This post was originally shared on September 28th, 2013
I can remember my first piano lesson like it was yesterday. I was eight years old and shy by my mother’s side entering a white New England church where I would continue to take lessons throughout my teenage years. To ignite my enthusiasm to play, my teacher sifted through a pile of colourful sheet music and demonstrated a few measures from potential recital pieces. The intention was that I would work on one over the next few months until it was ready to perform. I impulsively chose a piece entitled Old Time Train Ride and not only for the jolly drawing on the cover. It had an upbeat tempo that became livelier as the piece progressed and left me eager to get home to practice it.
I grew up in a musical household so the piano was already familiar to me. My dad is a trombonist and at the time was teaching general music at a public middle school. As the youngest of three daughters, I was not the first to take up a musical instrument nor the first to recruit my dad when it came to all things technical, musical and practical (mom was person in point for all things emotional, financial and menstrual). Perhaps it’s because I was the youngest that I had developed impatience to grow up like my sisters and to prove myself. I started school at a younger age and even got my ears pierced ahead of my older sister (a bitter point to this day), and therefore I was determined to learn to play the piano as quickly as possible too. This ‘Old Time Train’ was not going to be chugging along under my fingertips. I set upon learning the entire piece (not the few measures I was assigned) before my second lesson.
It was not a pretty process. Tears were shed. Frustration abounded. And I got upset with my dad for not understanding my haste. I remember the pain (of both parties) as I pushed myself to achieve at a faster rate than was healthy. I showed up to my second lesson and performed the entire piece by heart (at twice the speed) for my teacher who was anything but impressed. I somehow managed to miss the most important lesson that one can gain from learning an instrument: patience is the key to progress.
My punishment? The metronome. Even worse? Residual stress from having pushed myself (and my Dad’s patience) to the limits. I didn’t know it then, but rushing and racing against time is a mistake I would continue to make throughout my younger years with the same result of fatigue and anxiety, leaving frustrated family members and friends in my wake. If only I understood the concept of time the way I do now, all of that stress could have been avoided.
If you’re not familiar with the instrument that is the metronome, then let me draw a comparison for you. Have you ever sat in a quiet room with a ticking clock? A reminder that time is passing by that can fade to silence if you are busy or become annoyingly audible if you’re bored? A metronome is like that but rather than moving time forward it has no destination. It’s a clicking contraption whose sole purpose is to set a pace for your playing. If you speed up or slow down, you’ll notice the offbeat clicking. If you play in time, the beat of the metronome blends with your playing. And thus you learn to count, in time, to a set tempo and it’s a tedious process. Especially for those of us who want to race towards the finish line. You become consciously aware of time and its limitations and that can be painful for the hares among us.
It’s no surprise then that I resisted the metronome and it’s arrogant tempo. It’s also no surprise that I continued to choose piano pieces that were challenging and frenetic in their energy – and sounded better when played loudly and at a fast pace. Until I was dually ‘punished’ with Bach and soon realised that, in order to play the most impressive sounding of pieces requiring agile fingering, once must have the anchor of a steady beat. There must be composure in the background before you can move at speed and not falter. In short, I had to learn to count and obey an imposed tempo. And with this, I had to get to the root of the problem and learn to keep a steady beat pulsing through all parts of my life to maintain my inner pace.
It took many years of making the same mistake and several years of developing a yoga practice to wake me up to ‘rushing’ as being the key hindrance in my life to getting ahead and staying well. And I had to fall first. In fact, I hurt my back from practicing advanced yoga poses at a fast pace that my body couldn’t handle. The pain was so horrible that it turned a bright neon light on in my head that I would never forget. It read: SLOW DOWN. It was at that point that I decided to train to teach yoga – I wanted to take a big step back to see the bigger picture, starting at the beginning and taking baby steps.
You may have already experienced this for yourself but the greatest beauty of a yoga practice is discovering how you can use your breath as a tool to move better, feel calm and clear your head. As a yoga teacher, I spend the majority of my time reminding people to breathe. To consciously breathe. Because we hardly do this throughout our days and lives if we don’t have some kind of meditative movement practice – for me that is yoga and (now) that is piano playing. Both work better when done calmly and both remind me (and allow me) to breathe.
A conscious yoga practice and a piano practice have very similar lessons to share. I remember my teacher GéNIA, the creator of Piano-Yoga®, giving me the advice to always ever practice up to a point that leaves you craving to play again tomorrow. What Genia was reminding me of was the power in standing up to your desire to move ahead at a fast pace and challenging it by slowing down instead. You can practice this with anything. Draft your to-do list. Does it make your heart race? Now chop it in half, then carve it down to 5 things and go about doing them slowly and consciously. No doubt the result will be a less stressed you and more quality results, in due time.
Now I play with slowing down time and rather than it being a punishment, it’s a gift. It’s the best permission I can give myself when things feel like they are moving at a rapid pace. I set time free and somehow time becomes limitless. I do this in yoga, I do this with piano and I do this with responding to emails. I do this with eating, with commuting, with ticking of my to-do list. I slow down. I find my inner pace. And I can breathe.