Above is Rocket, my cat Tipsy's boyfriend, pausing under mentor Joe's gorgeous "Sir B"
(seven foot special Beethoven edition Bosendorfer semi-concert grand). Cats associated
with pianos are not so uncommon as you may think; this priceless "pause" (or should I say,
"paws"?) video is worth a view, although I do not recommend what you will see -- if you want to protect your piano strings from excess dust and dander.
Pausing briefly at certain points for a more nuanced, better effect in playing a particular piano piece was the topic of a former blog. But this week I realized fully the benefits of pausing for a different reason, namely, taking time off between piano teachers and lessons (but not leaving playing the piano entirely).
By now I have had 23 months of routine piano music lessons. That includes studying with three different teachers. I am now taking some time off after completing an additional three months of Dorothy Taubman gestural technique lessons (not music lessons) before I start music lessons again in the New Year.
A pattern from the past that I have found works well for me, is one of taking weekly lessons for six to nine months, then taking a two to six month break from lessons before I re-start them.
I suspect that my schedule would not work well for most piano teachers, but I have been seeking a new teacher who understands the benefits to me as I experience them. I hope to find a teacher who will be able after my break to continue my lessons, if lessons have been productive and enjoyable for both of us and our schedules can once more fit together.
Before my Armistice Day’s birthday dinner bash for 25 of my closest friends, I realized that I needed to take a month off from weekly Taubman lessons, in order to accomplish various necessary tasks that fell on my normal lesson day. After the party I needed two additional lessons off to decompress. But my Taubman teacher was not pleased, and felt it was detrimental to me.
However, after my pause I sat down to play my memorized repertoire. When I did, on the first three pieces I noted a great sense of ease, almost perfect memory of the compositions, and nearly perfect execution. To my ear, and surprisingly, I sounded better in terms of varied nuance, tone of The Duchess, phrasing, and interpretation!
This replicated exactly what I had noticed during the break between my first and second, and second and third piano teachers, namely, that I actually improved.
In those pause experiences I found that I had time to consolidate things I had learned in the months prior. I had time to breathe, relax, and play music at a more leisurely pace, not having to marshal maximum concentration power and more time each day to practice in order to be ready for another lesson in a week. I did not feel the press of taking on new pieces which sometimes seems in rapid succession. I could take time to remember what I had learned, and apply that as I moved forward with my three or four days a week practice, rather than five or six days a week practice.
When I mentioned my recent experience to Garreth Brooke, a composer and piano teacher, he said:
“Isn’t it interesting that a break can be so beneficial? I often have the same experience. Similarly, I was listening to an interview with Wendy Stevens (on the Piano Pantry podcast); she's an experienced and successful composer whom I really admire. She said that she divides her work life into seasons: composing, editing, presenting, and resting. That rest period was essential, she said.”
Stevens says that she often feels "always having to be doing XYZ". Of course, she is in the middle-years of maximum push to be productive in her career, and yet she believes in the benefits of breaks and pauses.
Two years after retirement from my last career, I am still subject to the same internalized pressures that she mentions, particularly because our society does not believe that focusing on joy or "just being" is beneficial in and of itself. But my perspective and focus have changed since I retired, and what gives me ultimate pleasure and feels uplifting in spirit, is foremost in my desires and mind today.
I decided to find out if other piano teachers have also noticed benefits to the pause in piano lessons or even in just playing the piano at all?
I first found an article by Hannah Hoffman, a piano teacher, but it was referring to child students, not adults. However, in email conversation Hannah clarified that "I think that like you, many adults enjoy the flexibility of taking breaks and coming back to lessons when they feel ready. I have some adult students I see on a weekly basis. Other adult students I see maybe 2 or 3 times a month. One of my students is taking a break for all of Spring simply because his work is busiest at that time.
I find that my adult students like having more time to practice and settle into their pieces. My adult students are balancing work and raising families and a week often isn't enough time for them to practice. I think it's very common for adult learners to enjoy more time between lessons. That can be hard because most piano teachers expect weekly attendance. However, you should pursue whatever form of lessons feel good to you, whether it's traditional or not. I think there is a teacher out there who will be happy to have flexible lessons with you."
Another piano teacher discussed taking a day off each week then getting right back to it!
But I'm talking specifically about taking months off from lessons, and not because I have work or family responsibilities and don't have time to practice!
I asked Grace Huenemann what she has observed about pause. She's a new friend and long-time piano teacher at the San Francisco Community Music Center. What she says centers on not playing the piano much, if any, during a pause, and does not directly address taking time off between lessons. Nonetheless, her advice on how to come back from not playing the piano seems precisely relevant to how to come back from taking a pause in lessons:
"Long breaks from playing and teaching have been a regular feature of my relationship with the piano. This has been the case with my adult students as well, whether by choice or because life happened.
"In my experience, once a refreshing rest has stretched out for months or years, it's easy to believe that you’ll never regain the ground you lost, and never again find pleasure in making your own music. Wrong!
"The trick in coming back to the piano, especially after many years, is to approach it with patience, realism, and a little humor, knowing that there will be work to do, and avoiding the poison of comparison to what was or what a genius someone else is. Know what you want. Is it to play that favorite piece really well again, or to push yourself to regain technique and repertoire, or just to play through the familiar tunes and some easier new ones? An achievable goal, guidance from an encouraging coach, and sharing music with others will help you move forward. Hearing the music sound better and better, and feeling your skills come back, will encourage you and fill your soul again."
Next I wanted to know what other piano students, principally amateurs, have experienced.
One person took six months off from lessons. He reported that "It gets dangerous to go entirely without because then people begin to remove music as part of their identity - which leads to people giving up, forgetting, and regretting."
His comment seemed to assume that during the pause, you also give up playing your memorized repertoire, or don't sight read or practice periodically and continuously if not every day. It also signifies to me that he believes that music is not "part of the identity" of an amateur -- which is entirely the opposite case for me and for a number of other amateur senior players whom I know.
What I have experienced is this: once you are in love with music and the piano as your chosen instrument, quite the opposite occurs: it easily becomes an addiction that never leaves you!
In fact, my senior amateur neighbor friend and mentor, Joe, has by now accomplished ten years of regular bi-monthly lessons. He has not taken one pause other than a few weeks off for planned and normal vacations. I consider him to be my "Piano Terminator Mentor" in his determination to improve - and he does!
On another website, I found several helpful comments by individual students (adults but of unknown age) in support of my habit of pause:
“...sometimes it is best to have a little break from a regular routine. I know for a while I was going fairly hard at it, and then I set aside my books and teaching texts and just did my one lesson a week and practically nothing else. I took like two months off. Then I slowly got back into it, building back up to where I was before. I think it works better if there is no pressure. Sometimes rest is needed. Who knows, maybe you will find reoccuring motivation and inspiration once you get back into it again!”
Another person on the same website said:
“I took a two-year break from piano and only started again at the beginning of this year and my piano teacher has told me how much I've improved! It wasn't about my technique/piano skill but I've just experienced a lot in those two years and now I understand what I play now and can convey those emotions in the music. I guess a break was what I really needed and it's certainly been beneficial.”
Yet another person wrote:
“I’d say that it is absolutely necessary! Two pianists as different (and incompatible) as Claudio Arrau and Jozef Hofmann wrote in their respective books that every pianist must rest from the piano one month a year. The muscles must rest and the mind must rest also of the tons of music we introduced to it during the year. Both will thank you ;) I'm really tired now (this has been a very hard year) so I'm looking forward to have a good month of rest some miles away from my piano.”
Since I’m apparently in the good company of Arrau (my favorite interpreter of Chopin), Hofmann, Brooke, Heunemann, and Kendall, I think I shall rest my case -- and rest easy with however many months of pause in between teachers that I allow myself!
And who knows? With a bit more time on my hands if I choose bi-monthly piano lessons, I might finally find a way as a volunteer to help out Groupmuse (local musician cooperative presenting intimate home concerts), and/or get back to my pre-pandemic love of watercolor and pastels. After lockdown I abandoned painting almost entirely to concentrate on my new music love! (Below my first class 30-minute assignment in a first-ever watercolor class taken at Sharon Meadows Art Studio in San Francisco.)
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