WHAT I WISH I HAD KNOWN AT THE START
Updated: Jun 4
At the end of March, 2023 I will accomplish 24 months of weekly piano lessons. So what do I wish I had known before I returned to study the piano some 63 years after graduating from high school, even before I ever played my first piece in lesson Number One in May 2020?
My four answers (note that a few days later, I added a very important fifth answer!) set forth below, and are in consideration of the following fact: From time to time I have experienced disappointment and even sharp pain in failing to implement some technique my teacher asks of me, in a memory failure while presenting a piece for my teacher, or in failing to get all notes correct when I am playing for a friend or two. Some days when I feel supremely discouraged or frustrated, I wonder how I survived for this many months! I wonder if some of this dis-ease could have been avoided by first implementing the ultimate lessons I learned along my way?
Playing the piano is like life,
full of fun and sometimes strife,
or sometimes chills and then a kiss.
Perhaps a frown will take you down,
next day you’re up to take a run
and enjoy the rays of morning’s sun.
So life goes on its merrie way
with little choice in how we play
our instrument or role
or what we hear in our soul.
But when I feel most down, I always remember that I am deeply, hopelessly in love with and appreciation for having re-discovered music.
Every week if not every day I become more capitvated by music, more certain that this is a life-long adventure that I shall never abandon as long as I am blessed by Euterpe (the Greek goddess of music) to pursue it.
Something About Music There’s something about music that’s grabbed my soul, turned me inside out and my spirit roiled, more than dance that sets me free or when painting rocks my world, music came to abide with me to help my soul unfurl. “Open to the wind” is what Webster’s says is the definition of “unfurl.” And so it does, this magical gift: the music I now hear, and heard.
But there is no denying that on a handful of occasions, particularly after my initial, placid, and methodical six months of lessons, I have had some very uncomfortable experiences. My artist friend Jordan Hines, calls those "stygian valleys." Twice I have shut the key cover of The Duchess and thrown my teal satin cover over her to quiet her siren call, because I felt I had failed her and Euterpe. Of course, those were silly, useless gestures, and lasted overnight on both occasions!
Nonetheless, in those dark times I thought I might not have the ability to learn the piano and that perhaps am not even a teachable and suitable student for my ever-patient teachers.
In reflecting back on 24 months of lessons, four stunning lessons or insights stand out.
First, I felt an enormous relief and burden lifted from my musical shoulders, when in January and February, 2023, I attended the "Psych Essentials" zoom five-class series sponsored by Julliard professor and psychologist, Noa Kageyama.
It was then that I realized I am not alone -- nor am I much different from other amateurs struggling to learn the piano! Lonliness (as discussed in a former blog) was a particular burden because I am retired with no one home when I practice and because of Covid, I've always taken piano lessons on zoom! I discuss my emotional challenges with my life partner when he comes home from work and is always supportive, but he is not a musician or musical student now and can not completely relate to my technical challenges, as comforting as he is in so many ways. He's a long-ago oboe student and is exceedingly mathematical, so he's a great boon in helping me count out note values and play rhythms!
However, in Noa's class, for the first time ever I chatted with other students online. I viewed our weekly homework videos made before and after we applied one specific and practical, research-supported, ways to make our practice more effective, or our nerves calm down when we played for others. I heard both us amateurs, and accomplished performers and surprisingly even piano teachers, express some of the same anxieties and self-doubts that I have felt at times. With certainty, I knew I was not alone! Thus, I must start the list of my lessons or insights with this point as "number one."
Find or gather an online or real-time musical peer group at about your level of competence, or at least one available musical student like you (at your technical and expressive level), to partner with, and meet or chat with at least once per week, if not more. Then you can express your negative and positive feelings and accomplishments, share ideas, and ask questions or even complain about what-and-why-the-heck your teacher is asking you to do something. You can encourage each other to persist through typical and shared difficulties.
Learn to analyze the structure of a piece you will learn. With a shock I came to this realization during the seventh or eighth month of lessons with a second teacher. I had laboriously memorized a three-page score, when all of a sudden I realized that I had wasted time! Two lines at the end were a note-for-note repeat of two lines at the very start -- and yet I had spent time and effort "re-memorizing" them as if they were different. Interestingly, the first time I found easy to memorize, but in the second occurrence, I found it tougher. Go figure that one, and, what a laugh! I mentioned this experience to my teacher, who then started teaching me how to first read a score! After that my playing and memorizing became so much easier. -- On a recent occasion I first memorized a piece with tricky, changing rhythms and note counts. However when I first played it for my present teacher, Robert Estrin, I was devastated to learn I was just about all wrong! He advised me to play a piece for him first to work out note counts so that I did not learn them wrong and then have to correct them, which is very tough for the brain to do. That is still a bit of a mystery for me because sometimes he sets me free to memorize a piece, and I still get parts of the rhythm wrong. I guess it's a matter of begin able over time to judge when I need advance help with rhythm, or don't.
Listen to credible pianists play (but be careful who you choose because some "trained" musicians play without feeling!), and also ask your teacher to play a piece or phrase you are working on during every single class! Such a simple thing, but no one told me NOT to listen to other amateurs play a piece that I wanted to learn! I learned that sad lesson myself. The point was verified recently in a gratis paper on phrasing written by the amazing, generous, incredibly practical, and positive Russian pianist Ilinka Vartik. -- It was in the seventh month of lessons with my former teacher that I apparently demonstrated sufficient technical control of a piece I had been working on for about two months, Amy Beach's lilting two-page Waltz Op. 36 No. 3. Accordingly, for the first time ever, he began to teach me phrasing. In doing so, we analyzed the score, then he demonstrated the sound of a phrase by playing several lines of music containing two long phrases. (Phrases are indicated by curved marks over several chords or notes, and usually indicate legato playing, unless staccato or other marks are included; and, some phrases can contain sub-phrases, as I learned.) Then, a miracle happened: I "heard" what a phrase sounded like! Until then I had only listened to amateurs play it, as well as one doctoral music student and even a director of music performance at a music school -- and it was for the most part, played in a completely boring, uninspired fashion! -- On this lesson day my teacher repeated the lines several times on his piano so I could "get" what sound I should be aiming for, and of course, we discussed breath and micro-pauses and how inside each phrase, to make one note differ from the very next note in tone and dynamics. --- It was as if a veil was lifted from my ears. The very next day in practice, I immediately implemented phrasing and have done so in all music since. My waltz changed from sounding like calliope or organ grinder music, to a lovely, lilting waltz! I astounded myself at this overnight transformation and also astounded my teacher. The very next day I sent him a recording of my best effort, and he responded that there was a "night and day" difference that had come about surprisingly quickly in my playing and "beautiful phrasing." I was elated, and told him it was because he had played it for me and I finally heard how it should sound. Only then could I get close to replicating it.
Change from negative to positive thinking (or, "not yet" thinking): use specific steps to consistently stop incipient negative thoughts and substitute positive ones, and be willing to fail! For many months of piano lessons I forgot that to learn something brand new, one has to go back to the start line -- and be willing to not succeed, until one succeeds! I also underestimated the power of negative thoughts and even statements I made out loud or to myself during class. For example, even a few weeks ago when my teacher asked me to exaggerate notes in a phrase, I immediately responded "Wow, that sounds hard!" and I got a bit shy to think that perhaps, by doing so I would somehow look foolish. Now, why did I go there? I could have and should have said, "Wow, ok I'll try that" and thought about the probability that I might discover something wonderful in the endeavor! -- Ilinka Vartik says that "with a positive mindset and love for music, each practice session will become a true meditation." I surely have a love of music, but not that elusive positive mind set! -- In Noa's class I learned that some high-performing sports figures like 2008 gold-medalist gymnast Shawn Johnson, and musicians, too, have a rote simple mental script they employ during performance to leave no room for negative thoughts. I'm trying another of Noa's suggested techniques of making a list of three times when I prevailed and thought myself competent, then keep that list in my mind handy to think about if I mess up or get nervous. I am now working on both of those things to develop a "growth mindset" which means that effort and difficulty are just part of the process, and not a sign of my inability to learn! I now do my utmost to avoid and/or take better control of negative thoughts that will only work against my ultimate goals to learn more in being expressive on The Duchess. I suspect that she will be much happier, too!
Find ways to become more patient (get "mad" at yourself?): Patience is a toughie to implement and easy to say! How do we teach ourselves to be more patient and not give up our musical studies too soon, just before the awakening and major progress? I don't know if these two stories would help anyone else, but they did me. I read that Tara Lipinski who won the Gold Medal in ice skating at her young age of 15, said that she defeated nerves and kept going, simply by "getting mad" at herself just before skating out to begin a performance. Then I read the same from Shawn Johnson who is 2008 won the Gold Medal in gymnastics. -- I keep a flash card to the side of my piano that says: "being shy and negative without self-confidence, wastes time and money!" Seeing that note, and the top of a vertical $100 bill that I keep peeking out behind my pile of flash cards, always makes me laugh, and get down to business! # # #
The Student's Awakening: February 3, 2023
Calliope this, calliope that--
but then one day it came,
a gorgeous melody from a foreign land,
to hear it was so plain.
The piglets slowed and the buffalo
raised their heads from grazing,
the elephant trumpted, then the animals fell silent
since the new sound was so amazing!
The bejeweled horses shook their manes,
those treasures so purebred,
the circle slowed, the dim lights glowed,
and ticket master turned his head.
A slender waif and classy lass
so full of aspirations,
had finally heard her teacher’s word
and his advice shared without reservation.
Better said, he played for her,
showed her what she couldn’t imagine
nor find from others less inspired
who played without understanding.
This time she listened and she heard
the song beneath the notes,
then set on fire, her heart jumped higher
to hear what Beach* really wrote!
So sat she down at calliope’s piano
and magic grew from her fingers,
the melody rose in glorious chorus
as if from angelic singers!
*Amy Beach, Waltz from her Children's Album.
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