I work with everyone from five-year old kids to adults old as the hills. No matter the age, everyone hits these walls in their lessons where they come smack up against something that makes them want to quit. The wall can be different things for different people.
I recently worked with a very little girl who was about ready to give up. She didn’t want to practice anymore and she didn’t want to talk about it with me. As we assessed her situation, I realized that this girl was actually doing very well in my lessons.
The problem she had was that, like all of us, she made mistakes. Of course, we practice so that we can eliminate mistakes. For her, though, the practice wasn’t helping.
I discovered that every time she made a mistake she felt compelled to stop and go back to the very beginning of the piece, to make it perfect. I told her, “No wonder you’re so frustrated! You never get to experience any flow!”
I insisted to this girl that, if she make a mistake, she keep going, and not return to the beginning until after she was done. Finish now, and then go back and correct. It took some convincing on my part, but she finally agreed to try it.
In general, I tell this to all my students, at least in situations when they’re performing. The audience doesn’t always hear a mistake unless the performer gives it away by making a face, grunting or, God forbid, going back to an earlier spot. One of my teachers taught me to always skip ahead and never go back, which is hard to do when you’re a perfectionist, but so much better a choice.
It was incredibly gratifying to watch this girl, who was incapable of handling the frustration that she experienced in her practicing, suddenly become able to tolerate that same frustration. She still gets mad, still twitches, but she doesn’t go back to the beginning. Even better, she doesn’t want to quit her lessons!
As always, I hope that this lesson in piano translates to her whole life. For many of us, piano lessons aren’t about piano, but about ourselves. The music simply gives us another way to look.
In this case, I think a five-year old girl who learns to forgive herself for not being perfect is saving herself a tremendous amount of grief later in life. It is a rare privilege to be able to help her come to that realization. I wonder if I can learn from her?