One of my students in piano class for people over 60 admitted that she hadn’t practiced all week.
“But,” she paused, holding up a trembling finger, “I did play the Hanon exercise over and over and over. I just love Hanon. It’s so meditative.”
She was quiet a moment, and suddenly there were tears in her eyes.
“We had a death in the family. That was all I could bring myself to play.”
I watched her face, partly covered by a mask, as she composed herself. “I know that feeling,” I said. “I’ve been there. I’m glad you had Hanon.”
The exercises she spoke of are repetitive technique-building sequences of six-note patterns running up and down the keyboard. There are 60 total exercises that begin with the most simple and culminate in complex, challenging figures designed to strengthen and impart the necessary flexibility and speed required to play piano. Most students don’t much like exercises, preferring to play “songs” or familiar tunes.
I’ve always liked doing scales and exercises, digging deep into my body’s experience of making music with my hands. This part of my practice connects me to the visceral nature of playing an instrument, the raw thrumming vibration that courses through your body when you put your hands on the keys.
Until a year ago, piano had left my life. I suppose it’s more accurate to say I left it behind, leaving my baby grand piano in the loving home of my friend in Illinois who patiently watched over it until I could save enough money to have it transported to my home in Oregon.
Its absence led me to seek a place to play piano regularly, which is how I found the Community Music Center. Practicing there led to volunteering there which led to getting hired in the office. And then, in April of 2020, that led to teaching virtual lessons, and now I’m fully back in the saddle as a teacher, with more students than I’ve ever had. It’s been a wild ride.
Teaching adult students allows me to use more sophisticated language and imagery in lessons. We can talk about schemas and technique building, musical eras and composers from 200 years ago, references to famous pieces that no 10 year old would understand. And adult students are fully, vibrantly aware of the extraordinary affect playing music has on your soul, and are ardently in search of achieving that effect and little else.
They don’t want to please their anxious parents, or get a certificate, earn stickers or even learn how to play Iron Man to amuse their friends. They are looking for something to fill the longing, often a life-long quest, for the ability to create music.
The experience of working with these students has profoundly altered me. Working with students who long to grow and change has made me more eager to learn and expand, to open myself to the misery and ecstasy music can convey. My students have taught me how important it is to seek more from this life I’ve been living, and the answer was locked inside music all this time.
I’ll never be a professional performer. I learned that when my body quaked every time I stepped onstage in college for a recital or jury performance, even as an accompanist. There was never enough positive experience in performing to outweigh the negative effects. Teaching the handful of young students back in Chicagoland pulled on my creative brain, requiring me to come up with different approaches to meet each individual student’s learning style. The vast difference between individual developing brains is fascinating, and that understanding helped me understand my own children and my husband.
But now I’m swimming in this world of hopeful students reaching for a collection of notes to help express what they’re feeling deep inside. Some of my adult students are true beginners, some took a few lessons as children, and some are intermediate and advanced, able to play sonatas and gavottes without too much trouble. Every one of them has taken active steps to be in my classes, to set aside time to learn the required steps, block off practice time, and allow other people to listen to them play every single week all in the pursuit of creating music in their everyday lives. Just for the purpose of playing something that makes them feel.
I have learned some of my most important lessons from watching people I admire and listening to their process. Witnessing several dozen adults take these steps simply to give themselves a few moments’ access to a depth of feeling has lit my path to accessing my own feelings, understanding what lies beneath my everyday worries. Alongside my students, I can now go to my piano and use my training to feel again, to meditate in a focused silence on what the notes are trying to say, and process the heaviness I experience from being a human in this painful world.
And now I understand the significance of all those years of training and practice: I have the opportunity to spend whatever time I have left in this life sharing my enduring love for music, showing other people how to unlock their skill to help themselves feel more deeply, express something they don’t have words to say, and understand themselves better by living within the notes they bring to life on the keyboard.
Playing piano with and for these students every day of the week has opened my writer’s brain as well, letting loose a torrent of material I haven’t experienced in decades. This, finally, feels like freedom.
A few hours of practice awaits me this weekend, alternating with hours at the computer as I pour out the feelings that arise whenever I put my hands on a keyboard, any keyboard, qwerty or black and white. Hours of curiosity and fear, anxiety and relief, solace and frolic. This might be what they mean by “finding yourself,” but it feels more like building myself, putting structures in place around which I can be and do the things for which I trained so long.
Far from hiding my light under a bushel, as my mother used to say of my preference for privacy, I’ve been awaiting the moment and the audience with which to share and understand. I’m so happy I’ve found it.