Some years ago, a highly successful man from the world of finance approached me for lessons. Essentially a beginner, he had previously tried a few lessons with another teacher locally, and I asked him why it hadn’t worked out.
His explanation amounted to a cautionary tale:
“I told her that I was only interested in learning Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata, but she insisted on trying to teach me dull Grade 1 pieces. I had no interest in learning them, felt unmotivated and annoyed, and made no progress.”
Naturally I tried to explain (as undoubtedly the previous teacher had) that the Tempest is an incredibly difficult work, requiring a range of highly advanced musical and technical skills. It is possible to admire and be inspired by the achievements of the world’s greatest players while enjoying working at our own level.
Alas, he was not for turning, and within a short time the lessons stopped, my name presumably added to the list of stubborn failures who had been unable to teleport him directly into the Tempest without his needing to follow in the footsteps of those pianists who have previously made the journey with success.
Teaching with a sense of structured progression and an underlying curriculum is not a matter of professional hubris or a money-spinning scam; it is the means by which learners can progress towards their goals, realising their potential. It is an act of generosity.
Nor is it negative, lacking in faith or discouraging to recognise that as players we all have our limitations. On the contrary: it is foolish, arrogant and self-defeating to think otherwise. For a start, we don’t know what we don’t know.
Deng Ming-Dao reminds us,
“Every river has its banks,
Every ocean has its shores.”
Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao Daily Meditations, Harper Collins
The River Metaphor
I love this metaphor of the river in particular, because it is the river’s banks – its limits – which are its greatest asset. The river is constantly flowing and changing: it is the banks which give it direction, focus its energetic flow, and encourage it towards its destination. It doesn’t want to burst its banks, and quickly dissipates when flooding causes it to; how much better to flow where its limits lead!
The shores of the ocean, meanwhile, are ultimately the boundaries which define it. The shoreline is a point of safety, security, a haven from the deep. And while I often remind students that piano playing is the journey of a lifetime, without destination, we all need to spend time in port, resupplying our vessels and finding refreshment.
Our limits, it turns out, are among our greatest assets.
“Constant expansion is not possible. Everything reaches its limits, and the wise always try to identify these limits. In the environment, they do not wilfully expand civilisation at the expense of natural wilderness. In economics, they do not spend beyond the market. In personal relationships, they do not demand more than others can fairly give. In exercise, they do not strain beyond their capacities. In health, they do not go beyond the limits of their age.”
The desire to push beyond our natural limits may have become an endemic demand in every field of contemporary endeavour, but there is little doubt this attitude, often wrongly regarded as heroism, is the root of so many of the problems we now face.
For thousands of years, the Daoist philosophers have taught that progress can be a more natural process, liberated from the vain need to conquer.
Going with the flow…
The surest way to reach our destination without our early enthusiasm evaporating is to allow ourselves to be mentored by a guide who has at least seen the ocean for themselves, grasping its significance and scope, while of course acknowledging that none of us have swum its full distance.
The struggle some have is due to the fact that course correction can involve fortifying the banks, taking time and care to address the very limitations they so desperately want to ignore. Progress does not always look like progress, especially in a bucket-list, tick-box, grade-obsessed, conquer-all culture.
Before we can “wake up and smell the roses” we have to recognise that we are not gods, capable to achieving any- and everything. Nor are we equal, identical clones: from our fingerprints to our experiences of life, from our DNA to our abilities, from our personalities to the retinas of our eyes, each of us is an utterly different and unique individual.
We must respect ourselves, just as we must respect one another. And each of us has our limits, just as we have incredible potential.
Here are some of the wins we can enjoy if we recognise and embrace our limits, allowing them to positively inform and shape our course:
- We can enjoy a steady flow of wonderful repertoire that we are capable of playing with expression, confidence and love.
- We can learn pieces which are suitable for us, with more ease and less frustration.
- We can develop our technical skills securely, and our musical communication with a more rewarding sense of accomplishment.
- We can have a reliable, expert knowledge and understanding of the music we play.
- We can develop an active repertoire of pieces that are within our gift to play any time, any place, from memory.
Our limits, whatever they presently are, are not ultimately fixed. Though they are our present reality, over time – with patience and persevering practice – we naturally erode them, cutting a new path that reshapes the course of our journey, just as rivers change theirs.
As Deng concludes:
”Limitations should not always be seen as negative constraints. They are the geography of our situation, and it is only right to take advantage of this.”