This may sound like a giant paradox, but this is what budding piano players (and all of us) need to understand: the concept of focused relaxation. Some will laugh when they hear that having the wrong technique at the piano could lead to serious physical injury. After all, it is the piano–not wrestling, football or gymnastics. My husband, an amateur golfer, would say that golfing employs a very similar concept. You must be relaxed but extremely intentional in your setup at the same time.
The point is that piano technique starts in the head, then seeps down to the arms, hands and fingers. The mental precedes the physical at all times.
When I see a well-intentioned piano student who really starts digging into the piano, playing vigorously, I appreciate the effort he brings. With his shoulders hovering over the keyboard and his power arms, he gives it all he’s got and is expecting a knockout performance review. However, after the ending, the first constructive comment I might say is this: relax and let your arm weight and gravity produce the sound. It must not be forced from self-powered tension. Even your musical output suffers because we can hear that it’s forced and not “natural.” Intensity does not have to involve tension.
In the long run, good technique not only frees up the student to play really well, but importantly, serves as injury prevention. I know and have heard of many accomplished pianists who suffer from permanent injury because they were not very aware of their stress; sadly, these dazzling talents are now unable to play. Now that I’m in my mid-30s, I’ve come to a point where I usually recognize and admit when I’m stressed and not in control. I know people who pain themselves to portray a calm, collected person who’s in control when they are a mess underneath the guise. Pain awaits them.
Some of us may identify with the notion that a certain career or life move would be the key to ultimate satisfaction. For others, we’ve worked relentlessly on a project or a job while losing sight of the purpose. Or someone pulled a bait-and-switch on us and the point of the whole thing just got flushed down the toilet. Injury.
For me, my mind is flooded with “to do” lists while managing four different schedules and tactical needs as well as emotional needs, which are more tricky. On a typical day, I will have changed about five diapers, dressed and undressed 1 1/2 children (daughter dresses herself half the time), brushed their teeth once or twice and maybe their hair, prepared breakfast, refereed fights, cleaned up breakfast, provided snacks, cleaned up, fixed lunch for them, then cleaned that up, along with a usual spill of milk all over the wood floor, mopped that up, then flipped through recipes for a 30-minute dinner which probably tasted 85% good because I omitted the ingredients I didn’t have. Somewhere in there, Daddy came home if he’s in town. This is woven in with at least four one-way trips to/from preschool. There are about five more things I’d add, but I don’t want to belabor the point (I guess I already have).
My scenario is pretty typical of a stay-at-home mom, if not easier than many other moms I know. At the end of the day, I feel neither focused nor relaxed, nor fulfilled many days–if I were to be honest. From what I know, working parents don’t have it any easier too. Back to my memories of concentrated piano training, the rarest and most special moments came when I had a combination of tack-sharp focus and a surrendered heart and mind.
Have you ever been injured as a result of overextending yourself or neglecting to care for yourself? What do you do for focused relaxation? All my leftover time spent on the internet isn’t working and my smart phone is not making me smarter. I’d love to hear your ideas or personal lessons learned.
I was one of those kids who expressed a very early interest in the piano from age two or so. My Korean-American parents who never subscribed to a cable channel must have been running PBS shows in the background when something must have struck me; as a toddler, I was glued to the TV every time a concert pianist performed. They tell stories of me pretending to play piano on our 70s dinner table next to my doll with retractable eyelids. After seeing pictures that prove this, I’m relieved to know that she was awake during our duets. Then, I remember the day two guys knocked on our door and started wheeling in an upright Baldwin soon after my 6th birthday; I knew I found my thing and the lessons began. After some ups and downs and not being a prodigious pianist, but a decent one, I was a music major in college. Studied some more in New York and… fast forward, I became a full time mom and a piano teacher.
I guess I’d call myself a semi-serious piano teacher, but not a super serious one. I’m talking about the kind that devotes every weekend following students to competitions like an Olympic coach with students winning prizes all over the place. That’s not me. However, I’ve taught enough to gather some insights about how we learn, how people are wired differently, and what holds them back from playing well. What many don’t realize is that studying music is so much more than being able to play fast notes to impress others or win trophies. There is so much internally and emotionally I had to develop before I was able to understand the piano and its capabilities as well as my own. I’m embarking on a series of thoughts I finally decided to put together mostly for my own journaling and benefit, but also hope they strike a chord with you as well, even if you are not musically inclined.
Courage In The Making
Last week, I had a frank conversation with a parent regarding her daughter who has been studying with me for over three years. “Jenny” has been one of my favorite students because of her openness to learn, although she isn’t necessarily a natural performer. Her mother asked a common question: “Is she actually improving, Grace?” I could hear the concern and slight insecurity in her voice. In Jenny’s case, she is a quiet natured, introverted girl who is extremely careful at all times. At the same time, she is endearing and as sweet as a kid could be. I told Jenny’s mother that I believe one of the things that holds her back from progressing is partially her timidity and being afraid to take risks. When I ask her to play a section with more boldness or more gusto, she has a difficult time doing so. It also holds her back from trying new things. She gets stuck in the middle. The great thing about her is that unlike most teens or preteens, she has the patience to stick it out even when times get…well, unfun. I call it “delayed gratification.” The rewards come at a cost. How many adults today don’t get this concept? I think there are a plethora of lost opportunities because of this unlearned lesson.
Back to the part about risk taking, so many of us have grown up to be adults who are afraid to take risks, even calculated ones. Playing the piano is largely a solitary discipline and some people have a hard time stepping out of their norms, even on an instrument. The reality is that people are concerned with fear of failure, fear of vulnerability or looking stupid if things don’t come out right. When there’s an opportunity to do something a little daring, my default voice always says, “That’s just not me.” I know there’s a deep internal reward to taking a step outside of my comfort zone, then realizing I am capable. Though it seems that we constantly hear messages like “the power is within you,” the truth is that the power resides in you and me. His name is God. When his love his fully realized in me, I get the courage and power to do things I did not know were possible. If I’m not doing it alone, it becomes less daunting. These new feats may not be monumental to others, but they are victories to me, and that’s what matters.
When I look back to my college years, sometimes I can’t believe I had the guts to do the things I did because I was not by any means an adventurous person. I grew up in a very sheltered family unit, but there was a small driving force within me to try new things. I think about the time I was 20, through some serendipitous timing, I landed an internship in downtown Chicago as an intern for the Chicago Symphony. My first time in Chicago, I found my way around the “L,” not knowing anyone, and then had one blast-filled summer of learning and meeting great people. Although I hated running, I thought it was so cool to put on my Walkman and run from my apartment to Wrigley Field. I think I did that run about three times until it wasn’t so cool anymore.
After seeing a little sign on Michigan Avenue (I believe it was the Blackstone Hotel), I even waited in a room to try out to be an extra in the movie, “My Best Friend’s Wedding” with Julia Roberts. Once the lady with the clipboard found that I didn’t have an agent, she dismissed me as a fraud and a wanna-be. That summer was an important experience for me, not because it built my resume, but because it was a building block to my character growth. Oh, to have that kind of freedom to try new things…. Now that I’m a full blown mom of two, I think my risk taking sensibilities are embedded under a pile of kids’ laundry, or maybe they just look different now. I’ve been asking God to reveal how I can stretch myself at this stage of life. Actually, writing this blog has been one a big fat step of courage for me. All the typical insecurities keep popping into my head, especially this one: “What if no one thinks this is worth their valuable web time?”
Without the risk of failure, courage cannot exist.
I do think of this famous Serenity Prayer. Many of us haven’t heard the second half:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.