My student Marina cheered me up so much at her lesson last week. She’s been living with a practice related injury for at least 20 years, and now, after working with me for a few months, she’s having an amazing breakthrough.
To recover from the injury, Marina has had to play simple pieces very slowly so that she can become aware of the habits that have been creating so much tension in her arm and shoulder. She’s been making excellent progress, but she began her lesson a few days ago by saying she was afraid she would never be able to play her usual repertoire up to speed. Nevertheless, she did say that since her previous lesson, she had enjoyed occasional minutes of feeling very free in her arm and shoulder.
I reassured her that this was actually terrific progress. And then we began to work in more depth and detail using the same approach as at the previous lesson—focusing on the sensations in her fingertips as they contacted the keys, while also focusing on the looseness of her arm and shoulder as she made the arm movements I had taught her. When she played again, she looked relaxed, and the music sounded beautiful. And she commented that the shoulder pain wasn’t there.
I explained to Marina that she needs to continue this kind of slow, attentive work, because she’s creating new neuropathways—she’s literally training her brain to send new messages to her hands and arms.
Then I added something else for her to focus on. I asked her to be aware of the three contact points as she was playing: her sitting bones on the bench, her feet on the floor, and the ends of her finger bones on the bottom of the keys. In order to do this, she had to keep playing very slowly so she could keep creating new neuropathways. It was great to see her so relaxed and attentive. “It’s like some weird Zen thing!“ she said.
Marina played for quite some time like this, and her playing became very sensitive and heartfelt. It was a complete transformation from the tense playing she had done just two lessons ago.
Then she again expressed anxiety about ever being able to transfer such awareness into faster and louder playing. I explained that in order to develop a great technique you need a foundation of sensitivity. From there you can add power. But if you start from power without sensitivity, it’s too hard to train your body to add that sensitivity.
She thought about that for a moment and then remembered how someone had taught her to ride a bike in a similar way—by focusing on those same three contact points. She said, “You need to be aware of your feet on the pedals, your bum on the seat, and your hands on the handlebars. And your weight needs to be borne by all three of these parts of the body.” What a fantastic analogy! It makes perfect sense to me.
Although Marina feels that her progress has been slow, there’s already a night and day difference between where she started just a few months ago and where she is now. That’s because the process has been one of changing her whole nervous system. It feels like slow progress to her, because she’s playing easy music very slowly. But already, halfway through today’s lesson, I had her start working on a much harder piece using the same technical approach, and she was able to apply everything she has learned quite quickly.
For all of us, progress in any area of our life tends to feel very slow. It’s so easy to get discouraged, and to feel like we’ll never get there. We definitely need to have patience. But we can also trust that this is how genuine progress happens—little by little, over time, as the cells in our body change their patterns.
Marina’s transformation in that lesson was so vivid that it reminded me of my own personal growth, and the growth of so many people I know. I realized that just like Marina, when we’re at a painful time in our life and we slow down enough to really pay attention to how we’re feeling inside, from moment to moment, we too can feel vivid energetic changes within our body. That’s because we are literally changing our lives—on a cellular level, from the inside out.
Marina’s work at this lesson was a real inspiration to me. And I’m excited to see what happens for her next.
And by the way, if you’d like to actually experience this kind of work at the piano, I invite you to apply for my upcoming Transformative Piano Master Class Series, starting June 1. We still have 2 spots open for pianists to play in each of the six classes, and 10 spots open for general participants.
Here’s to more expressive freedom in your performances!