The last two weeks I’ve been avoiding my piano, and two nights ago, after a particularly frustrating night of practice, I realized why.
Whenever I’d sit down to play—or, more accurately, clonk my way through the beginner’s book—I’d find myself confronting patterns of behavior that have plagued me my entire life.
I rush, instead of honoring each song’s unique tempo. I get frustrated when my version of Amazing Grace suggests neither. I compare my expectations—how I used to play—with where I am today and criticize myself for the gap. At one point, while trying to figure out a note value in Norwegian Wood so I could work out the rhythm, I froze. I just couldn’t get it, which led to massive feelings of panic and a fusillade of highly unloving self-talk.
Yesterday, I cancelled my lesson and told my teacher I merely wanted to chat. We met for tea. What I came to realize during our conversation is that while I thought I was learning the piano, the piano was actually teaching me.
By holding a mirror up to patterns I no longer notice in my regular life, I can see how much those patterns work against me—and how icky they feel.
Just as meditation reveals habits of thought, I’m finding the piano reveals ways of being. In order to become a better player, I can’t just accommodate these behaviors like I apparently do elsewhere in my life. I have to find ways of transforming them. The first step, my teacher gently suggested, is to “give up trying to look cool.”
I often tell clients that the book they are writing will teach them what they need to know in order to fully become the author they wish to be. I’m finding the same is true of my piano.
I’ve got to work through massive resistance, show up regularly to practice, remember that I’m a beginner again (which, at this age, I HATE), be willing to make a lot of the same mistakes over and over again, and remember that the only way to become a better pianist is by sitting my butt down in front of the keyboard on a regular basis.
Perhaps most important, when the going gets tough, when trying to discern the rhythm of a song threatens to unhinge me, I can try to remember to let go of what I’m doing in the moment and just… play. Play restores my energy. It shifts my mindset. It eliminates expectations, and when expectations flee so does self-criticism.
Play, for me, is not trying to play a song. It’s activating the organ function on my keyboard, dialing up the built-in gospel tempo, channeling my inner five-year-old, and randomly banging on the keys just to see how cool they sound.
Which is exactly what I did last night. And within just a few minutes, by sneaking up on it, I became fully immersed in the process of practice and actually made some progress on that frikkin’ Beatles song.
Best of all, I remembered why I’ve always loved this instrument and have found it hard to stay away from for very long.
Wonderful, funny and inspiring.
Thank you, Karen!
Totally loved this piece. I have always adored the piano and I still play every day, although I’m not as good as I once was and I never was great. I was a better teacher than performer. One of my grandsons just got his DMA in piano performance. He is an excellent performer and memorizes easily. Unfortunately, I have macular degeneration – I can no longer tell a natural sign from a sharp or flat; the stems on the notes point every which way so it’s very difficult to read music. I am quite sad about this. Can’t imagine not being able to play.
Just hang in there, Shari. I’m so glad you went back to the piano.