I've practiced the piano about 30 hours over the past three months.
Doesn't sound like much, except that over the past two decades, I've practiced a total of 100 hours, if I'm being generous, compared with the 5,000+ hours I'd logged by my mid-20s.
When I was 8 years-old I practiced an hour a day; I even got up at 6am to do it. I was going to be a concert pianist when I grew up. By high school, I continued to practice, but just enough to keep from getting grounded. There were moments in college when I was eager to practice. When I was learning to play jazz so that I could audition for Synthesis, BYU's Big Band, for example. But mostly I cosseted myself away for 3-4 hours each day because my parents wanted me to study music. And so I did. By the time I had married, graduated, and moved to New York, I was rather done with the piano, and rarely played for a good 15 years, except when asked to accompany the choir or soloists at church.
Five years ago, I was asked to accompany Vanessa Quigley; she was to solo in a church gathering of 400-500. I said 'yes' because that's what we do in our church, but grudgingly. I didn't know her, I'd never heard her sing. Duty. As she and I rehearsed an arrangement of the hymn 'Oh My Father', something unexpected happened. Her voice was beautiful and well-trained. I found myself enjoying playing, collaborating with her. I even practiced a few hours in advance of the performance. I had a similar experience with an equally superb musician when I accompanied Macy Robison for a cabaret-style recital chronicling her experiences with mothering.
After decades of the piano being a duty, a drudgery to be endured, why did playing the piano again feel magical?
Is it because:
- I'm no longer practicing to stay out of trouble or because I'm trying pass a class, but because I choose to?
- I'm no longer wondering if I'll dazzle the audience with my technical chops (or embarrass myself terribly because I don't have them or I'll forget the music), but rather thinking about how to best showcase another musician, to be as Robin to Batman, the hero of support?
- Or because I'm preparing to collaborate with another musician, to have a conversation with her and with the audience about making meaning of our life experience? To help people feel something and believe something about themselves that they didn't feel before? Ultimately, it's not about Robin, or even Batman, but about how they work together to save Gotham City.
In his book Practicing, Glenn Kurtz writes, "Practicing is a story you tell yourself, a tale of education and self-realization...For the fingers, as for the mind, practicing is an imaginative, imaginary arc, a journey, a voyage....When you sit down to practice (to make a home, build a business, practice a sport, rear children), you cast yourself as the hero and victim of your myth. You will struggle, succeed, and struggle some more. The story of your practice weaves all this together. When you truly believe the story of your practicing, it has the power to turn routine into a route, to resolve your discordant voices, and to transform the harshest, most intense disappointment into the very reason you continue."
There have been stories I've told myself about why I practice -- some in which I've been the victim, some the hero.
To now write a story in which the struggle has enabled me to collaborate, connect and communicate in a way I hadn't thought possible...
That's a story worth telling myself -- and my children -- over and over again.
Is there something that you used to love to do that you've set aside? Have you tried to pick it up again and found yourself discouraged? Is it possible that you can combine your childhood skills with the ones you've since acquired, to tell yourself a new story -- one that is fresh and relevant to you today?
One of the reasons that Macy Robison's Children Will Listen has resonated is that it creates a story that gives meaning to mothering. Saydi Eyre Shumway's post The Snapshot that Changed My Life similarly accomplishes that, Stephanie Soper's Portrait of An Artist, tells stories about her painting, while Rebecca Ellsworth Menzie's Memoirs of My Mother helps make meaning of her mother's untimely death.
I am struck by how much I don't enjoy, even eschew, being Batman when it comes to piano. Yet it's important I feel my contribution is valued by the vocalist or musician for whom I playing. Do you have a context in which you prefer less visibility, but still want to be valued?
Should you want to read/listen to more about my college musical experience, click on Telling Your Soundtrack Story: College, culmination of childhood dreams