Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Every time I start a piano lesson with a student, we make up a song. I start by playing some chords, and my student makes up a melody on the high keys. We also play a lot of duets. Playing music together teaches cooperation as well as fine tuning rhythm skills, creativity, and intuition. It is always my favorite part of the lesson.

All of my social interaction is surrounded by music these days. I spend most of my free time with musician friends, my songwriting partner, and my concert going companions. Collaborating with friends is becoming my favorite way to connect. Last week, a friend's original country song inspired me to dust off my banjo to see what I could do. It was so much fun! I get a high off of playing music with others. It feels magical. You start with silence, one person begins to play, and the musician who is following has to use her intuition to see what she can add. I use the word intuition quite seriously. When you improvise music, you have to become a little psychic. You are always just a mili-second into the future, predicting what will come next, but there are also scientific aspects to it. There are formulas in music. Certain chord progressions happen over and over again, and once you play for a while, your ear becomes used to knowing what may come next. I find improvising with others to be a good workout for my brain.  Like meditation, you must stay completely focused on each moment as it goes by. If you don't, you will either make a mistake or just play something totally boring, and I would rather hear a mistake than something boring. Improvisation teaches you how to work creatively with others.

Do you ever find yourself in a social setting where someone says something that makes you uncomfortable? What happens? It depends on many factors: the other personalities in the room, the physical environment, the conditions that brought you together, how much sleep everyone had the night before... 

I had a conversation the other day with a friend who said something that stuck with me. In terms of relationships, he said that most people do not act but react. We react to the way others treat us. We react to their tone of voice, their words, and their body language. If someone is nice to us, we are nice to them. If someone is a jerk, we are a jerk back. In music practice, if someone begins a song in a sad minor key, we all begin to feel the same mood as the leader and we all work to create an environment based on what we feel from each other. I have been an audience member at shows where a band member makes a mistake, and the other band members react with anger, as if the imperfection of this one person is reflecting their own musical skills. When I improvise with students and they hit a bad note, my first instinct is to just keep playing. There is no need to point it out, because chances are that the player already feels a little uncomfortable with realizing they are not perfect. If someone misses a beat, it may just be an opportunity to change the rhythm and merge into a totally different type of song. Improvisation is all about staying present and going with the flow.

When someone makes an inappropriate statement or treats me in a questionable manner, I have found that it's important to check in with myself and see what I can do to control the situation, just like music practice. If you are in a jam session, and someone messes up, getting angry will not save the song. You can save the song by improvising and using your own musical skills to take the song somewhere else, possibly somewhere completely unexpected. Isn't this true in life? You are late to an appointment because of a traffic jam. Frustrating, but what can you do? You can become all worked up, red faced with raised blood pressure, or you can just accept your fate and enjoy the song on the radio. You can improvise with what you actually have control over in that present moment.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mistakes (Don't Look Back)

When I first began my regular, formal piano lessons, I was a type-A, perfectionist-prone teenager. This is probably what made me learn so quickly, but it was not an easy journey. Every mistake made me want to give up. I cringed at every wrong note and every missed beat made me angry that I did not take dance lessons as a child. It took me so long to get both of my hands to play the piano at the same time, and the biggest mistake I made was thinking that there was something wrong with that. 

The thing about making mistakes in music practice is you eventually learn to accept that you are not perfect. Nobody plays perfectly the instant they start. Even the whole Mozart prodigy thing is exaggerated. The truth is even Mozart worked his little Austrian bum off.  Musicians have to constantly practice, make mistakes, and practice some more. Yesterday, one of my adorable students, Ben, said the most optimistic statement about mistakes. He told me he likes mistakes because it means he gets to start the song over again, and when he finally gets it right, he "gets to feel good." I loved that! Most students get really annoyed with their inabilities, but Ben really seems to understand that it's all about the process.

Isn't this true in every area of life? How many mistakes did you make today? I made a few today, but yesterday... don't get me started. SO many! Made an insensitive remark, forgot about a new lesson time with a student, sang some bad notes... Yesterday was rough. Today, I got up and decided to start over, and it has been a good one so far. 

I am still prone to perfectionism, and I do have a tendency to beat myself up over mistakes, especially in music. In every area of my life, mistakes provide an opportunity to learn. In music, a mistake teaches me that I have to focus harder on certain chords or finger positions, use stronger breath control when I sing, or simply practice more. In life, a mistake reminds me that I am not perfect and I should never get too cocky. Every day is an opportunity to learn.  

In my present life, I have had to think hard about decisions I have made in the past. Some decisions I made could be seen as mistakes, but I have decided to look at them differently. The word "mistake" seems to imply regret, and I do not regret anything. Every choice has provided an opportunity to evolve and become smarter and more aware of who I am and what I want out of life.  

There are many choices I have often looked back at and wondered, was that a mistake? Was it a mistake to stay in my hometown for college? To choose L.A. over NYC? To buy a house? To get married? To get divorced? No. The answer to any question like that should always be a confident "no." Every experience has value.  Every amazing experience and every traumatic experience has taught me something important. Dwelling on the past get's me nowhere. It is tempting to regret choices and so called "mistakes," but what is a mistake? It is just a stumbling point, a stepping stone, a learning experience. I will not let difficult moments hold me back from focusing on my goals. I plan on staying present, focusing on my dreams, and never looking back.