Ask me what possession I’d save from a burning building, and the answer will always be my piano. It’s been the answer since I was six, first learning to recognise those notes. Caving into my pleas for piano lessons is something I’ll always be grateful to my parents for.
Playing isn’t my job, my side-hustle, or way of winning admiration. Mostly I play for nobody except myself. Music is simply a pastime: and all the more joyous for that. I can choose what to play, when and how much to practice. Whether learning something new or covering familiar ground, it’s for no other reason than pure pleasure.
Many years after I ended lessons, I can still learn so much every time I sit down at the keys – only now about myself. Why is it that I’m taking the easy road by ignoring tricky parts I haven’t mastered? Why am I struggling today with something I’ve known for years? Usually it’s because I’m stressed or distracted, and the act of playing forces me to recognise that I might not be able to put feelings and events from the day as far behind me as I’d have liked. Making music is most enjoyable when I’m in what I call “The Zone” – a completely mindful place where only the notes exist, in what feels like a natural and limitless flow. In order to reach that I have to be able to put aside other cares, and recognising their existence and impact is the first step to finding resolutions.
It’s also so valuable for me to have a sense of achieving something beyond that which is work. Music is an accomplishment, but one with no further commitments attached other than to myself. There’s always something further to achieve – a lighter touch, a greater dynamic contrast, a faster tempo. I’ve never been the most patient person, and still get frustrated when having to sit with what can sometimes be simply a few bars for hours on end until my fingers have learned where to go. But being for love, rather than routine, makes motivation easy to find.
The beauty of it being a pastime is having nobody to answer to but myself. I may never be a virtuoso but no mastery – if that’s what I want – happens overnight. I’ve learned when I can be completely fine with saying “enough”.
Sometimes I have days, even weeks, away from the keys. In ‘The Before Times’, this tended to be when I’m going through a particularly hectic phase and the idea of sitting down to play even for ten minutes seems like a luxury. I knew that attitude is a mistake: it’s been proven that spending even a short around of time on creative activities helps to boost cognitive processing. Rather than being indulgent, spending time being mindful about music could actually help me to work through my concerns.
In the last year, my time at the piano has taken on a different tone. In Lockdown One I relished being able to play piano every single day: enjoying it, but also needing it. It was one of the few places I could feel like I was achieving something. It was one of the daily highlights of my routine in those months. In more recent times I haven’t always kept up the same motivation. By February even music has become more of the same, just another part of a depressingly limited sphere of existence.
But in recent weeks I’ve been coming back to it with genuine pleasure. That time away makes me miss it – makes me stop seeing it as an exercise I’m only doing to fill time and think about the reasons I love it. I guess it’s just like anything which has been in your life for almost thirty years – you’ll love it sometimes, hate it others, but cherish that at the end of the day, you have such a joyous and reassuring constant.