Zen Piano

My Achilles Heel is sight-reading at the keyboard.

It embarrasses me, scares me, and makes me feel like the most clumsy human being on the planet.

I deal with a lot of inner demons with regard to this as well, and I’ve been determined to stick it to ’em. But the trick is identifying who they are exactly.

The ringleader of these demons is like Dug from the movie “Up”: he gives his full, loving attention to the task for a few seconds, and then-SQUIRREL!”


That’s how my brain tends to function when I’m trying to play a simple phrase from Czerny’s “First Instructor of the Piano”…you know, the stuff that sounds like a Goldberg Variations version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”? These exercises have found their way into countless method books for the last hundred years or so; if you had taken piano lessons with books published before 1990, then it’s very likely you’ve run into some Czerny.

Anyway, I’m just playing along, even getting into it a little with phrasing and dynamics-“SQUIRREL!”



I’ve lost my place. I feel like giving up and stopping, and at this point I often start over.

But I’ve been determined to find out what’s wrong with this situation and how I can correct it, because I’m sick of feeling jealous toward the many accompanists I’ve known through the years who seem to be able to sight-read upside-down and backwards while doing a crossword puzzle on the side. (Seriously, that’s how it looks to me sometimes.)

And I’ve figured out what’s wrong with me: Nothing.

My brain has its own rhythm, as does everyone’s. Sometimes it flits around like a butterfly in a garden or a goldfish in a bowl. There’s nothing wrong with that. It has its own rhythm, which can get very flighty and fast sometimes. It’s not a defect; it’s just how I run.

But why does my brain run so erratically sometimes? Not just at the keyboard, I realize, but at the computer when I get distracted…in the comfy chair when I’m trying to meditate…when I’m reading a favorite book and suddenly biting my fingernails…

I sat with this question for a moment before going to bed one night, allowing my brain to slow down and open up to the answer…


Of not measuring up, of not being good enough, of not being perfect. In the eyes of parents, teachers, priests, bosses, directors….

There was this deep-seated fear behind everything that made me inwardly frantic. And here’s the kicker: I actually drew energy from that fear so that I could succeed and win at everything in life. If I let up even once on that frantic energy, I was sure to die. So I ran with it, until it ran on its own; it became my auto-pilot.

Just noticing this has made me calm down a lot.

And knowing that I don’t have to choose to draw my energy from fear anymore.

It’s very Zen when you can just notice the machinery that runs you and acknowledge that all it is, is a machine. It’s not a demon at all, or an uppity dog that loves to interrupt.

And there’s nothing wrong. I’m not going to die if I blow it sight-reading at the keyboard. Roberta, my piano teacher, has praised me up and down for sight-reading work that I felt had too many mistakes in it. I was flabbergasted at her for that, but she maintained her position that I was ready to move on to more challenging exercises. I’m going to believe her from now on.

There’s nothing wrong.

Just let yourself do it. Let yourself jump in, fall down, get back up, and run and leap and stop dead and start again, in whatever you’re doing. It really is only the “monkey-mind” that objects, and it is not YOU.

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2 thoughts on “Zen Piano

  1. Helen says:

    If you want to improve sighting, treat it like learning to read for the first time. Do lots of it. And then sometimes we have to pull out that friend, who seems more like an enemy sometimes: the metronome! 🙂

  2. Ah, the metronome!! It’s certainly my friend, but I’m not a fan of using it for sight reading. I’m worried it might make me even more edgy. I do my best work with it when I’m preparing pieces for performance.

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