My husband and I recently returned from a trip to Italy, and my mind is filled with images of the gorgeous countryside of the Val d’Orcia, in Tuscany. For many centuries, the Italian people have made a deep connection with the land, cultivating it with care and respect, living in harmony with it. As our car wound its way through the last 30 minutes of our drive from Rome to the farmhouse we stayed in near Montepulciano, it felt like a fairytale: Whichever way we turned and as far as the eye could see, in all directions, were gently rolling hills covered with blankets of wheat in varied shades of spring green, fields of yellow flowers, vineyards, orchards, tall cypress trees in single file here and there, and simple, terra-cotta roofed farmhouses where people lived their daily lives. I kept looking out the windows in disbelief – was this really the world? How could it be so beautiful?
When we arrived at Agriturismo Le Caggiole, the farmhouse I had wanted to stay in for 2 1/2 years, it was beyond anything I had imagined – a paradise, with stunning views of the countryside, exquisitely restored stone buildings, and the fantastic perfume of flowering trees and plants. A woman named Monica welcomed us at the reception desk more warmly than anyone had ever greeted us at a new place. As I sat outside on the terrace gazing at the hills with their vineyards and olive orchards, all my stress melted away. Somehow, we had entered Heaven.
During our six-day stay at Le Caggiole, we drove to many beautiful places in the area. Several times I saw a sign on the road that said “Rallentare” – which, as most musicians know, means “slow down.”
And I thought, if only we could slow down all the time – if only we could appreciate our lives, including the people and the music we love, as much as the Tuscan people have appreciated their lives in the country. Isn’t this the real answer to happiness?
Yes. It is.
I thought about how falling in love with the Val d’Orcia is like falling in love with a piece of music. You feel like you’ve never heard anything so beautiful, and you want to get as close to it as you can, to play the music yourself, to never let go of all that beauty.
And yet we do let go of it – countless times, when we get frustrated or impatient in our daily practicing. We often try to bend the music we love in a direction it doesn’t want to go in. Or we gloss over details, dimming the radiance of all that beauty. We tune out. Maybe because it’s so beautiful we can’t take it all in.
What Makes It Beautiful
Looking at the countryside of the Val d’Orcia, with its occasional farmhouses planted among the fields, orchards, and vineyards, it’s easy to imagine that the people who settled there created these simple dwellings with a conscious intention not to disturb the environment but to cultivate the land with an appreciation of natural order and potential. Everything looks like it just belongs there – their agriculture is inviting, not strictly geometric or factory-like.
I was fortunate to have several conversations with the owner of Le Caggiole, a man named Giacomo, whose family has lived in the house for six generations. He showed me a framed page from a book, on the wall near the reception desk, describing the history of Le Caggiole, going back to the eighth century. He told me that he himself, along with some workers, had torn down the building we were staying in brick by brick, because it was so old it was falling apart, and rebuilt it brick by brick in its original form. A little while later, he came out to the terrace to show me on his iPhone an ancient painting of the very view that I was looking at. I felt honored that he was sharing how much the place meant to him.
Reflecting on Giacomo’s words now, I realize that his love for Le Caggiole is an inspiring example for all of us. As musicians, our work is to take apart the music we love and put it back together brick by brick. We need to appreciate every detail of it – how it is really put together – so that the people who listen to us play or sing this music experience it in its true form.
Your Golden Opportunity
I invite you to discover how much beauty you can create in music by slowing down with us at the Art of Practicing Institute’s weeklong summer program in July. Like the Val d’Orcia, no pictures or descriptions can really prepare you for how amazing the experience is. But through the meditation practices, discussion groups, and master class sessions, your mind will unwind and you’ll hear music and your own heart so vividly, entering a whole new world of appreciation.
Appreciation is the key to it all – to everything inside us and everything we are capable of creating. We need to appreciate ourselves for doing this incredible work of bringing music to life. And to remember that we do it from love.
I hope you will join us this summer, where we will shed so much new light on how to make music from the heart, how to rebuild pieces and phrases brick by brick, and who we really are as musicians. It’s a magical week, filled with the dazzling beauty of music and of the people who make it.
I wish you much joy and success.
P.S. If the summer program sounds like a fairytale, I invite you to call or email me with any questions you might have.
P.P.S. And one more picture: Presque Isle State Park, on Lake Erie – the place we take a field trip to in the middle of the week of our program:
Q & A of the Month
I teach piano, and I don’t always succeed in communicating in the most helpful way with my students. Some of them have a lot of doubts and fears about their abilities even if they play quite well, and I find it hard to be sympathetic about their doubts and fears while still trying to encourage them about their progress and potential. How can I help them believe more in themselves?
This is a beautiful question. In my experience, really hearing and understanding how a student feels – or for that matter, a friend or family member feels – is often easier said than done. You really have to feel your way with it and learn as you go.
Every day I find that I miss an aspect of something someone has said. I feel like I’m not quite tuned in to where their heart really is or to what they intended to convey. Or I discover that I don’t know the whole story behind their feelings, and that I’ve responded with inadequate information. And the people who are closest to me don’t always completely understand me either.
It can be very helpful for us as teachers to ask questions of a student when they express doubt or fear, to be sure that we understand. And we also need to be aware of our particular habitual tendencies in talking to students. Some of us tend to talk too much, not leaving them enough space to feel or express how they feel. Or we might jump to conclusions about what the student is trying to say. Other teachers may be afraid to reveal anything personal about themselves or their feelings, because they don’t want to come across as unprofessional, but they end up limiting the degree of personal connection with the student, which can make it harder for the student to open up and trust them.
For me, this whole endeavor of communicating well with students, and with people in general, is a lifelong practice. We are all such complex people, and human communication is loaded with endless subtleties and challenges.
At the same time, if you make a sincere effort to understand them, most people can feel how much you care and will allow for slight misunderstandings and keep trying to express how they feel. So the main point is to first let yourself feel how much you care about the student, and then, from that caring place, let them know you’re really trying to understand them by asking questions and responding with warmth. Once you’ve done that, if you feel the student is indulging too much in negative thinking, you could try pointing out specific things that you appreciate about their progress and potential. Let them know that they’re not alone – that others have had similar doubts and fears yet have succeeded in making their dreams come true as musicians. And ask them if they have questions about what you’re telling them.
Also, please feel free to invite them to join our Facebook group! It’s a safe place where musicians can share their doubts and fears, as well as their joys and inspirations, in facing this huge, human endeavor called making music.
Submit a question for possible inclusion in a future issue of Performing Beyond Fear.