Sunday, June 9, 2013

Music Lesson

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Yesterday I played with the elementary school choir for the last time as they sang in a music festival up in Tacoma, Washington.  This gave me a new reason to worry about my performance—I didn’t want a bad accompanist to detract from the choir’s performance.  It would be nice if I could say I practiced and practiced, but the truth is that I didn’t.  My busy schedule, my annoyance with the choir director & the super short practices, my fun new music that I’d rather work on; all of these things kept me from choosing to spend any extra time on the choir accompaniment. 

As we went through the song last week I noted in my mind the two places in the hardest song (4 sharps are my nemesis!) and resolved to give them extra attention.  I went over them a few times there at the school when the practice was over, but no more.  This week during the practice I watched and again these two places were a little weak.  There were also some notes I wanted to be able to add in on the introduction and I wished I could play the ending with a little more zest and some octaves as well.  Friday night right before bed I finally went into the piano and worked for a while on the song.  (One of the beauties of a digital piano.)  I worked through those sections until I could add the extra notes into the intro, play the key change without missing a note, and hit the octaves in the last two measures.  I went to bed feeling like I would be able to play these parts much better than I had before.


We warmed up at noon in an stuffy basement room in the high school.  The grand piano played beautifully.  So I was surprised when we walked across the patio area to the other building where the performances were and found that the piano on the stage was a humble (and old) spinet.  Not only was the piano old, but there was no bench—just a regular metal folding chair.  (Chairs are usually not the correct height for playing the piano, and this one was definitely lower than a bench would have been.)  I was disconcerted but began the warmup song.


The next song was the hard one.  I watched the music teacher beat off a measure to give me the tempo, and then I started the introduction.  Almost immediately I could tell that I was not going to be able to play those extra notes on the introduction.  Once the intro was over and we were into a part of the song I was more comfortable with I felt like I could relax a little, but before too long we came to one of the hard parts.  It went ok, but I definitely wasn’t able to play it the way I’d practiced the night before.  They key change came and I held it together, but again not nearly as well as I’d practiced.  And the ending?  I played the ending the same way I’ve been playing it for weeks.  Safe, with no octaves.

I played fine.  There were a few small mistakes but no glaring errors, a performance I can definitely be satisfied with.  And yet I wondered—I practiced these parts last night, why couldn’t I add any of them into my performance today?


Then I realized.  When crunch time came, when the stress was high and the adrenaline was pumping, my brain couldn’t remember and process that new skill that I had had just added.  Instead it defaulted back to the well grooved paths, telling my hands to play the way I had been playing for the last 3 months.  No matter how much I had practiced the last night, I just could not re-program my brain well enough to play differently once I was under that much stress.


And then I thought about how much like the rest of life this is.  We may have all kinds of hopes and expectations about rising to the occasion, but the truth of the matter is that when crunch time comes, we default to we know best.  Which makes the counsel of our church leaders to be living the principles of the gospel daily and practicing good habits as we go along even more important.  Because when crunch time comes in my life, I want those important parts to be completely grooved in.  Which is far more important than extra notes or octaves in a finale…


PS—the info about how we don’t actually “rise to the occasion” but instead default to what we know best came from the fascinating book “Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool.”


  1. Yes! I know what you're talking about... I've had the same thoughts several times before. I am nowhere near as good as a pianist as you are, so I had to work hard even as the primary pianist :) and definitely noticed that when I practiced the way I wanted to be able to play it, it got easier and easier and easier - and I remember the week before one of the programs, wishing I could add just a bit more, but I knew that I couldn't change anything so close to the program and have it go over well - even if I could play the changes well that whole week. Interesting...

  2. Oh - and I love the point of this post... that we can then stretch that experience to the other, more meaningful aspects of our lives.

  3. Good Advice! Learning about the piano the last two years w/ Cali has taught me a lot. Especially how the hard work required for music does transfer over to other aspects of life! I catch myself telling Cali all the time, when she is frustrated she's not good at something, you have to do things frequent to become good at them. Would you be as good at piano if you only practiced one day a week? I will have to hear you play sometime. You and Cindy Lynn should play something at a family party! Cali and I would love that. :) Don't know if you guys would.

  4. And you can blame it on the lack of a bench because playing on a folding chair REALLY doesn't help one play to your best ability. :)