The Magic of Knowing Your Limitations

By Madeline Bruser

April 25, 2012

About twenty years ago I had a wonderful student named Greg. He was an amateur—he’d been a semi-pro tennis player for years, wrote beautiful short stories and poems, and just loved the piano.

Greg knew he’d never be a virtuoso—he was too old to develop the coordination to play fast. But he practiced with great attention to detail and learned to make real music. I’ll never forget one lesson of his in particular, when he played a Chopin nocturne so beautifully that all I could say afterwards was, “How much do you want me to pay you for listening to that?”

Greg worked with me for several years and even had a few lessons with me after he moved to Vermont, when I was up there on vacation. He bought a beautiful old Steinway grand and stuck to short pieces he could handle that he really loved—certain Rachmaninoff preludes, Chopin nocturnes, some Debussy and Schubert, and his own improvisations. He had a wonderful, inquisitive mind, and it was always a pleasure to work with him.

I don’t remember him ever once saying that he wished he could play fast pieces—he somehow knew what was comfortable for him, and he got deep satisfaction from practicing and occasionally playing for friends.

The Lure of the Race Track

I’ve often thought of students like Greg, who have accepted their limitations and found real fulfillment in playing the piano. So many pianists I’ve taught, both amateurs and professionals, have pushed themselves hard to play a piece fast before they’re ready, only to end up with more tension and less music coming out. They say things like, “But the piece is supposed to go fast! Everyone plays it that way!” Or, “What if I never get it up to speed?”

No matter how I respond to these comments and questions, the only thing that helps is if I show them how to enjoy the details—the sensations in their hands, or the way each sound affects them—things that get them to slow down and really experience what they’re doing.

Speed Comes When You’re Ready

Often, after they’ve stopped trying to play fast and they’ve been focusing for a while on such details, all of a sudden speed just comes, because they’re in synch with themselves. Their body and mind are ready.

Of course, many students will never be able to play fast—maybe they weren’t born with the ability to do it, or maybe, like Greg, they started too late, or didn’t get enough help with their technique when they were young.

A Secret of Success

It’s easy to get caught up in comparing ourselves with other people who can do things we can’t do. But almost every musician, whatever their instrument, has some kind of limitation—whether it’s how fast they can play, the size of their hands, the kind of repertoire that suits their personality, or how long it takes them to learn and memorize a piece. We may not realize it, but the most successful ones have figured out what they do best and have stuck to that.

A few years ago, Greg came to say good-bye. He was retiring early and moving to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, because he liked the feeling of the place and a lot of artists lived there, including musicians. I thought he’d just relax there, practice the piano, read, and hang out with some of the artists he met. And I guess he did all that.

But a couple of years later, I got an e-mail from him out of the blue, saying that an amazing thing had happened. A well-known cellist was walking past his house, heard him playing the piano, and asked the neighbors who he was. She’d heard his heart coming through his playing.

She and Greg began playing together and performing at a beautiful venue in town. Soon they were playing in the most important cultural center in Mexico—the gorgeous and historic Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City—where they received a standing ovation and a wonderful write-up in the newspaper.

The Power of Being Yourself

Greg never went looking for something like this to happen. It came to him, because he was true to who he was and had let himself play in a natural and comfortable way. Although his story is somewhat dramatic, I’ve seen many similar things happen to other pianists I’ve taught, both amateurs and professionals.

You never know—maybe something like this could happen to you. The next time you find yourself frustrated with how fast you can play, see what happens if you just let go of that idea for a minute and focus on how your hands feel, or how each harmony is affecting you. Let yourself enjoy the small things from moment to moment. And then wait and see what happens. 

If you’re like any of the people I know who have tried it, little by little something big will grow.

I wish you much joy and success in making music.

Madeline Bruser

P.S.  Are you curious to discover how focusing on small details can open up your playing in a big way? Schedule a sample lesson and find out. Or come for a free consultation.

Q&A of the Month

I was a little stunned by the effect of the listening work—the singing—in last month’s video, and also by how hard it was for the pianist to hear the bass line while playing the right hand. Then I tried doing it myself, and it was really hard for me too. Is this typical for pianists?

Yes. Really hearing everything you’re playing is hard for almost everyone. But it gets much easier with practice. And once you discover how powerful it is, you realize it’s a shortcut to playing on a much higher level. There’s nothing like it. When you get used to hearing this fully, you start to feel you’re missing something without it. So it grows on you that way.

I recommend that you don’t try to do too much of it at a time. It’s hard work, and a little goes a long way. But as you get more used to it, you’ll naturally want to spend more time doing it. It’s just so nourishing to really hear all these sounds. It’s shocking at first—and you realize you’ve been missing so much. It’s like opening a door to a huge world that you didn’t know was there.