The twenty-five year interlude: An amateur returns to the piano
Playing the piano is a marriage of sorts. Just like a traditional marriage, there are three phases. Phase One, "The Honeymoon Phase," is when we are excited about a new piece and can't wait to explore it. Phase Three, "The Silver Threads Among the Gold Phase," is the warm, cozy, and comfortable phase, when we know the music inside and out.
Phase Two, the "Therapy Phase," causes the most piano divorces! This is the nitty-gritty, practice slowly, practice hands apart phase. My students admit to disliking this phase. One of my students jumps from music to music so she can put off this often long and arduous time. I'm happy to report she doesn't jump through "real" marriages the same way!
Although it is not a pleasant phase for some, most students know there is light at the end of the tunnel, and will trudge through this phase with music they really like or have a desire to perform. Paul Alexander, NFL coach and pianist, admitted that although this phase required "self-control because it killed me," he improved greatly because of his patience.
For students needing more convincing, try telling them that practicing may help them sleep better. Read on—our author will take you through her journey of "Phase Two," and the positive outcomes it has on her life, including a solid night's rest.
I hesitated as I walked past my piano. I had purchased it years ago as a reward for passing my specialist physician examinations. With most hurdles of medical training conquered, I expected to have plenty of time for cultural pursuits. Alas, my dreams of a less encumbered future were shattered when I embarked on the tumultuous journey of "working motherhood." Piano playing was relegated to the category of "dispensable luxury" in the quest to raise three children while continuing my career as an academic physician. Guilt is a familiar emotion for working mothers, and on this night, I managed to feel guilty that I never touched my beautiful black shiny piano, except to help the children with their practice.
My piano seemed to be reaching out to me and urging me to return. Could I spare a moment? The children were tucked into bed and it was time to deal with the unrelenting chaos of my email inbox. In a self-indulgent moment, I decided that the emails could wait a while.
I wandered over to the music cupboard to nd something to play. My fingers lingered over Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata. I had started learning this piece as a young teenager, but had never conquered it. Nonetheless, it was music that seemed so perfect for the late evening. So, with Beethoven's most famous and well-loved composition in my hands, I returned to my piano after an interlude of nearly a quarter of a century.
My fingers were cumbersome and it was a struggle to read the notes. Had it always been like this? I was about to leave in frustration, when I reflected on how easily I was giving up. After all those years of medical school, internship, specialist training, and a Ph.D., I had learned the value of persistence. Surely I should not give up after a mere five minutes, beaten by Beethoven?
With newfound resolve, I turned to the last measure and started slowly decoding the notes. After painstakingly working backwards, I eventually managed to play the hauntingly gorgeous final eight bars. I hadn't done anything so mentally demanding in years. My playing was stiff and uncoordinated, but punctuated with a few moments of sheer beauty.
I glanced at my watch, and was surprised to see that it was time for bed. Through my intense concentration, I had completely lost touch with time. My mind had been totally occupied with the demands of Beethoven. The truly magical thing was that my every thought regarding work, patients, or my endless "To Do" list had been displaced. There was no time for emails now.
As I floated off to sleep, this beautiful music played over in my mind. Amazingly, I did not wake up at three a.m., thinking about the interminable list of daily tasks I confronted. Somehow, I had managed to sleep until daylight streamed through my window. It was an experiment worthy of repeating. Night after night, I discovered that if I spent an hour with my piano before bed, I was consistently rewarded with high-quality sleep. This translated into a sense of calm during my working hours, which helped me to be more compassionate with my patients, more productive with my research, and more encouraging with my students.
After a couple of weeks, I could play the whole first movement of the "Moonlight" Sonata in an excruciatingly slow and halting manner. The next step was to focus on playing more musically. When studying as a child, my teachers always suggested I needed to play with more feeling, but I had never understood what they were talking about. My own three children were learning the piano with a wonderful teacher who cared deeply about musical beauty. He had a special way of connecting with them, so their music sounded wonderful. Perhaps I could ask him for some tips?
The opportunity came a couple of weeks later. The lesson just prior to our children's usual Friday afternoon time was vacant. When asked if I would like to bring the children a little earlier, I explained my recent flirtation with the "Moonlight" Sonata and asked our teacher if I could personally occupy the lesson time for the next few weeks.
After just one lesson, I had a whole range of tips on how to play much more musically. Focus on the triplets, my teacher suggested. Put wrist down, roll, and then raise the wrist up—with the last note of each triplet to be played especially delicately. Anchor the whole piece with arm weight on the bass chords. Slow down ever so briefly when you get to each of the perfect cadences scattered throughout. Perfect cadences? Music theory was stored in my brain in the same place as biochemistry—retrievable with effort! Despite this, music lessons on Friday afternoon became a special treat at the end of every busy week.
With the "Moonlight" Sonata slowly taking shape, my teacher decided it was time to expand my repertoire. What to learn? I needed music that was appropriate for my 9-10 p.m. practice session to avoid complaints from the neighbors. I needed something that was challenging enough to be completely absorbing, but not so difficult to end in the "too hard" basket. Most importantly, I needed something that would aid my transition to sleep each night. We settled on Debussy's Clair de lune. With expert guidance, I slowly made headway with this technically demanding music. And with my teacher's obsessive demands about musicality, my practice required complete focus. I had finally discovered an activity that displaced every other thought from my mind.
Why, I wondered, in all those years of learning about stress management techniques for my patients, had no one ever mentioned the value of playing an instrument? There had been plenty of instruction on deep breathing exercises, visualization, and meditation. Any time I tried yoga, deep breathing, or some other relaxation technique, my brain stubbornly refused to stop thinking. I had never heard anyone suggest that learning to play challenging music might do the trick for a brain like mine!
Medicine can be a stressful career. In response to this, plenty of my colleagues talk about taking up extreme exercise such as triathlons, marathons, and long distance cycling to manage their stress. While a number of my colleagues attend weekly orchestra practice, sing in choirs, and play in bands for relaxation, I have not found a single colleague who has "learn to play an instrument" on their standard list of stress management solutions for either themselves or their patients.
In the only published data I could find, more than half the doctors surveyed were able to play at least one instrument, and nearly one in five played regularly. This suggests that many of us have sufficient baseline skills to incorporate playing music into our approach to stress management.
Nightly piano playing has become an important part of the rhythm of my day. In the process of progressing on to the exquisite, but deceptively difficult music of Liszt and Chopin, there has been a far more important lesson. I have discovered that my perfectionistic, obsessive tendencies, which are so important in my professional life, can be equally useful in my quest for calm.