Archive for July 2008

My Practice Has Gone to the Dogs

July 3, 2008

Last Wednesday, my retired guide dog, Kiefer, started with a cough. Friday, he began showing signs of intestinal difficulties. And Sunday, he was even worse.

On Monday, our vet saw him, did blood work, and prescribed antibiotics.

As of today, Kiefer is feeling much better, but he’s still not quite his usual self. Half of me says he passed so much Sunday that there’s still nothing left. The other half says, “But it’s been almost four days!”

Many people might say, “Oh, come on! He’s just a dog!”

Growing up on a farm, I learned the sense behind this statement. No matter how much we love an animal, we are most likely going to outlive it. And, no matter how much we love an animal, our first responsibility is to care for it the best we can, putting its needs above our own, including our emotional attachment.

When Kiefer was working as my guide, we needed each other. But I can use a cane when a dog isn’t the best option. And I have a new guide dog now who has grown into a loving and trustworthy companion, completely different than Kiefer, better at many things, not as good at others, but a unique and wonderful guide in his own right.

Still, I’m not going to just write off my own feelings. Kiefer and I have been together longer than I’ve known my husband. I’ve nursed him through two surgeries after he blew out his ACL, once while I was teaching in California, the other on the day after my wedding.

Kiefer has curled up beside me when my grandmother died. He’s buried his nose in my hair and let me know he loves me when I felt like no one understood me. He’s convinced many of my students, from the smallest children to older adults, that not all dogs are scary and some are absolutely wonderful.

He’s taught my younger dog, Ecko, about how to be joyful and how to follow me around, how to enjoy being petted.

And even now as I type this, Kiefer is lying beside my chair. When I go in to practice piano later, he’ll either take up a position under the piano or in the corner behind my bench.

How many scales and arpeggios has he heard by now? How many lessons has he slept through? If I wrote down all the pieces I’ve prepared for recitals during his lifetime, it would be an impressive repertoire.

He may not consciously be able to express how close we’ve become, but our hearts are inextricably bound. Every time we think he can’t recover from something or won’t keep going, his spirit rises up in him and he wills himself onward.

One day, the time will come when spirit is not enough. His body is changing. So climbing stairs is difficult, and sometimes he has a nasty cough. His eyes are no longer sharp.

One day, no matter how it pains my heart, I may have to choose for Kiefer that, yes, this is the last moment, and yes, it is time to take the next step on life’s journey.

I can “prepare” myself for this all I want to, but really, there is never a time when I can honestly say, “OK, I’m ready.” The truth is, I will never think I am ready, and my heart and mind will scream in protest when I must let Kiefer go.

But I must, and I will.

For now, my practice has gone to the dogs. Thirteen years is a very long time to be with anyone, and you don’t live through thirteen years without gathering a whole treasure trove of emotions and memories.

I can and have practiced this past week, and I’ve gotten a lot done. But part of me isn’t in my music right now. I can try to be completely analytical and just push through everything, chastising myself for being distracted or exhausted or any number of other things.

But this serves no purpose, and I end up simply making myself feel worse. In the past, I would have done this, then wondered why I was playing so poorly.

But the music will still be waiting for me later today, or tomorrow, or even next week. I have to give myself grace during this season.

And when this is difficult, and I feel like I am not worth that kind of compassion even from myself, I have a wonderful old dog who will remind me I am, whether it’s by thumping his tail when I walk in a room, or putting his head in my lap and leaning against my knees, or touching my hands with his nose to let me know, “Hey, I’m here and I love you. Now can you please pet me?”


Trying My Wings

July 1, 2008

This year, I’ve decided, perhaps a little late, that I’m going to push myself as a pianist. I want to know just how far my mind can go, how high my hands can carry me.

This started last year, when a friend told me to try the second Prokofiev sonata. “Too hard,” I said, even though I felt a deep connection with the composer in general and this piece in particular.

“You can play it,” she said, but I shook my head and dug in my heels, convinced I couldn’t.

Well, on New Year’s Day, I decided to start trying. I always tell my students, “How do you know you can’t if you haven’t even tried yet?!”

I vowed to learn one page of my Braille score every day. It’s about fifty or so pages long, so, giving myself a little leeway for “unforeseen circumstances,” I figured I’d be done learning notes by March 1.

I actually finished memorizing notes February 17. I tried for this year’s Seattle International Piano Competition and the Bradshaw and Buono International Piano Competition by making a CD in March. The first movement of the Prokofiev was part of that disc.

About a month ago, my husband “reminded” me that, if I wanted to play at the elite international level, I had to practice like I meant it and, more important, think like I belonged there.

Again, I had the insight that I hadn’t really found out just what I was capable of. I was settling for “good enough” when I should have been aiming for “best humanly possible”.

So, I’ve been working on my physical practice habits, but perhaps more importantly, my mindset. Ninety percent of our perception of reality comes from what we tell ourselves in our own minds. So, if I had difficulties in practice with particular passages, I would often start berating myself and telling myself I had no business trying because I obviously wasn’t going to get any better.

Well, who says?!

Now, when I catch myself thinking this way, I say to that part of my mind that loves to remind me of doubts and past discouragements, “OK, that’s your opinion, but it’s not helping with this current situation, so I’m going to choose to ignore it.”

Many times, this is enough to shift my focus just enough so I can make progress and achieve whatever goal I’ve set myself.

As for the competitions, I didn’t advance beyond the preliminaries of either one. I could, and sometimes do, get very discouraged because I don’t play note-perfect. It’s like submitting a resume to a huge corporation. If there are typos, misspellings, grammar errors, or even a stray hair on your cover letter, your done.

So, I’m trying to make it possible for me, as a blind person, to play much closer to note-perfect. I don’t want to be recognized as “pretty god for a blind person”. I want to be accepted as a total musician, with the technique and expressiveness that merit that.

The technique is hard, especially, in my case, making leaps on the keyboard accurately, every time, without fail. But it’s the technique that makes the expressiveness possible.

I can honestly say I am a much better pianist today than I was in late March when my disc for competitions was made. And I’ll be even better next month, next season, next year.

Good thing, too, because I’m going to try those competitions again, and keep trying until I succeed.