“Anyone who acts without paying attention to what he is doing is wasting his life. I’d go so far as to say life is denied by lack of attention, whether it be to cleaning windows or trying to write a masterpiece.” So declared legendary pianist and teacher, Nadia Boulanger.
The Buddha himself could look me in the eyes and say this, and I’d likely have to ask him to repeat himself, I’m so distractible. I do somehow manage to pay very close attention to advice from good piano teachers, though, something I learned to do early in life.
Teaching is, for me, a refuge, the one place in life where I’m most “in the moment.” I try to notice every gesture, listen intently to what is being said in the playing. I am keenly aware while teaching, very much alive, I think. This is most true with my adult students, though I’m reluctant to admit this. Adult students are oftentimes more willing and eager to take what we can offer. If we, as teachers, are committed and truly care, then they’ll be free to blossom, breaking past barriers that have formed through years of formal education and the weatherings of life itself.
The ideal practice session is centered around mindfulness, an absolute awareness of the music and the piano and the self, a perfect melding of all three. Only one of these elements can be “controlled” by the student, of course. To help a student develop an unclouded sense of self is oftentimes the biggest challenge.
It’s been my experience that the hardest students to guide are those who describe themselves as perfectionists. While we are looking for precision, I would suggest those who describe themselves as perfectionists are often the most guarded, overly concerned with getting things “right” and generally quite hard on themselves. Having a need to not make mistakes takes away from mindful work because we turn from seeking to avoiding. If making music turns into “not doing things wrong” then what is the intention? This destroys the spirit of the music.
I don’t believe in requiring any particular amount of time for daily practice. I don’t even recommend daily practice because I find this isn’t realistic for most adults. Life rarely allows for this type of routine. I do write out detailed practice guidelines, telling the student what to practice and how to go about it. Mindless practice would allow for endless, mindless repetitions. What’s the point in this? This isn’t music-making. I also generally record passages for students to listen to while practicing, helping foster an awareness of what the student should be expecting to hear BEFORE he plays. Students who are working independently could develop similar strategies.
So I wonder: Why does it seem to take extraordinary effort to be mindful? Do we simply not allow ourselves the luxury of a single train of thought? Can piano teach us how to think? Maybe even how to live more fully?