“150 minutes a week!“ the doctor said. “It’s very important.“ He was talking about how much aerobic exercise I need to get.
So I committed to five vigorous, 30-minute walks a week in Riverside Park. It seemed easy enough—I love the park, and it’s just a block away from my apartment. And for a musician, who practiced a regular number of hours per day for decades, I understood immediately: regular exercise is essential.
But recently one day, I just didn’t feel like walking vigorously. My whole body wanted to go slow and to just enjoy the beauty of my surroundings, to feel the earth under my feet and the breath enlivening my body.
Watching the sunlight sparkle on the Hudson River through zillions of bare branches that would soon be covered in fluttering green, I reflected on the abundant joys of my life—and on the fact that this life is getting closer to its end. Several of the big zero birthdays are behind me, and this month, for the first time, I felt the power of going past the zero, to 71—I am actually in my 70s now. And it really feels different.
Granted, I’m a young 71. On a good day I look younger. And my spirit remains joyful, youthful. But at this point in my life, I have less energy and more love. More appreciation of the precious people in my life, the beautiful place I live in, and just what it means to be alive.
Why am I writing about this? To tell you, from a different perspective, how important and magical it is to do less—less than you think you have to. To be less busy. Because when you do less, you can feel more.
That’s how to be fully alive, and fully musical. When you do less and feel more you get much more out of your practice time with your instrument. You can go deeper. You can listen beneath the surface.
We’ve been given magnificent riches, from the greatest musical beings of all time. When you put your hands on your instrument, you can let yourself feel deeper. You can feel the energy of the person who wrote the music, living and breathing in your fingertips. You don’t have to settle for less, in your rush to do your 150 minutes, or your three hours. You can use every moment to take in what is—amazingly—yours.
Here are a few steps to get you there.
Step 1: Create a “blank page.“
When you’re about to practice your instrument, take a moment to do nothing. Nothing except notice your body and how it’s feeling. I don’t think Beethoven rushed home with his groceries, put them on the table, wrote a short email (OK, a letter) to someone, and then immediately, with the same pen that he was using to write the letter, started writing a piano sonata. Chances are, he stopped first. He stopped and let an opening occur in his mind. He trusted that his mind had something to say and he listened for it.
So just stop. Just sit or stand there with your instrument, and in your still body feel life living in you and urging you to connect with music. The music has to come from somewhere open, not just from whatever energy is leftover from your shopping trip.
So just sit or stand there and let yourself take a couple of deep breaths, and feel the breath running through your body from head to toe. Notice how your whole body feels. This is your life! Life is filling you up, right now. When you feel the life in the stillness in you, you will realize that it’s not so still. Your body is actually pulsating—everything is moving inside all the time.
Step 2: Feel your heart.
From this still, alive place, reflect on something that touches your heart. It can be anything. It can be the instrument you are with, and what it means to you. It can be the room you are in and how the light comes in through the window or shines from the lamp. The sound of birds chirping outside. A photograph of someone you love sitting nearby. The beautiful fabric on a chair. The unbelievable sensory world that is yours, right now.
Step 3: Make your first move from your heart.
As you play or sing the first note of music for the day or the session, let the energy of your appreciative heart come through in the sound. How miraculous this opportunity is— to make music! You know how. Enjoy every move and every sound. Notice what it feels like. Every move and every sound feels different. Exactly how does it feel?
Step 4: If you lose your inspiration, just stop and start again.
We all go back and forth from appreciating what we have to taking it for granted. But we always have the opportunity to stop again. Breathe again. Feel our heart again. And make music again. So when you lose your inspiration, it doesn’t mean something’s wrong with you. It means you have another opportunity to get it back
Music is always there. The magic in our world is always there. Everything is always waiting for us to just notice how beautiful it is and to let our hearts sing.
So please, revere your own musical nature. You’re a musician. Give yourself the opportunity, over and over, to connect with the music you love.
This is called practicing.
Here’s to more expressive freedom in your performances.
P.S. Magic really happens at the Art of Practicing Institute’s summer program, where we have time to stop and get a whole new perspective on practice and performance. If you think you even might be interested in coming to this one-of-a-kind, transformative program, please feel free to contact me with questions. It really could change your life.
What a timely post this was for me. Beautifully written and a great reminder to slow down, listen and embody my playing.
Thank you for your kind words, Ali. I’m so glad you liked the article and that it has helped you with your playing. All best wishes.
Madeline: I loved your message about doing less. I am 69 yrs old and and take weekly lessons. I started Piano at 50 yrs old. I play twice a month at a Nursing home and use a Performance book that are my pieces that my Teacher has passed me on. I can’t wait to finish the next piece and add on in my Book. You touched me with the place we are in our lives. I want to keep learning for as long as I can keep going to my Piano. You look wonderful! You have inspired many students. I am one of them. Thank you. Ester Rounds. email@example.com
Thank you so much for your kind and lovely comment, Ester. I’m glad the article resonates with you, and I’m happy to know that you are enjoying playing the piano. Very best wishes.