When goals get in the way

Could it be that I’m in love with practicing piano for the first time in my life?

Oh, I’ve done a lot of regular practicing in my lifetime, but never like this – gingerly floating through Hanon exercises and pages upon pages of beginner’s pieces without a care in the world, just enjoying the discovery of what my hands can do, and how good it feels.  It’s enjoyable and happy – what the hell?!

This happened after I read The Practicing Mind by Thomas M. Sterner. I bought it because I was convinced I had a perennial self-discipline problem. I always hated practicing at the keyboard; I resented it, it was frustrating, and I couldn’t keep my attention on it. Oh, I had absorbed a ton of musical knowledge from my piano teacher when I was young, but I couldn’t sit still long enough to play and master something and feel good about it. I would start and quit and start and quit and start and quit. And the last time I quit, my parents said, “Ok, but this time, it’s for good.”

Then after a few years away from music, I discovered the joy of singing in high school, and all I had to do to get up to speed in Chamber Choir was remember all those theory bits from my earliest days at the piano. It worked; the knowledge stuck with me. Then in college, once I decided to become a professional musician of some kind, I decided to try piano lessons again. I figured, “I’m an adult now; practicing should be easier and better because I know what’s at stake here.”

Yeah right.

I was back on the start-and-quit program, which was to last me throughout my young adult life.

Here’s the thing. Every time I’ve decided as an adult to seriously take up the piano again, it has failed, but not in the same way it failed for me as a child. Back then, I had nothing at stake; but as an adult, I had everything at stake, and that was the killer. My thought pattern was, “I’ll never be as good as I’m supposed to be. I’m a fraud and a fake because now music is my profession and it just seems like hypocrisy for me not to play well. I’ll never be able to sight-read. I needed to learn this years ago; I’ll never catch up.” You’d think that having a goal of being a competent enough player to sight-read at the instrument and accompany singers in most situations would be a great motivator to spur me on to practice, but it wasn’t. Those thoughts derailed me every time. No matter who was my teacher, no matter what method I used, it just wasn’t going to happen like that. I would always be stopped by this unattainable goal.

Enter Sterner’s book. Now, reading this book did not seem like the huge revelation I thought it would be. I thought it would give me something I never had before. But not really; it was full of the wisdom of Eastern philosophies that I was already familiar with: enjoy the process, don’t get so hung up on the results, take a Zen approach to your practice, just be in the now, and so on. Reading that, I was thinking, “I know, I know! I’ve heard all that before! Give me something NEW!” But the new revelation did not happen while I was reading the book. I had read it all in one sitting and the lightning bolt never struck…until after I had set the thing down.

Many times I’ve touted having goals as a motivator for your practicing; it seems like such obvious advice, and it seems to work for a lot of people. But having a goal is one thing; keeping on the path towards it is ENTIRELY another.

After I set the book down, my thoughts drifted back to the time I took up singing seriously in high school. I was spurred on by the choir teacher telling me – prophetically – “you should be in choir.” I followed that out of curiosity, and with an inner knowing that I could sing and enjoy it. I wasn’t thinking about a career or winning contests. I didn’t formulate this big goal in my head that I would be a top-tier vocal student. I wasn’t thinking of being able to sight-sing or harmonize or build a whole skill set as a singer. I didn’t formulate a detailed picture of singing success and map out a plan to get there. None of that mattered. All I did was join the choir.

Over time, my sight-singing skills developed as a by-product of just singing a lot and following my musical curiosity. The only times I experienced disappointment in my singing abilities was when I set hard goals and didn’t meet them. When I simply followed my heart, the skills followed right along. I just kept on singing every day, because we had choir every day and being in choir with all my friends doing great music was just the best time I ever had in high school.

There was only the thought of “I want to do this.” There was never the thought of, “I have to do this,” except whenever I obsessed over reaching a goal.

And I never obsessed over goals more than all the times I clawed my way toward some upright Yamaha in a hot room the size of a closet with nothing but my sense of immanent failure.

The realization of all this hit me like a ton of bricks.

So what now – if all that goes away? Holy wowsers. I can return to the piano – I can embrace it again for the first time. I’m going to completely throw out my old goals, including that of sight-reading. Because I never learned sight-singing that way – why should I learn it that way at the keyboard? Every time I try it, I get frustrated and disappointed because I can’t do it all right now.

I get hung up on the product and think nothing of the process, as Sterner suggests time and again.

So I’m letting go. I’m going to think of piano practice not as a career-builder and something I should have done years ago, but as an opportunity to explore something new and see where it leads. I’m going to re-enter the Beginner’s Mind I had when I was in school, just discovering the possibilities of music and what I loved about it. I want to re-visit that place at the piano to just fall in love with the sound and the feel of it, expecting nothing.

It feels like a great weight has fallen away. I get to come to the piano with nothing, and expect nothing in return except just some quality time with the instrument and my little method books, like John Thompson’s First Grade Book. The first piece in that book is called Music Land: “Off I go to music land / Training ear and eye and hand.” It’s eight measures of whole and half notes, but that’s not all. Next to the grand staff there’s a line drawing of two children mounting the first step on a long, windy staircase. We don’t see the top of the staircase; we don’t know where Music Land is, or what it looks like, or if it’s even a place at all. Maybe in music there is no ultimate destination; there is just the path.

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