The more time you invest in your craft, the better at it you will become.  This isn't anything you don't already know... but there is an important distinction I tell my adult students:


Your music will have a technical side, as well as an artistic side.  The technical aspect is improved by practicing your scales, understanding music theory, mastering new pieces, etc.  Those kinds of things improve the craftsmanship of your playing, the technical requirements needed to express yourself on the piano.  The other side, the artistic side, is what you bring to the table.  The artistic aspect is improved by finding your voice.  I don't mean your singing voice necessarily, I mean how you experience the world around you.  For instance, how can you understand a love song if you've never been in love?  How can you understand tragedy if you don't allow yourself to feel those feelings?  It may sound silly, but this is just as important, if not more important, than technical skill.  It doesn't matter if you have the most beautiful calligraphy skills, if you don't have anything to say it's meaningless.  It's like a $6000 camera with no film, so to speak.


There are several successful musicians and songwriters who don't even know how to read music!  But nevertheless, they managed to find their voice through music.  There's not a specific place in music where you "have it", it's a lifelong journey.  Making music, no matter how advanced you are technically, is absolutely key.  Don't feel like you aren't a musician if you aren't playing at a certain level -- there's no such thing!  If you make music, you are a musician.  Simple as that.


But let's get more to the point -- where do you go from here?  


You mentioned that your goal is to generate some kind of income through music.  I think that's a great goal!  But I'll tell you right now, there is no clear path in the music industry.  It can be really frustrating sometimes, and it can be a matter of luck.  So instead of letting your goal hinge on something you can't control, choose something you can control.  Like, maybe your goal is to perform in public once a month.  What opportunities are out there?  This is where the work comes in.  Are there any open mic night events near you?  Festivals you could play at?  Hotels/spas/restaurants that hire musicians?  Festivals?  School events?  Retirement centers looking for music entertainment?  The more you look, the more you'll dig up.  Start making a list and brainstorm!  Invite a friend over... you'll be amazed at how many ideas you'll come up with!  


Keep in mind, to be a professional musician means to be a musician by trade -- meaning, someone needs your services in some way, and you have a business of providing those services.  That means, your work hinges on the demand.  This is where the technique comes in.  In New York City, where I live, there is a huge demand for pianists who can sight-read very well.  Auditions for universities, auditions for musicals, auditions for filmed projects, lessons, workshops, you name it.  In all of these situations, the pianist is expected to be a superb sight-reader.  Understanding the qualifications needed for paying jobs will help you focus your efforts: how do you get better at sight-reading, for instance?


I am a ballet/modern dance accompanist.  While I am expected to be able to sight-read, I am also expected to understand the nature of accompanying movement, have a wide repertoire of music to choose from, and be flexible working with a variety of teachers and play in a variety of styles.  This was never something I set out to do, but happened to have the skillset for.  Because I play music "by ear" very well, I am able to pick up new themes very quickly and incorporate them into my repertoire.  Because I am used to playing piano for musical theater productions, I can adapt my tempos to suit the action on stage, and I can work with even the most difficult directors.  While I do have a lot of technical facility, the bulk of this skillset was built through my "joyous", "messing around" practice at home, trying to play my favorite songs from the radio.  


If you are already playing Chopin, Mozart, and Debussy, it sounds like you've already got a quite a lot under your belt already!  It would be useful to take a few lessons since you hadn't played in quite some time, just to check in that you aren't developing any bad habits in your playing.  But aside from that, go forth and be brave!  Would you be able to teach a beginner student the C major scale?  How would you teach them how to hold their hands?  Can you teach them the difference between a major chord and a minor chord?  Having a certification does not guarantee you to have a full studio of piano students, and not having one doesn't mean you can't teach.


So to sum this all up, so much depends on you, and so much doesn't.  Things that you can't control are job offers, the demand for musicians, which gigs already have a pianist, etc.  And it's a numbers game -- if you post zero flyers advertising beginner piano lessons, guess how many students you'll get.  But if you post 100 flyers... who knows?  Again, you can't control that, but you can influence it a little.


But you can control your personal musical experience.  Set up a practice schedule, and stick to it.  Write music -- you learn SO MUCH about music when you write it yourself.  Listen to music, all kinds of music.  Classical, reggae, jazz, hip-hop, latin... it's all good information.  


I'll leave you with this little bit of perspective.  At the top, people expect you to be highly developed: the best sight-reader, or the best accompanist, or the best player of Chopin.  Those are very specific skills.  I would never hire someone who is primarily a Chopin pianist and expect her to be an incredible jazz improvisor, and vice-versa.  That's like hiring a brain surgeon to deliver a baby, or an electrician to install a new sink.  


But when you're beginning, the jobs are not that specified.  You may get an offer for someone needing "light music" during a wedding reception, or an after school program needing a basic piano teacher.  Or maybe the school choir needs an accompanist for the spring concert.  These kinds of jobs are rather different, but not so extreme.  Like hiring a handyman to move some boxes and then hang a few shelves, you can get more work early on by being a bit more diverse.


So be diligent on honing your skills and find target areas for improvement.  When you start looking for ways to apply those skills and find a music gig, don't dwell on what you don't know -- focus on what you do know.  Play out as much as you can, and meet other musicians.  Be on time (early).  Have everything you need.  Be easy to work with.  Be the solution to someone's problem.  And most importantly, be yourself.



Coty Cockrell

Let me know in the comments below what you think -- do you have any ideas for Zeina?  Are you also a "late bloomer" to music?  If so, how do you stay motivated?  I'd love to hear your perspective!