How One Year Can Give You a Whole Career
Tonight, I’m playing the part my mother used to play: the patient parent waiting for my child’s piano lesson to be over. The out of tune spinets, the squeaky violins, the kids who swear they practiced, their credulous teachers.
This is the sound of my childhood.
For me, piano lessons were the single most important thing I did as a child. They gave shape to my young life, and I don’t know what I would have done without them.
When I first started playing piano, at the age of seven, I took lessons from Mrs. Peters, whose house was directly behind ours. We had a long yard and some big trees separating our two houses, so once a week I took a walk by myself through what felt like a small forest with a slim bag containing my Michael Aaron Grade 1 and A Dozen a Day books.
Through Mrs. Peters, I found I was talented, and that others thought so too. The more I learned about the piano, the more excited I became about the possibilities of both music and my future.
A little older, and I started taking lessons with a young man who became my mentor, my friend, and (eventually) my boss. He taught both classical and pop technique, sprinkling our lessons with rich metaphors. For him, music was a lens through which personal character, the world at large, and learning itself came into focus.
Though I practiced and prepared classical repertoire in those days, I started spending far more time improvising. “Blissing out.” Those hours spent at play were glorious, peaceful, and mind-altering. Much of who I am as an adult was born in those unstructured hours.
When I entered college, however, I found my wonderful new teacher loved Classical repertoire much more than I did. As he pushed me to practice with discipline, I started to second-guess my talent. I stopped having fun.
It wasn’t until the second semester of my junior year that I buckled down, finally working the requisite four hours a day. I squeaked through my Junior recital and collapsed into summer vacation, burned out on my favorite instrument.
Ready for a break from all music, I opened a book called Zen and the Art of Drawing. Its sub-heading: “A Course in Enhancing Creativity and Artistic Confidence.” Something I desperately needed.
The author, Betty Edwards (no relation, but cool, right?), wrote, “The magical mystery of drawing ability seems to be, in part at least, an ability to make a shift in brain state to a different mode of seeing/perceiving. When you see in the special way in which experienced artists see, then you can draw” [Italics original].
For Ms. Edwards, it was important that artists stop labeling things as nose, lamp, tree,or book. Instead, the artist was to carefully observe each shape for what it actually was, line by line by line.
As I soon discovered, I was labeling the music I was playing as “classical” or “pop”, “easy” or “hard”, “boring” or “fun”. I changed my approach. Shifting my perspective, I began seeing all music proceeding the same way: one note at a time, each note in relation to all others.
When I got back to school in August, the four-hour daily practice regimen became a joy. Concentrating on each note of a major scale, one measure of a Bach Partita, or a dozen pages of a Chopin Ballade was exhilarating. Hours would pass without me noticing. I started to love the piano again.
I credit that single year of college with giving me the technique I use every day as a professional musician. But more than that, the mindset of working note by note, task by task, minute by minute, day by day, gave me a career, a life in which I can truly enjoy what I’m doing.
Whatever that may be.