As a kid, I took piano lessons for a few years before deciding I didn’t like practicing and recitals seemed boring to me. Now, as an adult, I covet the impressive skills of piano players/singer-songwriters like Sara Bareilles who can so easily sing and play at the same time with such ease and emotion. I’ve taken a couple turns at the old ivories to sing and play at open mic nights but will still say such things as “I can’t really play the piano”. Here are some shots of me not playing the piano…
At any rate, since I have so much time on my hands right now (heyyy pandemic hey!), I decided there’s no reason not to pick up the piano again, just to play, not to perform and found a new joy in practicing which I never felt as a kid.
I have tried meditating and doing mindfulness exercises alongside Headspace and instructor-guided practice. They often tell you to think of the mind as the sky or river and as you get distracted or new thoughts come up, they are like clouds floating by, not getting fixated on these thoughts or the fact that you got distracted but moving them along. My mind almost always wanders during these sessions and when it doesn’t, it’s usually because I’ve fallen asleep. I do, however, find the guidance encouraging and forgiving, often noting a lesson afterwards. But I simultaneously don’t feel like I’m really hitting the point of meditation.
Recently, I read The Power of Ritual by Casper Ter Kuille. I’ll admit, I really only read it because I’m a fan of Casper’s podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” and was aware of his new book from the podcast. In The Power of Ritual, he discusses how hiking can be meditative because you have to watch where you’re going or you’ll get lost or trip and it forces your mind to focus on the task at hand. Nature walks and hiking have become a weekly outing and saving grace during the pandemic and agree that it gives me time to think and work through things, leaving me feeling lighter afterwards. I would argue rowing is similarly soothing (said as a former rowing) and recently, realized that piano is serving this purpose for me as well.
At the end of my work day, when I would normally be decompressing on my commute home, I instead sit at the piano (actually, it’s a keyboard that’s been around for 15 years or so, mostly in a basement) for half an hour or so and practice Suzuki songs I learned 20 years ago. They are not performed perfectly but as I’ve moved through the workbooks of my youth, they have become more familiar and I’ve now hit the spot where I quit lessons, having to focus more and rely less on muscle memory. And I’m getting there!
It’s amazing how quickly the songs come back to me, I can remember making up little stories to remember the chords and when to move my hands. But as soon as I start to reminisce, bam! I mess up. As soon as I start to think about how well I’m doing, bam! I mess up. Piano requires attention. Full attention. Reading the notes, when to move your fingers, dynamics, and truly feeling the music. There is no room for mind wanderings. And this is what I think meditating is supposed to feel like.
The second lesson playing is teaching me is that it doesn’t have to be Sara Bareilles-level to be considered playing the piano. I play, therefore I am. I set the bar of my own expectations very high, so high that it’s almost guaranteed I will fall short. So it’s teaching me to take the steps one at a time, not race to the finishline. Fundamentals first and the rest will come in time (three-quarters time, to be precise). I have no illusions about becoming a pop star or any kind of star for that matter so why am I comparing myself to that? It’s time to just compare to where I was yesterday or last week and keep moving forward. A good life lesson all around.