SITTING IN THE POCKET: HOW AN ADULT STUDENT CAN ENHANCE LESSONS
Updated: Feb 22
“Sitting in the pocket” is a summary saying that comes to my mind when I consider this blog topic. On December 14 in an earlier blog, I promised to share thoughts about what my role as a student is in making the piano learning experience both productive and joyful.
FOCUS FIRST ON JOY AND FUN: What? You don’t think you should experience joy and fun during piano lessons? For me, they are absolutely foundational expectations! That might be because I’m not in this endeavor to make a living or to perform in public; I’m in this principally to express my growing love affair with my piano and with music, to feel deeply, and to be creative. Humor is an indispensible element for me to remain in a receptive, calm, curious, and optimistic mood that seems imperative to make learning possible.
That means that I am responsible to bring a certain light-heartedness and humor to the table since I am not there to be “entertained” by my teacher. I’m certainly there to learn – but I’m also there to share laughter and joy, sometimes at myself in the moment of an awkward failure to produce a desired technical result, other times in sharing with my teacher an observation about the eccentricities of composers or pianists, or to laugh together at a musical pun.
Recently my teacher and I both laughed when I held up my 2023 New Year’s Resolution written on a black coffee cup by my piano’s side: “88 keys – 10 fingers – no problem!” I now have a new white cup that also encapsulates the hilarious, horrific realities in learning such a difficult instrument as the piano. Spoofing my role as a student also brings me perspective, as when wearing this new pink sweatshirt! But during a lesson, to view the statement on my cup when I take a drink of water, makes me smile which helps me relax, stay open to learning, and sit right “in the pocket.”
Some Amusing Thoughts (from Vol II)
I wonder if I shall petrify before I get this right, hand raised high in eternal hope it’ll come down on the note? I wonder if I’ll live to see the very next Ice Age before I mistress the right technique to perform upon a stage? I wonder if the cows will come home, to happily chew their cud before I put this Brahms to bed without more piano blood? _______ *Humor is a way I often get through practice, well
understood by an accomplished cellist, Janet Horvath;
STAY ATTENTIVE TO ATTUNEMENT: In therapy, the therapist works diligently according to training, to remain “attuned” to their client. The American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology says attunement is the matching of affect between infant and parent or caregiver to create emotional synchrony. To my mind, the result is a kind of openness and receptivity. If I am correct, then during piano lessons it is critical for both teacher and student to remain in synchrony and attuned. However, when a student’s (my!) ego gets in the way and becomes the focus, it can damage attunement. As Professor Carol Gilligan astutely says in her book, In a Different Voice:
“Development is impeded when confidence is in self-doubt.”
Reading that single statement convinced me of the wisdom in this New Year in setting aside what Elyse Shafarman, my Alexander Technique teacher, calls a “story I tell myself.”
In the past, sometimes my story has been that I am incompetent or unable to improve on the piano, perhaps not even worthy of being a student? In the darkest part of my heart I have gone there several times during lessons, less during practice, but in either case and at a feeling level, “it ain’t pretty!” What it is for certain is that going down that track is a total waste of time (and money for lessons) because I am impeding myself from learning and making progress.
REMAIN “IN THE CURIOUS”: Easy to say, hard to do, especially when one becomes frustrated during lessons in an ability to execute a new technique one is learning or answer some music theory question that one does not well understand or have on the tip of one’s tongue to answer.
All artists experience frustration, as Tara Papandre, a dance teacher, explained, “when (they are) integrating all of the pieces of a movement phrase.” My piano teacher said that one of my failings is that I let frustration take over a bit too often and quickly when facing down the myriad challenges of learning to play the piano.
Tara suggested that learning to “sit in the pocket,” or “stay present” in the moment, is critical to overcoming frustration, especially in dance improvisation: “Ultimately, the critical ingredients of improv are being brave (having the courage to try something new or unknown) and being present (staying in the moment and ignoring the internal critic)... It’s about “paying attention with all of your senses...It isn’t about being polished. It’s about listening and paying attention (emphasis added)...It’s about exploring the edges of what you don’t know, and being responsive to (kinesthetic and relational) feedback.”
“Exploring the edges” in piano lessons to me, and as Elyse recently reminded me, means just sitting there, feeling what I’m feeling, being aware of frustration and self-doubt as soon as they come on the scene -- and yet at the same time remaining open, curious, and moving forward to try something new that my teacher suggests.
Perhaps the secret to doing just that is simply to resolve that I will try it? After all, reducing self-doubt as well as improving technique involve baby steps and progress, not perfection.
“KNOW THYSELF” AND SPEAK UP FASTER:
Elyse has taught the Alexander Technique over the past 20 years to acting students at the American Conservatory of Theater, to students attending the University of San Francisco in California, and to her private clients of whom I am proud to be one. Speaking as a teacher, she told me that she is deeply grateful when a student communicates things that will make the learning experience easier for that person. Otherwise she is left for the most part with guessing. That can be an uncomfortable place, especially for a new teacher. Even with well-experienced teachers, guessing means that every student is treated as the “sum of the parts,” and generalization prevails.
Recently I had the experience of having to identify, first for myself, and then in a requested discussion with my piano teacher, Robert Estrin, a few things that make learning easier for me. One dealt with the beginning of a lesson and what happens after I play a piece I have been working on. I need to first hear an honest statement from my teacher of noteworthy progress, however small or inconsequential, that I have made on some aspect of technique practiced during the past week or month–before the teacher jumps into telling me what I need to improve. First hearing what I did right keeps me calm and balanced when we next move on to the performance aspects needing improvement.
At the same time, it is very tough for me to “hear” and receive supportive comments! In fact, my teacher gave me feedback recently that that is another fault of mine, not to "hear" and accept that I have some clear pianistic accomplishments (principally in my "musicality') and some ability and progress potential under my belt, or fingers as it were. I’ve read that happens for a lot of students. We can’t seem to luxuriate for one second in accepting accolades or proferred support, even though we may yearn for it! Just like in learning technique, learning to “sit in the pocket” to take to heart and absorb supportive comments, is one step that can move me forward to improve my self-confidence. Doing more of this is an aspirational goal for my New Year. I was heartened and thrilled to observe that Robert heard my request for this, because he implemented it in the very next lesson rather than rush forward to “correct” or help me improve multiple other things needing attention; there is always time for that!
I also need sometimes to take a “time out” to sit with my frustration in the moment, identify it, take a drink of water or stand up and stretch, then re-set my mind and body to continue on. For that purpose and because I sometimes get tongue-tied in the moment and can’t explain my need to my teacher, I recently adopted a little “lady bell” that I can grab and ring. It will instantaneously communicate my state and open up the opportunity to talk about it with my supportive teacher. He loved the idea and concurred with it!
REMEMBER THAT BOTH OF US ARE PEOPLE OF GOOD WILL:
In the moment of supreme frustration, why is it so easy for me to forget this absolute truth? No teacher teaches with the goal of making her or his student feel bad or fail! No piano student does this for the fun of it or from hate of the process or music: endures hours and hours of paying attention, taking direction or suggestions, then follows up sitting on the piano bench for even longer hours trying to remember what the teacher said and execute it with more and more precision over time. Both people in the teaching equation, teacher and student, are pulling for the student’s success, not failure.
True, some teachers by means of their teaching approach and/or personality, create a better or worse chance that a particular student will make progress, but so, too, does the student contribute to that possibility of progress! We contribute to enhance our chance of pianistic progress by showing ourselves a bit more compassion for our struggles, but also by remembering that our teacher wants to help us, not hinder us.
I have resolved in the inevitably-coming moments of supreme frustration during piano lessons to remember that I am studying the piano because I love music! Then I look to the left of my score holder and quickly read a small, colorful summation of my New Year’s Resolutions which deal with my part of the equation in learning and improving - the student's part - and then get on with listening and learning. That is what I can and will bring to improve my learning experience in 2023. After all, I am beginning to see in myself the potential to be good and worthy as a piano student, a pianist, and of course, a poet!
Sometimes I wonder if I imagine loving music?
When all goes wrong and my memory fails
Upon trying to play a piece I know.
In those times, what is to show for hours spent,
Devotion lent to my endeavor?
What makes me persist, or better said,
What makes me want to get out of bed and go on
When my song so miserably fails?
Sometimes I wonder if I’m an imposter,
Not something no one’s thought before, I know.
Some of us go through it more than others.
Women, of course,
Are bothered more than men
When we cannot play a score we know so well.
It’s hell on wheels when that happens.
I hate the idea of continuing on,
Why? I ask myself, suffer all this pain
And melt down more times than one?
So do I set it aside just for the while, come back
And spend more hours in coming up to snuff?
Or take it as a final call that, though giving all,
I’ve failed to make the grade, though no one’s grading me.
I play because I love the music that I hear inside
That must come out. Some days it's stuck there like
When the tide deposits shells upon the shore
Then takes them back with mean attack
And leaves me wanting more.