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FINDING A MUSIC TRIBE: The loneliness of a long-distance piano student

Updated: Jun 4, 2023

Being an amateur pianist who studies in individual zoom lessons at home, is a lonely affair.

It occurred to me after about a year of such lessons that I might be lonely. I had few people to talk to about my struggles: my neighbor and amateur-pianist mentor Joe who works part-time and is also quite a bit ahead of me in pianism after nine years of lessons, my piano broker-composer-friend Bruce Nalezny who has his own demanding musical and personal life to attend to, a new neighbor friend Barbara who doesn't play her piano that much and had a health challenge to focus on, my talk therapist who, luckily, is also a trained mezzo-soprano, and my partner who is not a musician (but great at helping me count out and learn rhythm and note values). These are generous and very supportive, but often busy, people not always available when I need to talk.

I'm certain that my loneliness when it comes to music explains the frequency of my blogs, and fuels my poetry and poetry-publication efforts; at least I can talk to myself!

In addition I use practicing daily, sometimes up to four hours a day (in 30-minute sections so I don't injure my hands), to "speak" by expressing my music to my listening daily audience: my three cats, Prince, Mo, and Tipsy. I've caught both Prince and Mo lying under my piano during such practices so I'm sure they are enjoying the show! Tipsy seems to keep a bit more distance, like drowsing across the room in front of the fireplace! Sometimes when I visit to play Joe's beautiful semi-concert Bosendorfer, his handsome grey and white kitty Rocket comes to listen!

Then I found Julliard Professor Noa Kageyama's remarkable blogs on the psychology of performance and sometimes on effective practice strategies to build security in performance, and the zoom classes he sponsors (The Bulletproof Musician). After considering it for a few months and reading his blogs and newsletters, I recently decided to enroll in Psych Essentials.

The five-class series started in late January. It deals with improving practice and performance. We do that via research-based practical and specific optional strategies that we try out during each class. The class goal is to reduce or side-step anxiety and distraction so that we can better and more securely and consistently express our music love, and for some, pursue their public performance ambitions.

As a result of the first class, I immediately realized that I had spent 21- months of piano lessons on zoom at home feeling very lonely after I had a confusing or distressing thing happen in a piano lesson. I simply needed to be in contact with peers, students at about the same level as I was in piano studies. Then I knew they would deeply relate to at least some of the struggles I was going through, and perhaps have practice solutions to offer, ones that had worked for them. For example, I could not be sure my neighbor friend Joe could remember back eight or nine years in order to muster empathy with how tough it felt to take up piano again after a 63-year absence!

Shortly after restarting piano lessons in May 2020, I had suspected that I was exceedingly lonely and needed peer contact, from three things.

First, I had tried to convene a 1.5-hour afternoon music salon for amateurs (no teachers allowed) in my home, but I could never get two of thee others who expressed interest, to attend. Twice I made a coffee cake and prepared my home and the first 30-minute focused discussion (after which we could play for each other for fun or feedback), only to have one or two people cancel attending at the last minute. One lady I met with independently for lunch and we became friends, but she rarely plays her spinet and would seldom play my Duchess after lunch. I concluded that I need to have at least six others available, in order to ensure that a least two attended a Salon, but I found no way to identify them since I withdrew from

Second, when my teacher at the time mentioned that one other of his senior students was also having trouble learning rhythm, I asked if he would put us together online, and he did. When he gave me her name and email, I wrote a friendly letter, she responded once, and I wrote back asking her for more information about her piano and what she was playing. Sadly, her reply to me when missing from my inbox and I did not have the opportunity to add a welcome addition to my peer support group.

Third, I had sought online for local amateur piano groups but most are for pianists who like to perform with others or in public, and who have advanced far beyond me. Of course, my sincere goal to avoid Covid prevented me from attending amateur groups and performances for most of 2020 and 2022. I felt, and still feel, uncomfortable and at risk in small closed environments like a home or small theater venue. And just listening online or in CDs to musical presentations is a passive experience; I need to interact with musical others and build actual online and in-person relationships.

Music to me is not a spectator sport!

Ergo, Noa's class!

Before the first session we posted a short video introducing ourselves along with a text outlining our goals for the class and anything else we desired to say. I was a bit surprised to find that the teachers, also in the class, still experienced some of the same distractions, hesitancies, or nerves that I did, especially when performing for others. I felt heartened, and curious.

In addition, all students both teachers and learners, could send each other messages or questions, and I did. In this pre-class way, I first met a concertizing violinist-teacher in Lucerne, Switzerland. Having several former young Swiss students live with me as their "host parent" for a few weeks while studying English many years ago, I had an immediate connection with her. Besides, I've spent a few days in Lucerne, and love its great beauty and wonderful history, not to mention the open, friendly, nature-loving Swiss people. Then I connected with Ming, an Australian ballet-company pianist, who assisted me understand "flow" in music (see my former blog on that topic where he is quoted), then I chatted with a semi-retired piano teacher who lives in my city of San Francisco! I was delighted when I suggested after the class sessions were over that we might have coffee and meet, and she concurred (I hope it happens!)

I was no less jazzed to find out that during each zoom class, the screen features a chat box where we can send questions or messages to a specific student, or make general statements about what Noa has just said -- all visible to all students. Once I was asked a question about the name of a new book by a retiring violinist author who succumbed to performance nerves and quit the concert stage. I couldn't remember the name, but after the class I sent the information to Noa and he graciously sent it to the inquiring person whom I remembered only as "Elizabeth."

Lately I've noted what I call a "zoom forward" in my piano competence and confidence. I hear and feel the difference. I feel calmer over all in my life as well as when I sit down to practice, or open up Skype and play for my teacher. I'm making fewer mistakes during lessons and practice, and recovering faster when I do. I note my hands trembling on rare, rather than regular, occasions during lessons as I play for my teacher. I'm calmer in hearing his feedback on where and how I can improve (though I deeply appreciate his efforts to point out where I have grown and what I am doing right). My future class goals are to immediately stop and change encroaching negative thoughts that "I can't or might not be able to do" what he asks, and become more curious and adventurous to try hard-to-implement changes he suggests or things he asks me to do during class.

Perhaps this nice situation of feeling and observing progress in my pianism, is the lucky coincidence of a number of things happening all at once:

-- significant recent email support from a designated "musical mentor;"

-- dedicated, piano-focused help from my local Alexander Technique teacher, Elyse Shafarman, and my therapist, Cary Ann Rosko;

-- continuing support, and availability to answer text questions, from my neighbor friend;

-- a better working relationship with my teacher, Robert Estrin; and

-- my teacher hearing in a recent lesson enough technical advance that he thinks I can now learn what makes a piece really "sing out," things that I experience as "rewards" not practice challenges, and things that are truly fun! These include phrasing and bringing out the musical line. I had a recent boost in self-confidence when a day after my lesson on phrasing, I actually implemented it and sent the recording to my teacher. He heard the positive difference and complimented me on it. I was thrilled!

However, I think my progress and happiness are most likely principally due to the relief of finding, at least for a few more weeks of the class and hopefully afterwards, a peer community in Noa's class!

Since I'm in the "learner's group," I'm with my peers. I watch our short 'before' and 'after' practice videos each week and I see those at my level, and at earlier and later levels of pianism, as well as when playing other instruments. I receive supportive comments on videos I post each, and offer others my supportive observations (no critical comments are permitted). My most recent "after" video was Part A of the entire piece below which is Waltz Op. 36 No. 3 by Amy Beach, with newly-learned phrasing in evidence.

Through this class I'm no longer alone, wondering if "I am the only one?" in my struggles to learn a particular technique and theory, or to learn how to hone a bit of native "musicality" as my teacher, neighbor, and mentor, call it. I feel more and more committed to the long haul process of learning such a complex instrument as a piano. I think I feel some developing longer-term patience!

I can safely say that at this point, February 2023, that I shall never quit learning, be it in piano lessons, in self-teaching, in consulting many wonderful YouTube videos, in reading musicology books or attending more symphonies or operas, chatting or meeting with musical friends if and when they are available, or in taking another of Noa's remarkable, informative, practical, and emotionally-calming classes!

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