There is a real beauty that shows itself whenever we make music.
It’s not something that arises only once a piece or song is ‘completed’ or ‘perfected’.
It’s there every time we go to make a sound.
If we think of our music practice only in terms of heading towards some imagined end-point, we are truly missing out.
Life is short. Music is a precious gift.
There is ‘No Time to Rush.’
I sit down to practise. I let out a little sigh. I’m tired. It feels like there’s quite a lot I’ve got to do. I’m not sure my brain is up to it. But the piece won’t finish itself. If I do 15 minutes, then that’ll be better than nothing, and I can finally take a break.
Unfortunately, this is a real-life account from my own music practice from the past.
When my mind is working like this, the music isn’t going anywhere particularly great! My energy and concentration are low. Yet still I plough on, lethargically repeating tricky sections of notes, not really noticing any improvements, potentially adding in many more errors, and barely enjoying the experience. As a teenager and in my 20s, I used to play a lot like this. I even used to practise in discomfort and pain, sometimes in my back, sometimes in my arms or neck. I thought that it would at least mean that I had ‘done’ something towards finishing a piece, or becoming a better musician. I thought pain was necessary to reach my goals.
I can tell you where it ended up: severe repetitive strain injury in both arms, and years spent not being able to play the piano or any instrument without shooting pains in my arms.
It was a really difficult time, musically and creatively.
But what drew me back to the piano after all that time was actually my first encounter with mindfulness practice.
I remember a rather life-changing moment that came about as I was listening to a podcast presented by renowned mindfulness teacher Tara Brach. The podcast guided listeners through a reflection of ‘what matters’. We were invited to consider the things in our lives that really mattered to us: friends, family, loved-ones, our creativity… the people, places, and activities that we hold most dear.
I have to say that I immediately thought of the piano (and my Mum, of course, of course!).
For years, the piano had been calling to me to play. But I was too scared to work with the discomfort, and felt that I had slipped too far back in my practice to make it worthwhile. I would surely never be able to play properly again, I thought.
But Tara Brach’s podcast helped me remember that playing the piano really, really mattered to me, and that a deep part of me simply wished I would play for its own sake. It was a yearning from inside.
When I did sit down again, I remember struggling to read the notes I had taken years to learn. My movements were slow and clumsy. There was pain and tension.
But somehow I kept going where in the past I had stopped. Because I now knew that just sitting and playing the piano was the thing that was important to me.
I became much less concerned with ‘being good’ and more invested in trying to figure out what had gone so wrong in my practice to lead me to stop altogether. After a few years of trial, error and reflection, and having worked out quite a few technical issues, I started teaching again with a real determination to make sure my students didn’t experience the tension, discomfort and mental strife I felt when I practised, and to help them find real joy and enthusiasm for playing.
Listening to that podcast on ‘what matters’ really was a life-changing moment, as I've now made this the central part of my life.
So what is it about practising the piano - or gamelan, or singing, or composing - that really matters to me?
I can’t completely exclude the fanfare, bells and whistles when I do perform something. But those moments happen far less often than the hours of practise in between.
But I think a large part of it is simple the act of doing it: pressing my fingers on the piano keys, opening my mouth to sing, striking the beater on the gamelan, or sharpening a pencil to start writing.
There’s a quiet beauty in simply ‘having a go’: a human being finding the time to make a sound and discover meaning and pleasure in that moment. There’s the pleasure of the sound itself and our curiosity we have for it: the ‘grain’ of the sound and how it changes over time. There’s the pleasure in sustaining or joining with a pulse or executing a rhythm. There’s the pleasure of moving with the music and feeling emotion or imagining things in response.
And yes: there *is* the pleasure of gradually becoming more accomplished at something.
But it takes its own time.
Music making, I have found, doesn’t work to targets or find completion on a particular date.
When we too-readily impose time-related goals onto our music practice, that’s when tension can set in. We can feel caged-in or trapped by our thoughts of keeping to a timeframe. This is both a mental and physical experience, and it’s exactly the kind of attitude I had in my teens and 20s that brought a collapse in my ability to play. I wasn’t listening to my body telling me it was tired or had had enough. I wasn’t really paying much attention to the sounds or movements either.
In fact, there wasn’t really much pleasure in my playing. No wonder I ended up where I did.
It was through another Tara Brach podcast that I came across the phrase “No time to rush.”
As I understand, it was the mantra of a woman who found out that she had cancer shortly after giving birth to her daughter. It was a reminder to herself to slow down and enjoy life while it was there; to turn off the ‘doing-thinking-busying’ mind, and take in, appreciate and savour the beauty of each moment: the colours, the sounds, the textures, the sensations of what is happening in life right now, before it slips away.
The things that matter. Herself and her daughter. Human connection. Love.
Life really is short. Music making is in itself a precious, beautiful act of connecting to the moment, to our senses, to our emotions, to each other, and to our wonder and creativity. It connects us to very important - fulfilling, life-enhancing - parts of our humanity.
But if we keep our eyes always on the prize, we can’t fully engage - we can’t truly feel - the pleasure that simply ‘having a go’ can bring.
There really is “No time to rush” our practice.
There is joy and beauty in every action, every note. A great moment of life is happening right in front of us.
So I remind myself: not to rush onto the next note; not to try to ‘get it done’.
Instead, I try to let go of my goals for the most part, and savour the music: taking it much slower; teasing out the time I have to get a fuller sense of the flavours and colours that can be found in just a few notes; leaning-in to the sounds, so I can hear them much more closely and find more inside them.
When I practice with this mindset, there is so much more joy in the act of playing. I am physically relaxed, and more open and curious in my mind. I enjoy playing and actually want to do it, not as a means to an end, but just for the sheer pleasure of being - and creating - in the moment. As a result, I am actually more ‘productive’ and ‘play better’.
Students, teachers and professionals: we all have a tendency to jump onto the 'conveyor belt' that can be our day. We turn from one thing to the next, never really paying attention fully, always throwing ourselves forward in our mind’s eye, always wanting to do things faster, just to ‘get it done’.
But the beauty of the moment is calling to us: ‘this matters’.
Let's step off the conveyor belt and slow down, to really appreciate and enjoy the sounds we make.
Here, in the quiet of the moment, lies what we’ve been looking for all along: a real sense of freedom.
I wish you a happy practice.