I do well when I'm doing well. I thrive on momentum. I can spin anything into a positive, whether it's for the benefit of my students, employees, or me. There's always an angle that can shed light on an underappreciated virtue or accomplishment. "Well, just think of where you were last year at this time - you've made so much progress!" Whatever it takes to keep feeling good. Preserving a winning streak is easier than making a comeback.
When I do feel down, I have many strategies to employ in order to press the reset button on my life and get back on track. Prayer and meditation. Exercise. Being outdoors. Water - the ocean is best but even gazing at a pool or fountain will do. Spending time with friends and family. Playing music, especially with others. And when all else fails, a little caffeine.
In addition to these wonderful things there is one activity that, throughout my life, has been an unusually powerful catalyst for change. Believe it or not, it's playing classical piano.
Although I have always made my living as a music teacher, playing classical piano is little more than a hobby as far as my professional life goes. I don't play weddings or concerts, and my degree is in voice. On good days I am a solid intermediate player but I have yet to learn much important repertoire.
In spite of all of this, classical piano has held great significance for me since I taught myself Schumann's "Melodie" (Op. 68, No. 1) at age eleven.
Playing classical music is both the cause and the consequence of a calm, even temper, self-acceptance, connection with my emotions, a well-ordered life, and an alignment of priorities.
My playing is inconsistent, which is ridiculous given the clear benefit that provides me. What can I say - I do not always have a well-ordered life and an alignment of priorities! However, because the piano is something I return to again and again, each time I can see anew the changes it sets into motion, and one conclusion I can draw is that perhaps I am not always ready for such dramatic upheaval.
In other words: I can head to the piano bench, have some quiet and apparently boring moments with a few measures of Mendelssohn, and three days later I must be prepared to question everything I have ever believed about my existence.
Okay, maybe that doesn't happen every time. But it's happened often enough that I'm wary when I start to find myself gravitating to the piano.
On the other hand, it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario. When I have enough free time and mental clarity to spend several hours a week working hard on classical music, I've clearly got my shit together. Then the additional clarity and peacefulness created by all that playing begin to infuse the rest of my life. It's a virtuous cycle.
Even if I don't want to shake things up I find great satisfaction in playing classical music. The fact that it is recreated from the page makes me feel the way I do when I'm engrossed in a novel, a willing prisoner of a rich inner world created by the collaboration between the writer and me.
There is a sense of communion I feel with the composer, as though I am literally bringing him to life as I play. This long-dead European becomes my friend and colleague as I decode the symbols he lovingly placed on the score centuries ago. An almost-forgotten cipher is his only way to intimate the physical and emotional road map of his work.
There are no words in this music - the presence only of sounds refreshes and entrances me. I am drawn into a deep concentration that lingers after I am finished. I remember an afternoon working on J.S. Bach's Inventio No. 13, hypnotized by the ticking of the grandfather clock I was using as a metronome. Several months later, I played the same piece, now mastered, on the morning of the PSAT exam that would yield a National Merit Scholarship. Better than amphetamines.
Unlike a drug, this high is long-lasting, cumulative, and bears no side effects other than a sometimes uncomfortable expansion of one's capacity as a human being.
I know that not all of my piano students will feel this way about playing. I only hope that they will find something in their lives, whether a hobby or a vocation, that will inspire them to learn and grow out of love rather than duty. I hope they will find something that will allow them to turn the volume down on the less pleasant things in their lives while amplifying their joy, satisfaction, and renewal.