Category: "What I've Learned from Playing the Piano"

Pausing in Place

September 5th, 2014

How many times have you been told to reach beyond your comfort zone? It's popular advice that I hear often. It echos in my mind whenever I am challenged to try something new. I know opportunity awaits in the shadows of the unknown, and a journey there rarely turns out to be as scary or difficult as it seemed when I first started out.

But despite all this, I cannot forget the occasions when success requires a different approach. Sometimes it's better to simply stay where I am -- to remain in the zone -- until I achieved that pleasurable comfort.

Years ago I posted a series called, "What I've Learned From Playing the Piano." Like the posts then, an example of a life lesson revealed itself while I was practicing. I was learning (or rather relearning) a challenging, big-band inspired song from 1941 called the Chattanooga Choo Choo. I'd been able to play it before, but "play it" was more of a "get through it" experience than an enjoyable one.

The song steamrolls along, like a train. Even at a moderate pace, spitting out the lyrics ("is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo?") can be as tough as hitting the right chords. Determined to play it properly, while no one else was in the house, I practiced the tricky passages over and over again. "I'm going to repeat this until accuracy is comfortable," I said out loud in frustration after I kept hitting the same old wrong notes. I was training my brain through repetition, and I was doing it because the previous method of scrambling to find the next note wasn't working any more.

I remained on some measures for twenty or more passes. Since I hate repetition, that was not a pleasant experience for me. But it was needed if I wanted to get it right. I had to think like the virtuoso who repeats and repeats and repeats until the entire piece can be played in his or her sleep. It doesn't matter if the goal is to play a masterpiece or an old pop song like the Choo Choo. The process is the same: get so good at or so accustomed to doing something you don't second-guess yourself. Thus, success requires comfort.

So yes, kudos to the quest for uncomfortable-yet-fulfilling experiences, but don't believe that should be your only endeavor. Like many catch phrases, we tend to dwell on things, as if life were a one-sided coin. Like me, only you know when it's necessary to pause and pay attention, when it's time to stop pushing yourself to catch the next train. Give yourself permission to listen to YOU first, before you act on another's advice. The result could be music to the ears.

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Inspire Me Please

September 7th, 2010

"I'm sad that he wants to quit," Andy said to me, speaking of his teenage son who had been learning to play the guitar.

Strangers and friends often express feelings like Andy's after they hear me play a song on the piano. They ask me what I think about getting their kids to stay with the lessons because they hate to see a talent wasted and their child deemed a quitter.

My answer: inspire them.

No one thinks more about drumming than the drummer who just rocked out to his favorite band. The folk singer vocalizes in the shower just a little louder on the day after a singer/songwriter festival. The flutist feels the melody she is practicing if her teacher lets her hear a passionately played sample first. When seasoned musicians wow us with their talents, we are catapulted into mimicking them. "I want to be like ____."

The ability to play comes after tedious work; It takes time, dedication, and practice. Repeating the same passage over and over and over again not only stinks for the family members within earshot, it stinks for the musician whose fingers are hurting, But the repetition and the frustration is necessary to train the brain to move the fingers onto the right notes, on the right beat, and in the right order.

The student needs a reason to plug through it. Something, somewhere, caught their interest when they originally asked for lessons. It's kind of like marriage. Two people find a connection and build a life upon it, but if they cannot remember why they fell in love, their life becomes an annoying array of bad habits and day-to-day frustrations. Meanwhile, if they take the time to indulge in the pleasures enjoyed at the start, they can accept the work required as a means of living a life with passion and love.

Teachers are faced with a dilemma in this regard. Let the student play only what he enjoys, or force the scales and patterns and finger exercises that are, at first, more important then passion and interpretation? Raising a musician is the same as raising a successful, healthy, well-adjusted, and obedient child: they hate you for a little while, but it pays off in the end.

It's natural to want to give up when you just can't stand to play this week's lesson one more time. Help your child get through it by rewarding them with a little inspiration on a regular basis, even if their musical selections do not match your own. Their horizons -- and their skill -- will expand. In the meantime then, you might want to think about buying yourself some earplugs.

What I've Learned From Playing the Piano - Final Entry

January 22nd, 2010

The last entry in my "What I've Learned from Playing the Piano" series is simply a recap. 

The end of the series does not indicate the end of learning because as long as I continue to play, I will continue to learn.

Here's what was written over the last few months:

Part I: An Intention to Pay Attention

Part II: The Crippling Power of Vanity.

Part III: Take the Time to Figure it Out.

Part IV: Put Your Heart Into It.

Part V: Take Time to Play.

Part VI: Hobbies are Vital.

Part VII: Remember What is Important.

What I Learned from Playing the Piano Part VII: Remember What is Important

January 11th, 2010

When a performer sits down to play, it's likely that he is concerned he'll make a mistake. In Part II, we talked about the crippling power of vanity and how nervousness can ruin a performance.  In addition to controlling one's attitude, a seasoned performer can also control his focus, bringing it to the primary element of any song, so that any mistakes will have limited impact on the overall performance.

I once attended a workshop where the question was asked, "Because it can be so difficult to sing and play at the same time, which task gets more attention?"  The answer was definite: singing. The teacher explained that when a song is sung, the words take first precedence because they tell the story and capture the audience's attention. If a mistake is made on the accompanying instrument, it's less likely that the audience will notice than when words are flubbed or mumbled.

Other times, such as in the case of a classical piece, expression of the melody becomes most important. Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata is such a melancholy song that it can make you feel the same. It's not a technical piece, so one must use expression to make the song shine. Meanwhile, technique is the priority when playing the Flight of the Bumble Bee at the tempo needed to finish in just one minute (a feat I've never achieved).

Obviously we strive to play all the elements correctly, 100% of the time, but the truth is perfection is reserved for the experts. And whether we are talking about a child's first piano recital or your next big presentation to the board, the end result will be a more positive one if you can identify and give priority to the one thing that is most important at that moment in time.

What I Learned From Playing the Piano Part VI: Hobbies are Vital

December 29th, 2009

The recent gift-buying season proved just how difficult it is to select a present for someone who has no hobbies. It's easy to find a new project for a model-building enthusiast, a book for the avid reader, or warm clothes for the skier, but when it comes to the people who spend their time on the couch watching television, they need only one thing: a new hobby.

In my opinion, TV watching does NOT qualify as a hobby. Neither does Internet surfing. These activities help to pass the time, but they rarely challenge your brain or motor skills.

Meanwhile, lots of American's are filling their down time with these artificial hobbies. A real hobby creates excitement or rallies someone to action. It turns empty time into something that has been built or envisioned or an action that improves with practice.

I suppose video games must be accepted as a hobby since they do meet these standards, but I believe that a bona fide hobby is one that can be done even when the lights go out. If you don't have a hobby, you are missing out on a great part of life. Finding one can be as easy as asking your friends and co-workers what they do for fun or paging through the local paper's advertisements to see what catches your fancy.

My life would be dull without my piano-playing hobby. And it also helps the gift-giver since they can always find something for me at the music store.