A MINOR PARADIGM SHIFT
In February 2022 after one year of piano lessons, a certain experience got my attention in a big way. There was time to play two pieces in one lesson, so I chose two that I had memorized, “Leibesleid” by the famed violinist Fritz Kreisler and “Traumerie” by Robert Schumann. I started “Leibesleid,” but somewhere in the middle of Part A, I struck a few wrong notes and immediately forgot the remaining measures (I call that a “memory glitch”). I quickly recovered my memory, played the correct notes, and continued on to Part B. As sometimes happens when I start on a new part (or the beginning of a piece), I struck two or three wrong notes, and re-started. Half-way through Part B the same things happened as before. I played a wrong note or two and had another memory glitch. “Drat!” I thought to myself. “What is going on? You played this though this morning four or five times with only a few mistakes!” I kept going to Part C, and you can guess what happened: more memory glitches and wrong notes. The pattern was now set. Yes, of course, the same wrong notes showed up in the same places as when I practiced. My teacher had already explained that two or three times of playing wrong notes and they get encoded in our brain, making errors extraordinarily tough to correct and re-imprint correctly. What I couldn’t easily figure out was why I continued to have memory glitches after playing certain wrong notes? By the start of the final Part D, I was so exasperated that I limped to the end of the piece and declared, “Well, that’s it, I’m going no further. My brain has shut down!” As always, my teacher was duly empathetic and responded that many students play well at home, then have trouble because they get nervous in front of a teacher. I knew that was not my case because I had not been nervous at all. I responded that I was only exasperated and frustrated because there was a major disconnect between my morning practice and my class experiences. There remaining ten minutes in the piano lesson, my teacher asked what I wanted to play next? At that point, a multitude of thoughts flew through my head. First, I wondered if the same thing would happen with “Traumerie” as with “Leibesleid?” My next thought was, “No, Ann, it will not.” Instinctively I knew why: because coming up was a ten-minute period that was entirely distinct from the 30 minutes I had just struggled through. I also knew the piece was by another composer whose melodies, tempos, dynamics, and nuances were different. Further, I knew my feelings about each piece differed. Even if I was in love with both of them, it was for different reasons. As another way of putting it, the “sound and feeling memory” in my inner ear of each piece as well as the period of play, were distinct. Thus, my brain and I concluded since these things did not overlap, there was no danger of me falling apart when playing “Traumerie.” In fact, I completed the next ten minutes playing Part A of “Traumerie” without major incident. I omitted two notes in the bass, which had no impact on the melody or tempo, and I played only one wrong note, which was barely noticeable. I was gobsmacked! How could that happen when I had been so broken up about my failed presentation of “Leibesleid?” My teacher gave appropriate feedback plus some practice suggestions, and we were at the end of the lesson. Apparently, I have a sound basic pedaling practice, and an ability to be appropriately expressive in my interpretations. Of course, I was encouraged (and hoped her comments were sincere), and I ended the lesson feeling much better. A week later I told my Alexander Technique teacher, Elyse Shafarman (bodyproject.us), about the experience, and asked for her perspective. She asked me to locate where in my body I had felt something each time things had gone awry in “Leibesleid.” Immediately I had an image of my brain shattering into a million tiny pieces that started shooting outwards. Elyse then pressed for where else I had felt something? I identified my solar plexus where I had felt mild nausea and a churning sensation. However, I had not noted any head ache, trembling, sweating, heat, excessive heart palpitations, breathlessness, or other negative physical sensations. Then Elyse said she found my experience significant because it was a clear example of how I was “able in the moment to get yourself out of your own way, between the first and second piece.” I simply did not carry over my initial distress into “Traumerie.” I was able to re-set my attitude and expectations, go back to neutral, and focus on how I felt about “Traumerie” and the great love I feel for that piece. Second, Elyse pointed out that the exasperation I had felt was only “a part of you, but not the whole.” At the time in playing “Leibesleid” and making so many mistakes, I had been consumed by and wholly invested in negative feelings, and I had initially misinterpreted that as the whole of what was happening. But I was not completely “wrong” or “a failure” at all. I had simply gotten lost inside my frustration and not been able to quickly come out of it during the piece, and could not do so until I had the momentary time break before I took up the second piece. Third, Elyse pointed out a key concept from The Alexander Technique, one that has always made a lot of sense to me since starting to take lessons some years ago. It’s called “inhibition.” I had to end “Leibesleid,” step back mentally, and sit a few seconds with my thoughts in order to stop the negative feelings. I had to “inhibit” them to create space for my own recovery to happen. I wondered after I completed “Leibesleid,” why I did not request a break to go get a drink of water, and stretch a bit to re-set my mind and body? That would have been a reasonable way to react to mess-ups during piano lessons, even if not during performances. What else could I have done and might try in the future if this happens? First, as said, I could ask my teacher for a short break to re-set my attitude, then try again.
Second, when I play more than two pieces at one sitting, I learned to choose pieces that are very different. This will allow me to view each piece as an entirely new experience, and return my thoughts to neutral before I start to play each one.
Third, I must remember that only a part of me is involved when I mess-up at the piano; it is not the whole me. If I can observe the frustration and exasperation at the time (that is the operative phrase: “at the time”), then I have a chance to step back and inhibit negative feelings, get right back into the piece (or move on to a new piece), and complete it.
I’ll give all these options a try the next time I encounter similar feelings when playing. After all, experimenting can lead to new understandings, and I hope, to new pianistic abilities as well.