The idea of learning by translating is well known to anyone who has tried Duolingo, but I rediscovered it in a new context recently. I had planned to take piano lessons this fall at the SF Community Music Center but returned from vacation to discover that I’d missed the registration deadline. When I mentioned this to someone, they pointed out that I should be able to teach myself, especially since I’ve studied other instruments. While I agreed in principle, I shifted my focus to other pursuits.

Then on a whim yesterday, I decided to try playing the chords of “Wagon Wheel” on my keyboard. I wasn’t setting out to learn how to play the piano and figured I could just follow a rhythm that roughly matched up with the strum pattern for the song on the guitar. In fact, the chord progression is a slight variation on the Axis of Awesome’s 4 chords, and my strumming pattern is just a series of quarter notes, so it’s completely straightforward.

My initial strategy was simply to voice the chords from their root notes, but it felt awkward to readjust all my fingers every time I changed chords. I revised the strategy accordingly: shift from chord to chord by readjusting as few fingers as possible. While I didn’t pen out a closed-form solution to this optimization problem, the heuristic I did find led to new chord voicings that made changing chords significantly more fluid.

Then I noticed that I was only using one hand to play, and the “Wagon Wheel” melody comprises only four notes. I started playing the chords as whole notes with my left hand and focused on the melody with my right, and pretty soon I was playing “Wagon Wheel” on the piano! The simple act of translating the song from guitar to piano taught me something about playing the piano, albeit with some habits I might need to unlearn were I to take lessons in the future.

So I repeated the process for “Dink’s Song” and then “Hey There, Delilah” while discovering how much fun it is to learn the piano this way.

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