Sunday, April 17, 2016

Everything I know about life I learned from playing the piano

This title may be a bit of an exaggeration, and on top of that I stole the idea from a book written some years ago....but I've been thinking about writing this for years.

The longer I live and the more years I spend playing the piano, I find it to be true. Playing the piano is a microcosm for life.

Here are some of the life/piano lessons that I've learned.

Let Go of Fear: Many of the problems we have at the piano -- and in life  - are due to fear. Fear of making mistakes and playing wrong notes is the biggie. It makes us tense and changes our technique, not for the better, of course. When you see a great pianist play, you can see how free and fearless they are. I work with my students to change their technique to one that is more free and less fear-based.
See my two previous posts titled "Fear" to read some of the specific ways fear affects us at the piano.

Be in the Moment: Many philosophies and books teach us the importance of living in the present moment. In fact it is really all we have. The past and the future are really just constructs of the mind. It is only in the "now" that you can do anything. When you play the piano (or any instrument) you must be only in the moment. If you are thinking about what you'll have for dinner, or even the part of the piece coming up next, or the little mistake you just made, then you cannot be listening to what you are playing, and you cannot possibly play your best. Your hands may go through the motions and play the music, but it won't be as expressive and as authentic as it could be. Plus, what is really the point of playing, if you yourself are not even really present to enjoy it?

Be a Good Listener: We all know people who are not good listeners. You start telling them about an experience you had, and immediately they are off and running talking about something similar that happened to them, and they never really heard you or listened to you. All relationships depend on good listening to be successful. This statement is so obvious -- we all know it. Yet it is difficult to learn to be a good listener. Luckily, if you are a musician, you get lots of opportunities to practice listening. This goes along with being in the moment, above. If you can truly listen to yourself as you play, you may learn to be a good listener in other aspects of your life as well. Ear training will also help you be a more astute listener. I am always working on improving my ear through playing by ear and transposing.

Forgive mistakes: People hate to make mistakes. At the piano, most people would agree they don't like all those pesky wrong notes they keep hitting when they are learning to play. For some people it prevents them from ever relaxing and just playing for enjoyment. But not only can we learn to forgive our mistakes, but we can realize how important they are. In life, it's almost a cliche to say we learn from our mistakes, but we know it's true. Mistakes can give us information about what is not working in our technique, for example. Some mistakes seem to be just random. You suddenly miss a note that you never missed before. You just have to let it go. Forgive yourself. Learn to love the wrong notes as much as you love the right ones.

Relax: Most people in our modern society are physically quite tense. We do yoga and meditation to help us learn to relax. At the piano, we cannot be relaxed like a cat lolling in the sun, but we can be alertly relaxed, like a cat ready to pounce. It may take years to develop this but it can be done. When people comment that my playing seems very relaxed, I respond "I've worked very hard to be this relaxed." Being relaxed will help with letting go of fear, listening, and the other items mentioned above. A good teacher who really understands the body and piano technique can help you learn to be more relaxed.

Rhythm is Paramount: People who are new to the piano (and even some who are experienced) focus so much on "the notes" that they don't learn rhythm properly or have lifelong struggles with rhythm. For my students who are beginners, I teach rhythm first, and then note reading. I continue to work with them on rhythm all through their studies. So many students have said to me: "Can't I just play the notes without the rhythm?" To which I respond "There is no such thing as NO rhythm, so what you are really asking is can you play it with the wrong rhythm." You wouldn't want to practice a rhythm you'd have to un-learn afterwards. Rhythm plays a role in our lives too. If we can learn to be aware of the rhythms of life -- the ups and downs, unexpected twists -- perhaps we can accept and enjoy it more.

Express Yourself: I don't think this needs much explanation. Both life and music are much better when we express who we are and how we feel. I find that at the piano, many people don't always play as expressively as they could. I ask "What are you saving it for?" Always play with expression. And live that way too.

Set Big Goals and Have Confidence: I am a very accomplished pianist, yet even as recently as 10 years ago I believed there were many pieces I wanted to play that were too hard for me, and I accepted the fact that I would never play them, even though I wanted to. I decided to try to change my way of thinking. I wanted to play the Brahms Handel Variations (a difficult 25 minute piece) and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (30 minutes, very difficult). Even though I may have still had doubt about whether I could master them, I started work on them. To my surprise and joy, both did not seem as difficult as I had imagined, and I learned both and have played both in concert several times. I now don't think of ANY piece as too difficult. It may take me a longer time to learn and master, but I have confidence I can do it. I wish I had this confidence in other areas of my life. Perhaps I can learn to do that if I keep at it.

This list is by no means complete. I am constantly finding aspects playing the piano that have a parallel with some aspect of life. Perhaps you will start to notice these too.

1 comment:

  1. This is such a well written and truthful account of the parallels between mastering an instrument and simultaneously learning how to live life to the fullest. Thank you for the wisdom, self-reflection, and inspiration!