I think the shape of my whole life has been a fluke! Or, maybe it’s fate… some ingenious design I knew nothing about and had no part in setting up. I feel lucky, or blessed, but naïve as I am, I have just proceeded with the whole thing, and here I am.
I am positive of one thing: my life really started with my musical training. That was all something that I stumbled into. My little red accordion, with fourteen bass keys, was the beginning. Or was it? My mother likes to tell the story that almost as soon as I could talk, I was singing. Sitting on my potty-chair, “It is no secret what God can do; what he do to udders, he do to you too!” I almost remember it, but I think that’s because she tells it to everyone; I’ve heard it so often it just seems that I remember it.
So, when the accordion was placed on my lap it didn’t take long for me to hug it and learn to get something out of it. I didn’t play it for long, due to a move away from the city. I can’t remember much about what happened, but there I was playing the accordion, and then I wasn’t. When I was in sixth grade I bought a piano with money that I had saved by setting pins at a bowling alley. It was really nothing I had thought about much, but when the piano was suggested to me, I kind of went with the flow. Somehow, right from the first, the piano felt natural to me. I virtually had no trouble learning to read music, and I loved practicing. I still do. I have made practicing one of the focuses of my life. And I try very hard to teach my students HOW to practice, hoping that they may grow to love it as much as I love it.
I’ve never thought of practicing as being the same as playing the piano. I instinctively warmed to the process of self-evaluation; of diagnosis; of corrective action. I loved the repetition, but I don’t think I ever thought of practice as mindless repetition. I’ve learned that although this is exactly right, not every piano student understands this, or feels compelled by the practice effect.
There was a time, while in the U.S. Army, that I didn’t get to practice very much. I missed it. I was in a military occupation that had me working with 1970’s level of computerized equipment. My job was to maintain that equipment in a high level of order; that equipment ciphered classified military telephone communications and it would have been a breach of national security if the equipment failed. I had never had any electronics training, and I found myself, the ubiquitous piano major/practice room nerd, studying along with guys that had Electronics Engineer degrees. I never questioned why I was attracted to this field, or why I was able to succeed so easily in it. I found out later.
When I left the Army and started graduate school I found that in some mysterious way I had improved at the piano. I’d had no instruction and virtually no practicing. I was a little rusty at first, but after a month I found that something had happened. I even understood music theory better. It seemed to integrate with my playing; as an undergraduate I had thought the theory just an irrelevant evil that took time away from my piano. Although amazed, I really didn’t question why this happened. I found out later.
Soon after I started my life as a university professor in the Department of Music at Louisiana Tech University I began voraciously buying books on music, and specifically books on piano performance. I went to workshops, conferences and seminars. I became a virtual convention-junkie. One of the presenters that attracted me was Seymour Bernstein. He was a gentle man that seemed to love his teaching and his students. I witnessed him teaching in a master class; he interacted with the students in such a stunning display that it seemed he had taught them for years. When I learned that he had just written a book, titled With Your Own Two Hands, I ordered it immediately. And the earth stood still.
Seymour’s book, I found, was an amazing homage to practicing the piano. His main premise in this book is that while many people will agree that life’s experiences influence the way one practices a musical instrument, he finds the reverse is true: the skills gained from practicing influences our lives. Practicing, for Seymour, is a path to the integration of one’s person. Wow. The more I read, the more I loved this book and this author. I could see, no… I could FEEL so many points he makes in my own experience. Practicing changes our brain. Practicing affects our thinking processes, and in doing so, we find we have learned things, approaches, processes that we have never endeavored. Fingers Dancing has been, for me, a description of how life has intersected with music. I have often found a relationship of my music, my piano, to other facets of life. I have described some of these particulars in previous blog entries. This particular entry is to preface some rather important milestones in my life that came about, I completely believe, as a result of positive changes in my thinking skills due to practicing the piano for tens of thousands of hours.
The title of this blog entry refers to a quote of Sappho that Bernstein places in his book, With Your Own Two Hands: I never dreamt that with my own two hands I could touch the sky.