Today marks the 100th time I have heard an adult say, “I wish my parents had not let me quit piano lessons!” OK, I’m lying. I don’t really know the exact number of times I have heard this, but I hear it a lot. A LOT. When I tell people I am a piano teacher, I hear one of two things: their own musical pursuits or their regret for giving it up. The past two weeks have been very challenging for me as a singer. Every day I have had at least one moment when I’ve thought about quitting, but every day I have also made progress. It’s a funny thing, the way the mind works during music practice. Any ounce of imperfection can make me want to throw my hands up and turn my back on this silly little goal of becoming a great musician. Only it isn’t a silly little goal, and making mistakes is how you become a great musician. Every artist must develop a warrior mindset about practice. A warrior keeps training, even when he’s tired and even when he makes mistakes.
I started Classical singing lessons last week with Katie, a doctoral student at University of Southern California. David thought it would be great to fine-tune my sound, and I agreed that the Classical model is the best approach. Katie has a beautiful operatic voice and she teaches in a relaxed and calm manner. She is a great example for someone jittery like me with my tight jaw and tense shoulders. I sang Italian Art Song for the first time in a decade and we were both surprised at how quickly the technique came back to me. I was able to pronounce the Italian correctly 98% of the time, and I hit all the notes fairly comfortably. But not EVERYTHING came back. I’ve developed some bad habits that I did not have when I was in the middle of my intense days as a student. My notes could be more pristine and my jaw is so tense. Katie told me to move my jaw in circles and move my tongue side to side. I look like a crazy person, but I think it’s helping. I have decided to call it “face yoga.”
In my experience, piano students flirt with the idea of quitting once they reach level 4 or 5. I think when you reach this point in your practice you are starting to sound really good, but you have to begin working harder. I know for myself at that time, I felt frustrated that I wasn’t perfect yet. I smiled as I wrote that, because after 15 years of practice, I am still not a perfect pianist and now have the wisdom to know I never will be. Students are usually approaching age 10 or 11 by this year and they are starting to develop different priorities in their lives and sometimes they sacrifice piano for other pursuits. They don’t want to work hard to get better. They just want to play perfectly without trying. It doesn’t work like that. That is not the warrior mindset. You have to keep working. Music is a discipline. If you stop pushing yourself, you will end up like the retired ninja who no longer trains and has the waistline to prove it. Your skills will plateau. What you already know will be very easy, but very boring.
While 11 year olds may in fact quit, because they would rather hang out with friends than practice the piano, I know I will not really quit. My moments of wanting to quit are more like the moments when you have a fight with your boyfriend, and you storm out of the room threatening to break up when all you really want is for him to chase after you. It’s all talk. On my amazing practice days I congratulate myself and feel really good, and on the rough days, I feel frustrated but remind myself that music is a discipline. Just like a warrior in battle, you don’t pull out because you are tired or scared. You keep fighting. The life of any artist is like this. When you believe you were put on this earth to create, you keep practicing. You have to stay strong and keep going.