Practicing Piano

Practice of the Week
Practicing Piano

Category: WORTH A TRY, or OCCASIONAL, or MIGHT BE YOUR THING: The practices in this category are "worth a try" at least once. Some of them are daily practices, where giving them "a try" would mean doing them daily for, say, a week. Others are one-time exercises to do and re-do quarterly or annually. Some practices in this category are great for responding to a particular need that may arise in your life. Others are simply enriching occasional enhancements to the spiritual life. Among these practices you may find the one particular practice that becomes "Your Thing" -- your main and central spiritual practice -- or a Key Supporting Practice.Ecospiritual.

Gratitude to Lois Holt and Creighton Cray, whose piano practicing at CUUC has sometimes been beautiful company for me when I'm in the office. Creighton and Lois inspired me to look for an account of piano practice as a spiritual discipline -- which I found in Colleen McDonald's lovely essay.

Among those of us who were offered music lessons in childhood but who quit our instrument before we were grown, I count myself among those who regret it. Yet it wasn’t until a certain spring day when the car radio was cranked up, and my ears were open wide enough to hear the sound of my own longing, that it dawned on me that my days as a pianist did not have to be over.

Sixteen years later, I am still at it.

You only need to practice on the days you eat. That’s the philosophy of the music school where I take my lessons. It means I sit down at the piano even on the days when I am tired or not in the mood, my throat is scratchy and I think I may be getting sick, I’m busy and preoccupied, or I am utterly frustrated by my lack of progress on the piece or skill at hand.

What about this discipline is spiritual?

Before I returned to the piano, I took my hands, despite all they have done for me all my life, for granted. When I look at them each day, I am reminded that the human hand is a marvelous piece of work, giving us the strength, sensitivity, precision, and control that allow us not only to play instruments but to perform a much vast variety of manual tasks. At the least, I am more careful and attentive when I chop vegetables these days.

Learning and playing music is a call to mindfulness. Tinkering away until the timer goes off does not qualify as practicing, any more than sitting in lotus position and waiting for the chimes to release you constitute meditating. Playing music does not belong on a to-do list. Getting to the end and finishing, or even playing all the notes in a piece correctly, is not the point (though developing precision is a step along the way). Composers mean to transport us, take us on a journey, kindle our imagination, inspire hope and reverence, and bring us solace and joy. Musicians strive to convey beauty, excitement, and meaning; to communicate truth that cannot be put into words; to create something intangible yet vibrant and real. You cannot be unconscious to enter into all that.

I need discipline to remember to center myself in joy and gratitude and to set aside agendas and stresses of the day; to sit up straight and take some cleansing breaths; to be aware of tension in my body and consciously relax; and to focus on bringing my body, mind, emotions, and spirit into harmony in the service of making music.

When learning music, you need to train yourself to be patient and to go slowly, moving at a snail’s pace, phrase by phrase, chord by chord, note by note. By lingering, we give ourselves time to notice where each note has come from and where it is going. We do not gobble the music down. We learn to savor each bite.

Being in the moment with the music also means listening attentively. Musicians must tune in deeply, listening for the quality of the sound or tone, the balance (or sometimes the parity) between the two hands, the clarity of the pedaling, the duration and volume of the notes, and even the silences, which can be drowned out without careful attention to the rests.

Playing the piano requires fine motor control of the fingers and bilateral coordination of the upper extremities. (Add the foot, when you are pedaling.) The cognitive aspect includes reading music—encompassing not only the ability to understand what is printed on the page but to discern what is not explicit but implied or assumed—and memorization. There are also creative and artistic dimensions that are grasped more by intuition than instruction. Good musicians enliven their repertoire by conjuring up images, even creating stories, that direct their musical interpretation. They infuse the music with personal meaning, bringing their heart and soul into their performances. Their music speaks for them, carrying a unique message as well as conveying the universal experience of being human.

Pablo Casals, a world-renowned cellist, was 93 years old when someone asked him why he continued to practice three hours every day. Casals explained, “I’m beginning to notice some improvement.” Music making teaches humility: even after a lifetime of practice and study, there is always more to learn.

I recognize I only have so much time and only so much talent. Playing the piano is much more difficult than I remembered or imagined. I give careful thought to the pieces I choose for serious study, knowing I can tackle only a few each year. There are many pieces I love and have dreamed about playing that are beyond me; sometimes I have to let go of old goals and set new ones.

It is tempting to fantasize about the music I might be able to play by now if I had stayed the course in seventh grade. But the discipline of musical performance teaches me not to be derailed, defeated, or defined by lapses and mistakes but rather to keep going. Our power lies in giving our best to what lies in front of us right now. I didn’t have the dedication, determination, and desire as a child that I do as an adult. Perhaps now is the time I am meant to be at the piano.

Sometimes, when I’m relaxed and in the moment, and the music has just flowed out of me, I lift my hands off the keyboard and I laugh.

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See also Making Time for Making Music: How to Bring Music into Your Busy Life by CUUC member Amy Nathan.
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