Saturday, May 5, 2018

Feeling TImeless

We are often counseled to “live in the moment.” True, it can be very liberating to just be here and now, and not worry about the past or the future. When people tell us to live in the moment, it is to help free us from the burden of these worries and focus on the beauty of today.
            I do not disagree; I have spent a great deal of time trying to develop that skill. But I propose that having a sense of the past, present and future all at once can also be a joyful experience and is quite natural.
            As we go through our days, and move from one event to the next, it appears to us that we are living in the present. We talk about how certain times seem to pass more quickly or more slowly than others, but we almost always perceive time as passing in one direction: past to future, and we are in between, in the now. Even when we say someone is “living in the past,” it’s like we’re saying they are only in one place on the timeline.
Even if time really does go in one direction, and I have my doubts, it’s not really that way in our minds. We travel forward and backward on our timeline in our minds constantly – memory and speculation alive in our thoughts simultaneously.
            For example, when I’m playing a Beethoven sonata, my mind is at once in the present, and also in the past and the future in very important ways.
            The part of me that’s in the present is thinking about:
- the joy of hearing the music as I play it
- the feeling of my fingers pressing the keys firmly and confidently

But at the same time I’m also thinking about:

- the sense of how the piece unfolds from beginning to end. To play it well, I must think about where the music has been, where it’s going, and the story it’s telling
            - memories of my past practices while I was perfecting it, how a section became what I wanted it to be
            - memories of my father, who taught me to love the piano and music
                  (He played the piano I practice on: the past is always present there)
And the most far-reaching of all:

- thoughts of Beethoven, long dead, and what he might have been trying to say
- the knowledge that I am part of a continuous line of teachers and players, each passing along beautiful music over the centuries, as I will pass them along to my students or my audience beyond the biological limits of my life
All these pieces of past, present and future are there in my mind and my playing at once, making the experience beautifully and naturally timeless. It doesn’t have to be Beethoven, or Mozart, or Chopin. It’s the same if I’m playing The Beatles, or Scott Joplin, or Andrew Lloyd Webber. It’s not about the musical genre, and it’s not even about music. In almost everything we do, this is the way our minds work. We are beautifully and naturally in many places in time at once. Not living just in the moment can be a rich and rewarding experience.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Benefit of Getting Older – as Seen Through the Eyes of a Musician

People are always complaining to me about how they don’t like getting older. They complain mostly about physical things like wrinkles, aches and pains, or less stamina. While there is some truth to their complaints (don’t get me started on the value of exercise as we get older!), it seems a shame that we seldom spend time looking at the benefits of getting older. Let’s look at it from another perspective...

Perhaps the most important thing I have learned from studying difficult repertoire on the piano is that there are some things that cannot be accomplished in a short period of time, no matter how hard you work, or how talented you are. Some pieces of music are just so difficult that it may take a few months just to learn all the correct notes, to say nothing of the technique involved in bringing it to life. One of my best examples of this is a piece by Debussy called Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the Rain). It’s ten pages long, very difficult, and it took me a year and a half to learn. I should probably point out that between teaching, performing and writing, I am not able to practice every day and even then not usually more than about two hours. For a concert-level pianist who practices four to six hours every day, a piece like this would not take nearly so long. But that’s not my point. Most of us aren’t concert pianists. I’m talking about what can be achieved over a long period of time. Here's a youtube of it:
( Unfortunately, I don't know who the pianist is, but it's a good version.

My younger students always want to finish practicing a piece so they can move on to a new one. The idea of spending one and a half years working on the same piece would seem like torture to them. They want to be finished and try the next thing. They also want the satisfaction of their teacher’s approval. To me, and to many of my older students, however, it’s not just about finishing something or about approval anymore. It’s about a way of life. Playing the piano is simply what I do, and as the years go by, and I keep practicing, I get better and better at it. The individual pieces are just part of the process.

Much of what we focus on from day to day is geared toward “what’s next?” There is very little attention given to what happens when you spend forty years doing the same thing. I have been playing the piano now for fifty-three years. That’s a really long time to do the same thing. The opportunity to spend decades dedicated to my craft has made it so much a part of me that there are aspects of it I don’t even have to think about; they’ve become automatic. In fact, I barely even remember learning them. This frees me to spend more detailed time on perfecting technique, or, better yet, to focus on expressing the beauty of the music. I wouldn’t have had this opportunity without getting older.

We can apply this perspective not just to the arts, but to many aspects of how we live our lives. The craft of getting along with people, playing tennis, gardening, or managing your time well. As we get older and do these things over and over, we become more adept at them and are free to think of things beyond “just getting all the notes right”.

Well, okay, not always. I’m still working on the time management thing. But decades of life does have its rewards, whether it’s becoming a master painter, or becoming a better teacher, knitter, gardener, or cook.

Of course, you have to apply yourself to these skills over the decades, or the gift of time you’ve been given will be wasted. Sadly, that is just what some people do. But if we put our minds to it, many artistic skills and self-improvement endeavors are things that we can continue to perfect over a lifetime; an ongoing process of growth that, we hope, will go on for as long as we live. Getting older is an opportunity, a gift, a bonus. Hence my mother’s lament at eighty-nine: “It’s not fair. I think I’m just starting to get the hang of life, and now it’s almost over!”

If we do it right, that’s what we’ll all say.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Music, Money and Meaning

When I was a young, struggling musician, I was very self-conscious about how little money I made. Perhaps because our culture is so money oriented, I felt the need to judge my success based on my yearly income. As you can imagine, this was a depressing endeavor. Each year, when Parade Magazine published their list of peoples’ incomes based on occupation, I would peruse the job descriptions, look at the yearly salaries, and feel inadequate.
I also questioned my perseverance and work ethic. I knew some people who used “I’m an artist” as an excuse to not get a job, and it was hard not to wonder if I was just one of those lazy people. I worried that maybe I wasn’t working hard enough. In fact, I was working hard: practicing to hone my craft, hunting for gigs so I could perform, teaching lessons, plus holding down two non-music-related part time jobs to pay my bills. Even then, somehow it felt like I was being lazy if I took time to practice the piano instead of working extra hours at a job I didn’t like, since my piano playing wasn’t generating any income.
As I got older and began to develop a local reputation as a musician, I began to enjoy my work more and more, and I was less hard on myself. But on some level, I still did not feel like I was successful unless I was bringing in lots of money. I kept teaching, performing, and writing, and I wasn’t getting rich. I learned to be savvy about how I managed my finances as a self-employed person, but I never hit the “financial success” bar that I had set for myself.

Then one year I had an interesting experience with a couple of anesthesiologists. They were starting a barbershop quartet with some fellow workers and wanted me to coach them, since none of them were professional musicians. One day I made a disparaging remark about how little money I made in comparison to them, and how I envied their financial freedom. At the time they were probably each making six times the yearly salary I was. Both of them immediately hurried to say, “Oh, no, we totally envy you! You are your own boss. We have to jump through all these institutional hoops where we work. We’d give anything to have your job – a working freelance musician!” I was taken aback. How could they envy me? That, and other similar incidents, started to make me think differently about the money.

Somewhere in my forties, I began to realize that if I had really wanted the money, I would’ve found a way to make it. Although I hadn’t realized it at the time, I had always been more interested in the work I was doing, and the quality of the work, than in the size of my paycheck. And I suspect that if the anesthesiologists had really wanted to be musicians instead of doctors, they probably would have been.

I finally realized that I am content to pay my bills and be joyful in my work. That is success. So many people can’t say that. I have the privilege of making a living doing what I love. I get to share the joy of music with people every day. Not only do I get to perform all kinds of music I love for people who appreciate it, but I get to help other people learn to play beautiful music and develop their own musical skills. It is a very cool way to live. And after all these years and all the hard work, it still feels like a gift.

We should pay attention to the things that we want to do, are highly motivated to do, and that we actually do. These are the things we should devote our lives to, and what will give them meaning. Sometimes we choose the right path without realizing it.

Peace and good harmony,

Thursday, January 9, 2014

New Year's Resolutions - a Different Perspective

At this time of year, many people resolve to change their lives for the better. They make resolutions about how they are going to act, think, and, of course, eat better. And they are so consistently unsuccessful that it has become a joke. Yet we still do it every year. Why? Because we believe that we can be better people, accomplish more, and be all the things we hope to be. That’s surely a good thing. But our traditional way can be frustrating, so I propose something completely different. Bear with me for the next few paragraphs, and I will explain what I mean.
Imagine yourself at piano lessons: Each week you play your assignments for your teacher. When you finally perfect those pieces, your teacher assigns new ones. Generally the new ones are a little harder or incorporate new techniques and styles, so that you will continue to grow as a pianist. But from your perspective, when you try to evaluate how you are doing or what you have achieved, it seems like you have made no progress to the next level because each new assignment is just as hard as the last one.
During lessons, I always try to point out to my students where they have done well, and which new techniques they are mastering successfully. But even with that encouragement, some of them still feel like they’re not getting any better. When this happens, I encourage them to go back and review some pieces they worked on a year ago. Because they have, in fact, improved, those pieces are now easier for them. They usually come back to me and say, “Oh, my gosh, I remember thinking I’d never get through this piece, and now it seems so easy!”

Then when I say, “Yes, look how far you’ve come,” they believe me. They need to be reminded how they felt a year ago in order to have the proper perspective on the present and see that they have been growing and improving.

Life is like piano lessons: each time we learn something new, it opens up possibilities for us to move and grow further, but we always have to work the same amount to keep growing. One of the reasons we fail to recognize our own achievements is that we don’t stop and take the perspective I suggest to my students.
For example, in 1992, I was not a full-time musician, nor had I recorded any CDs. I felt like I was unsuccessful, so I was unhappy with myself because I hadn’t achieved these things. I thought: If I were a full-time musician, plus had a CD already recorded, I would be happy and successful.
Some years later, I had the occasion to remember that thought. It was 2002, ten years later, and I was a full-time musician and I had two CDs recorded. And you know what? I still didn’t feel happy or successful. I felt just as unhappy and unsuccessful as I had in 1992. The problem wasn’t what I was doing or what I had or hadn’t achieved. The problem wasn’t even how I defined “success;” the problem was how I perceived myself and my progress. I had thought the achievements would make me feel better about myself, but they didn’t.
We carry certain beliefs about ourselves, like “I don’t practice enough,” or “I’ve always been lazy.” We evaluate our progress based on these beliefs and perceptions. They often stay with us over the years, no matter what we have done or learned, and subsequently we don’t notice our own improvements. Often, too, like the experience of my students, each new achievement is just as hard as the last, and so it appears as though nothing is changing.
So how do we learn to evaluate our achievements, and ourselves, in a healthy manner?  One way is to get into the habit of periodically looking over the last year, like I counsel my students to do. That perspective can help us to see the reality of our own growth.
So instead of New Year’s resolutions, I propose a different exercise: At the end of the year, make a list of all the things that you accomplished over the past year; how you’ve grown, the good things you have done. Then look back over the last five or ten years. I guarantee it will make you feel better about yourself, and perhaps inspire you to continue to progress in the next year.

Review your past to honor your present and inspire your future.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Greetings! Now that I finally have a week when I don't have a gig, I can take the time to post a blog. This one is the first chapter of my forthcoming book Keys to Life: Life's Lessons Learned at the Piano. Not all of the blogs will be chapters, but I thought I'd start off with one everyone could relate to. 


1 - Feeling Good about Yourself
The thing that becomes true about you is the thing you think most often.
                                                                                 - Kenny Werner, Effortless Mastery

The other day a student walked into my studio, plunked herself down on the bench, and stated, “I’ve decided that I’ll never be good at playing the piano and I should just quit, because I’m wasting my time.” It was true that she was not doing well. She was a beginner, an eighteen-year-old college student, only two months into lessons, and had been timid and uncertain from the start.
As I thought about what to say to her, I reviewed her lessons in my mind. The interesting thing was that it was not her playing that was really so bad, it was how she felt about her playing that was bad. Her lack of self-confidence was apparent in every note she played. It was clearly time to address this.
            "Sandy, I said, "may I be totally honest with you?" She nodded. "Your problem is the way you're approaching the music. Your attitude. I'll bet when you sit down to practice, you think to yourself, 'I'll never be very good at this,' or 'I don't have any talent,' don't you?"
            She looked at me as though I was a mind reader. "How did you know that?"
“Because it shows in your playing,” I responded. “Describe your practice to me.”
“Well, usually my boyfriend is there, too, and he makes faces when I make a mistake. If my Dad’s home, he hollers at me from the next room when I make a mistake.” I stared at her, aghast at the extent of people’s insensitivity.
            “No, no, no,” I said. “You are not allowed to practice that way this week. First of all, you must practice alone. No one can focus on practicing if there’s someone close by criticizing. It’s distracting. And in your case, they are only reinforcing your negative feelings about yourself. Second, I want you to give yourself different messages when you sit down to practice. If you keep telling yourself that you’re a failure, it will be true. Don’t you see what you’re doing? You’re not just practicing your lesson; you’re practicing feeling bad about yourself.”
She stared at me, surprised. “I never thought about it that way.”
“I want you to practice feeling good about yourself. Say things like, ‘I can do this,’ and ‘If I just work hard I know I’ll improve,’ and ‘I’m so glad I’m finally doing this.’”
She looked at me skeptically, “Well, okay.”
When she returned the following week, before she began to play I asked if she had practiced her attitude. She beamed at me and said, “Yes, and I managed to practice alone every time but once!” She was eager to play her lesson for me and show me what she had accomplished. It was much better. Not only did she play her assignments well, but she played them with self-confidence.
Most of us have been giving ourselves negative messages for years. It stands to reason that permanent change takes time, too. However, you can see the results of positive messages almost instantly, and each time you reinforce it, you will believe it more fully.

Feeling good about yourself takes practice.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Music and Meditations - Introduction

Welcome to Music and Meditations!

This is a blog about music: playing music, listening to music, thinking about music, and how music affects our lives. I hope you’ll come back and read the posts and share your own thoughts and experiences. Part of my intent is to get a discussion started about anything relating to music.  

A little background about me: I’ve been playing the piano and singing since before I can remember. I’ve played the guitar since I was eleven. I started performing as soon as an opportunity presented itself. I've been teaching piano for 30 years, and guitar and voice for almost as long. Throughout those years I’ve developed a number of ideas and philosophies about music (piano in particular, but not exclusively), and about how we live and grow with music as a part of our lives. Inspired by these ideas, some years ago I started writing a book called Keys to Life: Life’s Lessons Learned at the Piano. But not all of my ideas would fit into the book. That’s part of why I started this blog, as a forum for my other thoughts.
So sometimes the blog will be an excerpt from my book, sometimes it will be a rumination or discovery about music and people, sometimes it will be a link to a youtube clip of something I found fascinating, and sometimes it will be a neat quote I found about music or musicians.

Since I’m a pianist, guitarist, singer, performer and teacher, my ideas and experiences naturally center around those activities, but I hope they will apply to other musicians as well as music lovers in general.

So stay, read, comment. It is good that you came.



If you would like to learn more about me, please visit my other sites:


Earthshine: a poetry journal
(Sally Zaino/Julie Moffitt co-editors)