A Note to the Reader:
This post was difficult to work through and write. Although I outline and brainstorm posts weeks in advance, I actually sit down and write them in the few days before I send them out into the world. My life doesn't exist in a vacuum (other than physically in our apartment most of the time these days, of course) and I am fully aware of the happenings in the world at this time. As the daily struggle with anxiety and abnormalities goes on into the next day, I have presented myself with the the following question with increasing frequency regarding The Running Pianist:
"Does this even matter?"
It is a question which has stunted my productivity and crushed my morale at times, but I now have an answer which began as a whisper and is becoming stronger every day:
"Yes, this matters a great deal because of what it represents."
As our whole way of life has been changed, the current uncertainty in our lives can be suffocating. In the extra time spent at home, I have been practicing and creating music more than before, but despite the abundance of time and restless energy, I have been far less active and have been running much less than even a month ago. This is because a certain part of my spirit has felt completely trapped by the current pandemic and my energy has been put towards anxiety, caring for my family, and trying to care for myself. What I have been missing though, is that we need to continue doing that which keeps us most centered on ourselves. (As I wrote this last sentence, it sounded eerily familiar and I returned to my previous post to find my own words staring at me from the screen). My writing of The Running Pianist represents our need to continue to pursuing that which we are most passionate about and which gives our days meaning.
Two of my strongest centering focuses in life are music and running, but I know that everyone has their own parts of life which make them feel most rewarded and like themselves. As I continue to focus on the activities which sustain me, I hope that you too will reach out through an activity which you may have been neglecting because of the mass of anxiety which can hit hard these days. If you are a painter, paint. If you are a writer, write. Watch the birds, work in your garden, spend time reading, learn and be curious - whatever it is that helps you feel most like yourself, do it. Goodness knows we need all of the centering stability we can get.
I am wishing for you health, warmth, and inspiration through these uncertain times.
Trusting in the Process
In It For The Long-Run
Some activities in life are blissfully easy for most of us. Brushing our teeth, putting on a hat, or watching a movie are activities which don't cause us much grief and there is arguably a limit to how well we can do these things. There are other skills which take extended and consistent daily practice over years to master. Both running and music fall into the latter category. As I have mentioned in previous posts, it is completely attainable and respectable
to simply go for a short run once in a while, or to appreciate music without making it your life's pursuit, but what I will be diving into here is for those of us who consistently want to improve and master, to a certain degree, these two activities.
My experience has been that the training required for both of these pursuits is remarkably similar in many respects. The daily work and attention required mirror each other as do the challenges, fatigue, difficult days, and rewards. They both require consistent work and development and neither music nor running can be successfully crammed at the last moment.
They also share the sometimes discouraging periods of time in which it is difficult to "see the forest for the trees". The sensation of getting bogged down and losing direction is not unique to running or music and it creeps up in any long-term development which requires daily incremental work. Processes with longer time-frames require certain amounts of time to pass in order to experience results, but there are a few ideas which can help to guide us when the dark days arrive.
Patience and Trust
Patience can be a very different thing to people with differing personalities and at different stages of life. I consider myself to be a very patient and carefully meticulous person most of the time, but try asking my toddler daughter to wait just a few minutes for her food to cool before she can eat it and she will show you just how impatient a person can be. It's a relative quality which depends a great deal on experience.
Certainly personality plays an integral part in the equation as well, but experience can direct and teach the patience a person retains and how they are able to hold onto it in a particular activity. If you know the results that your current work will yield and have lived through those results and the satisfaction they brought, you will be much more likely to trust in the process which you know will benefit you in the end.
I have found that patience can be indirectly injected into your training or practice via other channels as well.
Those with obsessive tunnel-vision have a sort of built-in patience out of necessity. I'm not saying it's a completely healthy behaviour, but it does allow one to continually work at tasks which others would find tedious and to follow them through to an ideal result.
Trusted mentors or teachers can present their experiences and the processes which they have found most useful and successful. This instils a kind of learned experience into a pupil who may draw on the example of their teacher to inspire the patience in the process with which they are involved.
Time off, or recovery time, can also have a major impact on the amount and quality of patience which we retain. A bit of distance from our driven focus can provide a sense of perspective which we can visualize when in the thick of intense periods of practice or training.
From wherever our patience comes, it is key in long-term development. Drawing from an assortment of experience, mentors, and personality can help us diversify our approach and weather the storms when they inevitably come. The constant work which endeavours such as music and running require need a strong basis of patience and trust in the process to help sustain us for the distance.
Trusting in the Musical Process
Throughout my musical training I have been presented on several occasions with various iterations of the following quote which has been attributed to, among others: pianist/composer Franz Liszt, pianist Anton Rubinstein, composer Hans von Bulow, pianist/composer Ignacy Jan Paderewski, and violinist Jascha Heifetz.
" If I miss one day’s practice, I notice it. If I miss two days’ practice, the critics notice it. If I miss three days’ practice, the public notices it."
Origin aside, this statement reveals a great deal about the relation of practice to performance quality and also to the intense and meticulous mentality within a performer regarding their own playing. Whether or not this statement is accurate depends greatly on many factors including the performer, repertoire, experience, and who exactly the critics and audience members are, but that's not entirely relevant. What is more important is the learned and shared desire for professional musicians to keep the wheel spinning and to always continue pushing to become better in their art.
This sort of self-inflicted drive can have enormous benefits, but the tricky part for many musicians is learning the balance. If the above quote is taken too literally, it can drive a person mad. Humans need rest and musicians need breaks to recover from periods of intense and stressful activity. I will diverge from this particular topic for now because I have future posts in the works dedicated to both avoiding burnout and rest/sleep. Short answer: rest is important.
Have A Plan
Planning comes in many forms and is a very personal undertaking. I once had a fellow graduate student who would schedule out their practice time at the piano down to 15 minute intervals for the entire semester, including how long she would work on specific passages throughout her repertoire. That sort of rigidity would drive me bonkers as I need a lot more flexibility and fluidity in my work process. I find a plan that firm to be too constricting, but it worked for her, and she was a fine pianist. The only time I might ever implement a plan that detailed is if I were coming back from an injury, or preemptively avoiding intense fatigue. Even then, I would probably keep it a little looser.
That being said, there exists an ever-running plan in my mind regarding pieces and challenges which I most need to address. This can change from day to day, but the need for some sort of planned direction is imperative. The plan can, and should, be multi-leveled with longer-term preparation for performances and recordings being realized by shorter-term goals, small steps, and daily tasks. Successful planning to this degree takes a certain amount of experience and deep knowledge of our capabilities & limits and it is forever a developing process which will only become more refined the longer it is implemented.
It is paramount in long-term training to continually focus on that which is weakest. Difficult technical, and interpretive, musical passages always require more consistent attention and focus just as a runner when training should always strive to improve upon their weaknesses.
Self-assessment, when implemented in a healthy manner, can be invaluable in the steady development of a skill. If you are the type of person to always strive for improvement and mastery of any activity, look for qualities which can be tracked and track them. Whether that be times/distances/paces in running, or recording yourself playing your instrument, it is important to check in once in a while and to take note of progress. It is easy to get bogged down in the daily process and to see/hear yourself playing a piece from when you first began learning it can provide a huge boost of self-provided encouragement as well as direction moving forward.
Record yourself and your progress regularly in whatever long-term activity you are involved. I used to consider this sort of trail-marking a luxury which I would, "get to when I have the time", but I now know the importance it can have for me. Self-assessment can wipe away ambiguous doubt, or at least provide concrete direction as I progress and learn. The technology present for these sorts of things is developing at a staggering pace and I fully believe we should make use of this technology as we can.
Running apps are plentiful and can tell you anything you would want to know about a run. Simply taking a cursory glance at the data from runs gone by can give a quick boost of knowledge to help your development even as a casual runner. Similarly, it is now more accessible than ever before for musicians to records themselves easily and well. Whenever I build up the courage to watch a bit of a practice session, I am able to disengage from the physicality and notice any number of aspects of my playing and the repertoire which I can improve upon. This sort of self-assessment can work wonders!
As a student I often felt as though I didn't have the time for this sort of thing as I was fiercely driving through every moment that I had, but now that I have a toddler at home where I practice, I realize that I certainly had plenty of time for this sort of thing in my university days. As tricky as it is sometimes, I now make time for it and appreciate the value it provides in my musical journey.
Soak in Success
One of the lessons which it has taken me the longest to learn is to celebrate and revel in my musical successes. This is a difficult behaviour for many musicians to adopt because throughout our schooling most of us are always pushing to become better, having our weaknesses pointed out so that we can improve upon them, and are constantly looking up to those we admire and whose qualities we strive to emulate.
This is not necessarily the
fault of our educators and teachers because as a teacher I know the mindset which we can slip into with wanting our students to improve their playing and method of learning. We as musicians focus on the things we can strengthen and end up under-acknowledging that which we do well. This is not to say we should shift the focus too far to our strengths as that can have a negative affect on our inner drive and attention to detail, but a simple acknowledgement of something we do well can go a long way in giving us motivation.
I have so rarely been completely content with a performance. I have certainly been very happy with and proud of a performance, but there's almost always a feeling and a need to edge on and improve some aspect or approach. This doesn't drag me down as it did at times in my studies, because as I have steadily improved and developed, I have begun reflecting and looking backwards more frequently at my previous work either in appreciation for beautiful moments, or in acknowledgement of how much I have improved. Simply noticing improvements can help in laying the groundwork for future development.
What constitutes a musical success? Well, that is unique to each musician in their own development with their own set of standards, but successes can be at several levels, from the smallest technical detail to a larger appreciation of a musical form. Even an "easy" day when you really enjoy the process with everything you do can be considered a success, because goodness knows there are hard days as well.
As a runner, a particularly successful run can build up my simple self-confidence and have a positive impact on the rest of my life, including my musical work. Easily recognizable running successes include completing a distance, or running for a certain period of time. These are very satisfying checkpoints and can help support less-recognizable accomplishments like addressing a fault in your technique, keeping a focused mind-set throughout a run, or working between runs to strengthen and centre your body.
Hard Days & Hard Thoughts
There will be hard days, there will be difficult moments, and there will be times that feel like no progress is being made. There will. It is important to recognize this and to fully acknowledge it so that when you are in the midst of one of those moments, you can provide yourself with a light to head towards and which will give you some hope. Outside of just athletics and music, there are intense challenges with any skill that takes a lifetime of daily work. Enter inspirational quote here. Simple phrases/quotes which over-simply complex issues don't sit well with me and I cringed at many of the quotes I considered putting in here. I will instead take a slightly divergent route:
"...whoever makes good progress in the beginning has all the more difficulties later on."
-from Zen in the Art of Archery
This is taken from a curious and stimulating book which I recommend picking up at some point. It's one I revisit from time to time, gaining different insight each time. My main take-away from this particular line is that the difficulties in your pursuits will exist at some point, either early or late, and it is important to recognize that with challenges comes learning and growth. Whenever I am struggling or in a seemingly stunted, frustrated state with practicing, I try to remind myself that the darkness is temporary and I am learning with experience all the while. Everyone goes through challenges at some point and to remind ourselves of this can help in pushing on.
From one who is always too hard on themselves: don't be too hard on yourself, but instead be just as hard on yourself as you need to be. When those hard days hit, do what you can, even if it's not what you had planned. Work within your energy and work within your limits. Be realistic, but challenge yourself and always remind yourself of your motivation and your reasons for doing that which you are doing.
A Hopeful Tangent
I am starting a new final segment to my posts for the indefinite future, as long as this world pandemic directly affects us. I'm guessing we could all use a pick-me-up daily, and I simply want to provide a piece of music, or a story, or a profile which I have found calming, inspiring, beautiful, or uplifting. I won't write much else about it, but simply provide another tangent that you can follow which will hopefully provide a bit of light in your day.
If you have any comments or ideas for future topics, please write below - I'm always up for suggestions! You can also subscribe to The Running Pianist Newsletter with your email here, and check me out on Instagram here.
Coming Up Next: 06. "Sleep & Rest"