Piano Study: Process not Mastery

One of my students recommended a book by George Leonard that globalizes the idea of gaining Mastery in any field of endeavor through a love of “plateaus.” (These are pauses in forward-moving progress that can either frustrate a learner, or motivate him to forge onward with an all-embracing love of the “journey.”)

The author begins with the metaphorical comparison of Aikido to the skill-“mastering” universe, just as W. Timothy Gallwey has drawn upon the game of tennis as a Zen-like encapsulation of here and now, value-free immersion in “process.” In this regard, Gallwey poetically references, by example, the archer who shoots an arrow not at a specific target, but allows a free-wheeling energy to rise above a narrow destination. (From the Inner Game of Tennis)

Metaphorically, the skill accorded to the archer does not become an end or accomplishment in itself, but is a centered means of a goal-less pursuit.

I agree with Gallwey and kindred spirit, Mildred Portney Chase (Just Being at the Piano) who both ally their philosophies to Eastern thought, which takes the Ego out of the learning equation, and substitutes a neutralized and limitless “growth”-centered journey.

Without delving too deeply into the nuances of each author’s view, it’s important to underscore that in our technology-driven world, we are alienated from time-free and patience imbued pursuits such as learning a musical instrument. Because of an encroaching cultural attitude of needing “mastery” by deadline as a medallion of achievement, we sabotage our growth. In this vein, if we run into what we believe to be a “progress” stifling episode in our goal-setting path, we either give up in frustration, or more positively, treat every learning juncture as filled with awakenings that lead to others.

Perhaps this is a segue way to my own relationship to the piano and the journey that I’ve paved over decades.

Plateaus are for me not setbacks laden with personal judgment as to where I should be in the study of new piece. Like a baby who develops from laying in a crib, to pulling himself up, to crawling and then walking, with limitless growth potential, I have no desire to play a composition like I would follow a fixed recipe to make instant pudding. Instead, with an open, unbiased mind and attitude, I approach a composition in a layered fashion, taking it apart in detail to understand all I can about it. And if it’s a work that will require a very rapid tempo, I impose no deadline on myself, leaving the door open to grow the tempo to where it settles in the moment, and can expand with each re-connection over time.

In my revisit of Schumann’s frenetically moving “Blindman’s Bluff,” (Schumann Kinderszen 3–“Hasche-Mann”) I find myself embracing an open field of learning–allowing the piece to be parceled, and studied inside out from many dimensions. Will I ever be able to heed the insanely tagged metronome marking: Quarter=138, I cannot not say, but if such a metrical indication is a measure of my worth in playing the tableau, it will be readily tossed asunder.

Naturally, for these blogs to impart more than a framing philosophy, I’ve chosen to share a “process” that I understand will be different for each student who works with his/her metaphorical clay and sculpts it in a personally creative way.

With this open and abiding spirit, I’ve posted my baby-step approach to practicing, “Hasche-Mann” that’s a joy for me every step of the way and will hopefully be the same for others who partner along a never-ending path of discovery.

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