Yesterday I had the privilege of going to a performance of my undergraduate piano teacher. It was AMAZING! That is putting it mildly. Her playing has always blown me away but this was something else. As I sat there and watched her play, it brought back so many memories. I could envision the uncomfortable chairs in her office we would have to sit in for studio class, the green carpet, the “pianist corner,” among many other memories. There was so many things about her playing that suddenly made so much sense to me and everything she required of me was put into perspective. I cannot say too many good things about her as a performer, teacher, or mentor. So, I thought for today I would list five things that I learned from her. I could list thousands and thousands but I am going to limit myself (really!). These are not in any particular order and may not even be the top ten things I learned while her student.
1. A Musician is Not Necessarily an Artist. Any musician can learn the notes and follow the instructions the composers place in their scores. Any musician can successfully perform any piece. An artist takes it beyond. An artist understands the music at a level that others may not. The artistic expression comes much more naturally and easily to the artist than to the musician. I remember as an undergraduate being upset over something – it happened frequently (and still does) so it is not uncommon that it came out in my lesson. I was probably a sophomore at the time – at least an underclassman. I was convinced that I would never be able to successfully accomplish the task before me and was super frustrated because she was not seeing this. Well, she did the whole “We need to have a talk.” She explained to me the difference between an artist and a musician. She told me that I may not learn my music as quickly as some others but that I learn it more thoroughly. She explained that the expression and understanding of my performances was never a question because it was natural. She told me that I was an artist. This had more to do with my self-confidence than anything else could have done at this point.
2. Physical Health and Strength are Important. Musicians are required to spend an obscene amount of time practicing. As a music student, take the amount of time needed in a practice room and add class time, homework and studying, concerts, meals, and sleep into the allotted 24-hour days and there really was no time left. While I was an upperclassman, she began an exercise/strength class required of all pianists. It was like a yoga/pilates class held in the choir room. I was so insecure in myself that I HATED going to these classes. In fact, there were days that I just refused to go. I think my friend Katy was the only one of the pianists that actually went faithfully. These exercises were to help strengthen our backs and help our posture. At least, that is what I remember these classes being about. I struggled during my undergraduate days with eating healthy and exercising. It was always a test of time for me. I would rather put in double hours in the practice room because I could see the importance of that. As I have aged, I have seen how valuable ensuring a proper diet and exercise is to me as a musician. When I exercise regularly, my playing is stronger and more focused. When I eat healthy, everything is better. I still struggle with the time issue but I have seen how it benefits me as a pianist and so make more of an effort to cross it off my to-do list every day.
3. Logging Practice Time Can be Useful. I know that there are times when we feel, as musicians, that we spend so much time practicing and make no progress. Do we actually know how we are spending our time? Are we really being productive? At our university, there was a real lack of pianos to practice on and the piano department kept growing. This made it difficult to practice on a regular schedule and so our practice time had to be arranged by way of scheduling the rooms. When I started as a freshman, we were able to sign ourselves up but eventually she had to schedule us for our practice times. I remember there being a big fight over who would get the 7-9PM or 7-10PM slots. Along the way, I think we as pianists grew a bit lax. We would practice but maybe we weren’t using our time wisely or wouldn’t show up for our scheduled times regularly. So, a piano log was introduced. We were to sign in our times for practicing. It became a bit of a competition – especially between my friend Jodi and myself. Who could get the most time in each week? Looking back, it’s a bit humorous. If we were struggling during a lesson, she would refer to the log and say, “Well, you’ve only practiced [time] hours this week. Maybe you should aim for….” I still log my practice hours each day many years later. It really helps me to see where I am spending my time and how I can make more progress with the time that I am allotted.
4. Socializing is Important. As referenced earlier, so much time is required of music students (and musicians in general). This piano teacher would keep reminding us that it was important we have fun too. We were in college after all. She would also remind us that this fun did not have to happen in the Fine Arts Building….at our “piano corner.” We could hang out with each other outside of our 10-15 minute practice breaks. Such a novel idea!!! Many of my really close friends from college were other pianists just because we went through most of our classes together and spent so much time together. We would go on drives and play name that composer, go to dinner (sometimes very late), make midnight trips to WalMart in the next town 20 minutes away, play pranks on the vocalists and non-music majors, and really just do things that normal students did (well, kind of). During my senior year, we began having PPP Parties. A different person hosted it every month. We had Piano Present Party, Pride & Prejudice Piano Party, Piano Pedro Party, Piano Pedicure Party, and many others. We had fun together but also knew how to push each other to be successful. Yes, our teacher made it to many of these parties. It was a group effort!
5. Sometimes Musical Understanding Comes From a Non-Musical Source. There are more times than not that understanding of a piece comes because of an event outside of the practice room. I remember a pianist friend of mine from college that was struggling with something in a waltz that she was learning. So, how did that get resolved? Well, they waltzed in the middle of her lesson. I was assigned more than once to watch a movie. That is how I came to watch “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and fall in love with that play and movie. It helped me to understand the fantastical elements of the piece that I was working on. Even now, sometimes something will come to mind and this will directly influence my learning and performance of a piece. When in doubt, look elsewhere for inspiration!
I am going to stop there but there are so many things coming to mind. Overall, one of the most important things I learned from my undergraduate piano teacher was that music is a choice. It is full of decisions that need to be made. My pursuit of my music career is a choice. I have not chosen so wisely in the last few years but that changes now. I choose my love, I choose my passion, and I choose it with gusto. Stay tuned for some announcements regarding upcoming performances. They are coming. Are you going to be ready? (haha)
Life is a verb. How are you utilizing this gift we have been given?
Peace and Love (and Good Practicing),
The Mad Pianist