Sometimes when I’m struggling with a song or a concept in my piano lesson, my patient teacher Sheldon Landa will give me guidance about how to get over the hurdle.
Then as we’re discussing my problem, I’ll wonder if we’re still talking about piano — because an awful lot of what trips me up at the keyboard applies to the rest of life, too.
(Not surprising, BTW, to get some broader life wisdom when my piano teacher’s URL is practicalstressreduction.com and he creates meditation/relaxation music.)
So in honor of ending my second calendar year as a beginner piano player, here are five lessons I’ve picked up in piano that have broader implications:
- If you make a mistake, just keep going. I’m a tough self critic, so my instinct when I hit a wrong note or lose my place is to just stop. The song’s ruined, why bother? Sheldon’s been coaching me to push through, and if needed, jump in at the start of the next measure to reclaim where I should have been. I’m working on being more gentle on myself and pushing through minor screw ups, then taking the time to learn from them later.
- Modify the rules if you need to. It takes a lot of my brain power to play piano and tap my foot to keep time — think of a small child rubbing his stomach and patting his head — and if I hit a patch where I lose track of the beat, I panic. I’m lost in the dark woods! No, I’m not, Sheldon will tell me. Look to the next measure and start counting fresh from there. But, but … I thought the song must go on, the beat doesn’t stop, it’s a moving bus and I’ve missed it? Maybe if I’m playing with other musicians, that’d be true. On my own, I’m in control, and if I need to give myself the flexibility to rewrite the rules, I can. Better to make a shift and finish than cling to old expectations and fail.
- Getting good at something takes time. Until then, you’re a beginner. Maybe some people sit down with a musical instrument and take to it like a fish to water. I am not that person. I’m happy to be learning but it’s slower than I expected. About a year and a half into weekly lessons, I didn’t think I’d still be crunching wrong notes in Jingle Bells. But when I spent several weeks working every day on Yesterday, to the exclusion of pretty much everything else but scales and Hanon warm up exercises, I saw my progress. Playing that one song hundreds of times showed me the power of accumulated experience.
- If I can’t get something right, the thing in the way is probably my brain. I’m not playing technically complex pieces that require moving my fingers super fast or hopping up and down the keyboard. They’re beginner songs that often keep my hand in the same spot for a while before moving slightly. There’s almost never a physical reason I can’t hit a note. It’s me getting confused, or psyching myself out, or losing track of where I am. It’s all in my head. I’m capable of playing the song, but my grey matter gets in the way. When I stop, take a deep breath and calm down, guess what? I often can, especially if I don’t give up and maybe play it another 10 or 20 times.
- Sometimes it’s the journey, not the destination. I enjoy my nightly piano practice ritual. I enjoy my weekly piano lessons. I’ve tried to stop being so concerned with how fast my progress is and how badly I still botch beginner songs and just appreciate doing something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid.
I haven’t blogged much lately about piano, but I do have several past posts on learning to play: