Piano-led parenting 🎹

Living vicariously through myself

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I bought a piano.

Well, first I bought a Rubik's Cube.

And I’m going to have to start there.

Last month, on a trip to the UK, we had to spend 10 days locked down. My third isolation of 2021. I bought one for something to do. Solving a Rubik's Cube has always been on this mental list of "things I wish I could do, but never got round to it, and now I have kids I probably never will." So over the next few days I sat down with it, cued up this video and this article (links included if you want to try it for yourself), and figured out how to solve it.

I've now got my time to a respectable sub-2 minutes.

It made me reconsider what else was on that list. A clear winner was playing the piano. It felt too difficult, unattainable, not worth trying because I didn’t start 30 years ago.

So I bought a digital piano. For the uninitiated: in ye olde times you could buy a piano—sounds great but it’s heavy, expensive and needs a lot of maintenance—or a keyboard—the opposite of all of those things. Then, in the 1980s (which apparently teenagers are calling “the late 1900s”, those baby-faced motherfuckers) digital pianos popped up and filled the gap. Weighted keys made it feel like a real piano, and things I don’t understand inside made it sound like one too. Cheaper, lighter, and without a need to tune it once a year. We bought a Roland FP-10. I did the required Reddit research, and it came down to a toss-up between a Casio, Roland and Yamaha. Of course I went with the company who made these magical boxes that brought me to higher state of consciousness back in my twenties. Brand loyalty runs deep.

I've been tinkering. Learning a few pieces I adore: Clair de Lune, Avril 14th, Gymnopédie No.1, Still D.R.E. ... you know, the classics. The kids have been watching curiously. My eldest wants to know more about it: how do you play it, what happens if you do “this”, what kind of music it can make?

Most of what I've been playing in the house has been classical, which led her to ask "can it only play that old kind of music?" It was a question without an ending. I showed her a what a few different people had done with a piano: Nina Simone, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Elton John, Alicia Keys, James Blake, Tyler, the Creator, Nils Frahm ... a never-ending rabbit hole, the finest sounds as you descend into darkness.

We've had a few evenings sat in the living room, something piano-y playing in the background—Carole King’s You’ve Got A Friend, for example—and basking in a warm, glowing evening, winding down together. Other evenings have been a lot more chaotic. But let’s focus on the good ones, eh?

I asked her to play an E, one near the top, but not all the way up there. "Just keep playing it slowly" I told her, and cued up Kanye West's "Runaway" on the speakers. I pressed play. She looked over strangely, wondering how she was already playing along. I walked over and helped her out after the note changed. And when the beat kicked in, the look on her face was unforgettable. We danced around living room for a while, until about three seconds into Kanye's first verse when I realised I needed to switch over to a Radio Edit, pronto.

There’s a magic with the piano that doesn’t exist with with something like the guitar. Because all pianos sound roughly the same, the piece you're listening to, and the one you're playing, are close cousins. The only difference is in the fingers of the person playing it.

So I'm playing, at home, a little bit everyday. I'm using an app called Synthesia, which is best explained as "Guitar Hero for piano." You import a MIDI file—they’re all over the internet, if you've been online as long as I have you’ll remember them playing in the background of a GeoCities page—and you play along. I felt this would be more enjoyable than staring at a piece of sheet music, playing Frère Jacques everyday for a month. Padme's interest has been piqued, and my wife signed her up for piano classes at school. She's going to play Wednesday lunchtime, and will no doubt carry on playing at home during the week.

Playing the piano fits well into the cadence of parenting. You can sit down for 10 minutes and whatever negative emotion you might be feeling will melt away as you play. And there's a diminishing return to practice. Concentration drops off after 20 minutes—it’s better to walk away, and come back to it later. People say aim for 10 minutes every day, rather than an hour every week.

I was talking about these escapades with my friend with Rodrigo. He told me he loves how, in English, you "play” the piano. In Spanish they use “tocar”, to touch. "Playing is a much better word, it feels fun, like a game you can enjoy.”

It is fun. Like we're playing together. I've always held off on pushing my daughter to learn the piano. I hear a voice chastising me: "don’t live vicariously through your kids, weighing them down with your unfulfilled dreams." I don’t know where I heard this, but it seems like something most of us understand innately.

One thing the piano helped me realise? You can use your kids as an excuse to go back and fulfil those dreams yourself. You’re still not going to play in a World Cup final, headline Glastonbury, or win an Oscar. But you can do the thing behind that thing. And you can do it with your kids, enjoying it together.

The piano isn't the thing. It's just a maguffin. What might yours be?

3 things to read this week

A Getting Things Done special

An apology is due to about a dozen of you who have emailed me over the last few months and I haven't replied. I've got emails sat in my inbox going back to the start of summer, and haven't gotten around to them—catching Covid, going offline for August, and, if I'm honest with myself, the wheels falling off my personal productivity system, big time. This week is about getting things back on track, and here are three links I've been reading to help me get things done again.

  • First up, from Wired. There's hundreds of ways to get shit done—and still we don't. "When we face all that undone stuff—emails to write, calls to return, people to contact, friends to check in on, memos to draft, children to help—it’s like being a waiter serving a hundred tables at once."

  • Last November the New Yorker dug into the rise and fall of getting things done, going hard on the flaws in David Allen's GTD framework (of which I'm a long-time advocate). "As we attempt to juggle percolating crises, endless Zoom calls, and, for many, the requirement to somehow integrate both child care and homeschooling into the same hours, there’s a sudden, urgent need to carefully organize tasks and intricately synchronize schedules. But it’s becoming clear that individual efforts are not enough."

  • I've come to realise that my Weekly Review was where it was all falling apart. So this one touch guide to doing a weekly review has filled me with hope going forward. "There is a secret to radically improving your productivity – it’s called a Weekly Review. It’s not a very secret secret. It’s a secret hiding in plain sight. We’ve all heard countless times that we should take some time each week to review our schedule and priorities for the week."

Good luck getting your shit together, if you need it! And if you’re interested in this kind of thing, let me know, and I can dig more into it for a future newsletter.

Good Dadvice

A small thank you

Thanks to those of you who've signed up to support The New Fatherhood and help make this thing a reality. As you can see (especially from last week's odyssey) there's a lot of work that goes into writing (and illustrating) this, and I want to make sure it keeps growing and helping as many dads as possible. I got a nice note from a few of said padres this month:

"Thanks for creating something that helps fathers like me navigate the emotions and practicalities (and all the complexities between, under, on top) of fatherhood. TNF helps me interpret and articulate the tsunami of thoughts, ideas and feelings associated with being a dad."

"I'm hanging in there right now with two daughters, 18 months and 6 weeks, and your emails have been a lifeline. Love what you're doing, love the tone, approach, and the humour, keep up the fantastic work."

"I've really been struggling - but I have to say reading these weekly posts and sharing from fathers have been in itself a great way to relate and deal with the stress. Thank you Kevin and all others for this space!"

Thank you. And thanks to all of you who have helped make it happen. Only a few days left to get a years' membership with a 33% discount, and the warm glow of knowing you're helping dads like those three.

One thing to watch with the kids this week

Piano Phase is a piece of music by experimental composer Steve Reich, designed to be played on two pianos that slowly go in and out of sync with each other. This video, from Alexander Chen of Google Creative Lab (an ex-colleague and fellow father), shows how it works. Listen with headphones for the full effect.

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Branding by Selman Design. Illustrations by Tony Johnson, who has been let out of his box the last two weeks, and allowed to use some new colours. We’re both very excited about it.