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.


  1. Having attended many recitals by piano performance majors at Syracuse (ok, it was university-mandated attendance, but still…), I can unequivocally say the best performance I ever saw was you playing and singing “Out Here On My Own” for my grandparents in my mom’s living room. I know – not exactly Debussy – but 35+ years later, the impression is still there.

  2. Nice post! I think we get a sense of confidence that we are doing things the way they're meant to be done, too. After all these years of wondering, should I do this or that, what is the best way - we stop stressing about that & just do things.