Music and the (Piano) Mirror

“You want to know how to paint a perfect painting?  It’s easy.  Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally.  That’s the way all the experts do it.”
—Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

“This is harder than therapy,” an adult student—a psychotherapist—once muttered in the middle of a frustrating lesson.  “All my faults stare me in the face every time I sit down to practice!”

My friend Peter states it this way: “what other profession asks us to face our inadequacies every time we show up for work?”

Playing the piano is hard work because once the mechanics of note reading and technique are in place, the journey becomes much more personal.  Music is a mirror that shows us every bit of beauty we possess, along with every single flaw.  We can hide from this by restricting ourselves to music that doesn’t challenge us, but if we want to keep growing we have to commit to the true task of making music:  working with ourselves.

Years ago a piano teacher gave me an invaluable insight when she said that difficult music triggers our “fight or flight” instinct.  She maintained that every human being is hard-wired for one or the other and that the job of the “fleer” is to grab the notes and the job of the “fighter” is to release them.  Well, I’m a fighter--so much so that several friends nicknamed me “honey badger” after a YouTube video of the creature went viral several years ago.  When I’m in the middle of a nasty technical passage, the last thing I want to do is let go, which is why my scores are littered with red slash marks telling me where to get off the keys. Frustratingly, this knowledge doesn’t mean I don’t have to work on releasing notes every time I play.  

The piano is a mirror to less primal elements of ourselves as well.  There’s no quicker way to find out just how tired or irritable we are than to sit down and try to practice.  We catch ourselves avoiding what we can’t do well, putting it off for another day, or trying to gloss over the mess and hope that no one notices.  In some professions these less-than-desirable feelings or traits can be masked, but not in music.  Eventually, no matter how many excuses we make, we have to choose if we’re going to work through the issue or continue playing in a counter-productive way.  This means telling ourselves the truth about what’s going on and becoming curious about how to fix things.  

Noah Adams addressed this in his book, Piano Lessons when he wrote,

"It's all about integrity.  Even at the stupid level like letting yourself get away with a wrong fingering and knowing perfectly well you've put the wrong finger on that note and not doing anything about it.  That is a lack of integrity as much as glossing over stuff at the highest levels.  Your ego is constantly being teased when you play, and if you're really going to meet a Beethoven sonata head-on, it's not about you, it's not about how good you are or how fast you can play; it's really about getting beyond yourself."  

A commitment to facing truth with humor and grace moves us beyond the ugly beast known as perfectionism.  It also kicks us in the rear when we’re just being lazy.  As we begin to show ourselves “tough love”, we become adept at working with our strengths and weaknesses  and in doing so we  (ironically) find ourselves closer to that elusive perfect performance. The best part?  Eventually we’ll see the truths we learn at the piano reflected in every part of our lives.  And if we’re willing to apply these “piano lessons” to how we live and love, we see our lives deeply transformed by honesty, curiosity, and self-compassion.  

To order a copy of Gustav le Gray, visit Carolyn Shaw's website: