It’s a no brainer to compare piano study to athletics. Both have been my passions throughout most of my life.
At age 6 I competed with my brother for music lessons but lost out. Nearly five years my senior, he got first licks at studying the clarinet, quashing my hopes of holding a shimmering saxophone in my tiny hands. Yes, saxophone. Can you believe? It was such an eye catcher with all the shiny keys on it, and the sound was hauntingly beautiful. But the local music school on the hill in the Bronx had no opportunity to learn this precious wind instrument. The excuse was it hadn’t even a place in a symphony orchestra.
Meanwhile I remember the squeaks coming out of my brother’s clarinet no matter how many times he licked his reeds. And despite many months of reluctant practicing, he couldn’t manage to pump out a few notes without cracking registers. His decision to quit moved me quickly into the privileged position of studying a musical instrument. But with resignation, I accepted the music school’s recommendation that I receive piano instruction.
Besides having to suffer with my first illegitimate $50 upright, a Wieser, or more aptly a WHEEZER, I made sure to take breaks from practicing by dashing over to PS 122’s playground on Bailey Avenue in the Bronx. After school each day, I would surreptitiously pull a broom stick from the kitchen closet and run off to practice my swings, tossing a Spaulding into the air.
The parochial school kids from St. Johns were always at the playground well before I arrived, choosing up the most elite team of stick ball players among themselves, so I could never dream of being invited in. But on one special afternoon, as I was practicing in full view of some its premier athletes, I smacked a ball clear over the fence which landed in a dump truck. That would have been the longest home run I ever hit, and to my good fortune, Patrick McGrath saw it and from then on, chose me into the gang’s stick ball games.
No wonder sports vocabulary permeates my teaching. I learned it from the ground up on the playing fields of the Bronx.
My Studio and sports
As mentioned in a previous blog, Mark, a former tennis pro turned lawyer comes weekly to lessons here at Sports Central. He’s always game for a serious piano workout since we devote the first twenty minutes to technique: scales, chords, and arpeggios.
He, like most students, want to play scales with smoothness and velocity, so I’m happy to linger as the ever-present coach. Problem is that too many pupils crowd the last few notes of a scale and choke up, instead of breathing long breaths into it. Just at the crunch point where the scale turns around to descend, a certain performance anxiety sets in that nips the exercise in the bud. That’s when a lot of students throw their hands up in the air and tie themselves into more knots. Instead of letting go of tension with a relaxed sigh, they race back to the keys with a notched up blood pressure reading. The same problem perpetuates itself.
So how does a student pace himself to deal with this out of control race to the finish line. The best thing to do, I believe, is to start with chunking. If you happen to pick the key of B Major that has double and triple black key groups with thumbs in between, you can think in larger units instead of laboriously playing note to note. With so many individual ones to count, it can be overwhelming.
In the video attached below you can observe a systematic build up of the B major scale by depressing clusters of black key groups with intervening thumbs, first using separate hands, then hands together. An underlying, relaxed quarter note or steady beat holds the scale together from beginning to end, allowing the student some breathing space.
Think of a crowded pile-up of notes at the top of a scale as a massive tackle of a quarterback right in the midst of the final quarter tie breaker.
While there’s no sudden death overtime when playing piano, just put a few students on stage for the mid year recital and watch what happens. That’s when visualization or mental imagery, meditation and other relaxation techniques are desperately needed.
Tim Galway’s the Inner Game of Tennis is a great paperback that addresses performance anxiety in any number of venues. It could be the golf course, the baseball diamond, the equestrian arena, etc. The author permeates the text with the Eastern philosophy of the Tao that embraces the here and now without self judgment. It has perfect application to piano study and performance.
Consider a tennis event where an overhead smash could be the game, set, match point. Coming to the net has to be with the right energy enlisted, not with an overabundance that causes the racket to hit a wind tunnel. The poor player looks like he swung through the air and blew the game. (It happens all too often with wiffle ball players)
Most of the time it’s not about brute strength when doing athletics or playing piano to perfection, but rather it’s finesse that wins the game or advances piano technique.
As I’ve said over and again during lessons, sports and piano are great allies so it’s best to go with the flow, breathe long deep breaths and enjoy the ride.