I sometimes get tired of hearing about the delights of “thinking outside the box.” This probably has to do with the fact that I have trouble thinking inside boxes. If I see a box, I run the other way. For any given activity, I would rather invent my own method than read the directions, or get advice as to how other people have proceeded. Maybe I’m just sensitive about being odd!
I noticed this sensitivity creeping up to the surface the other day as I was clearing leaves from my lawn. We have just finished the first stage of the landscaping of our front yard. The wonderful trees that we planted, four altogether, shade the lawn so efficiently that any attempt to grow grass has ended in calamitous failure. We had a retaining wall built along the sidewalk, and the lawn filled in with black dirt and wood chips. In the spring we will have lots of new plants installed, and the grass can just take a flying leap off a short pier!
However… as you know, with every solution come new problems. The multifold dead leaves that drop every day are now lying on a bed of mulch. You can’t rake them up because the mulch would dislodge, too. I decided to try the leaf blower. Huge success! The leaves blow away and the mulch, much heavier, stays put.
In Minneapolis we’re now using the biodegradable leaf bags. They are really nothing but huge, heavy grocery bags made of brown paper. They stand up a little better than plastic bags, but they sag, especially when you have a bunch of leaves you want to drop in. Dropping leaves seems to offend my OCD nature. Luckily some “out of the box” mind invented a leaf funnel made of cardboard. It inserts into the bag, helping said bag to stand rigidly. The funnel part allows the leaves to flow down, where they can be packed into the bag.
I blew the leaves out onto the sidewalk, and proceeded to gather them up with a leaf rake and a free hand. The rake is wide, and gathers up lots of leaves, but it was too wide for the funnel. The leaves continued to drop around the bag, back onto the sidewalk. Now understand, the sidewalk was an intermediary destination, and I had just a wee bit of trouble allowing them to fall back onto the sidewalk after I picked them up the first time. Now is where the story gets interesting…
I went to my shed and got out my snow shovel. The snow shovel gobbled up a huge pile of leaves, and by turning it to the side, I was able to get the leaves into the funnel with no spillage! The shovel held more leaves than the rake, it scooped them up efficiently from the sidewalk, and my problem birthed a bouncing new baby solution. Yea!
Now, I know there were probably neighbors on both sides of the street, peering out from behind curtains, looking at the strange piano teacher, shoveling leaves. But, they’re really the same people that have seen me leaf-blow the first light layers of snow from my walk. Who was it that said to use the “right tool for the job?” He probably wasn’t thinking of me.
I’m sure I’m not the first, or the only, person to shovel leaves. I really don’t care because I solved my problem in the most efficient manner I could imagine. It made the mundane job of removing leaves intellectually stimulating, and satisfying to the inner efficiency-expert in me.
This, I told myself, is the essence of practicing the piano. Yes! Find a problem. Determine the nature of the problem. Find a tool that addresses that problem directly. This eliminates the mindless repetition that many believe is piano practice. If that were true I could understand those that don’t like to practice. I wouldn’t either. But defining a problem, finding a solution, and giggling at the amazing outcome… that is compelling!
I try to teach my students, in every lesson, to think of practice as an Emergency Room experience. Assess and diagnose. Practice TRIAGE. Always do first-things first. The piano equivalent of “opening the airways, stanching the flow of blood.” When they learn to think and plan, set goals and take direct action, they start to play music. That, of course if good, because if they came to me merely playing notes, I would be bored silly! Practicing is nothing but defining problems and finding elegant solutions.