When the World Gives You Lemons

I’ve played the piano pretty much my entire life, and I’ve had great teachers who have left indelible marks on my playing, teaching, and the way I think about music. But I’ve also had my share of challenges, perhaps not the least of which is that I can’t see the keyboard, and I use Braille music to learn new pieces.

This is not going to be a rant about how rough I’ve had it, or how everyone should feel sorry for me. Actually, pity from other people makes me squirm. I was raised to do the best I could, as much as I could, before asking (without expecting) other people to help me.

I’ve fought a long time to try and convince myself that, yes, even though I have to do everything at the keyboard by touch, I should be able to take the same approach to practicing, learning and performing as all the pianists out there who can see. Great idea in theory, but not quite true in practice, and now that I’ve begun to accept that and work with what I’ve got instead of the illusion of what I wish I had, things are really starting to move.

In 2006, I played an audition tape for a national prize. I thought, “What do I have to lose?” It was the first time I’d done anything like that.

I won. After the initial shock of the idea that fifteen minutes of music had garnered me something like that, I got another surprise. I was invited to play at the national convention of the organization that gave the award, the National Federation of Music Clubs.

I’ve traveled a lot, and I love doing it because I love the chance encounters you can have with people. You never know if the person you talk to for five minutes in the airport will become a lifelong friend or be just another star passing through the galaxy of your existence.

So when I sat down next to Anne on a bus in Minneapolis and we had a hearty laugh at the expense of my very large guide dog, Ecko, I couldn’t have imagined what was instore.

It’s now 2008, and I’ve just returned from two weeks in Kansas, the place Anne calls home. Over the past two years, I’ve discovered that she has a keen mind, fierce determination, a musical mind honed over the years to a razor’s edge, and, most wonderful for me, a seemingly boundless desire to pass what she knows on to me.

She graduated from Julliard, and while not every person who comes out of the famed school is a world-class performer or has the aptitude for teaching, I can’t help but think that you can’t pass through a program like that without picking up something along the way.

I don’t have any regrets about the path I’ve taken. I’ve gone a lot further than I ever imagined I would when I was pounding out immature Rachmoniov to get into college, and I’m always learning, no matter what crazy detours I seem to be following.

But for two weeks, I had someone who was pushing me in one direction: up. She took my technique apart and showed me not only what I needed to fix, but all the steps I needed to take in order to achieve results. She talked about how to practice, not only from the physical and musical perspective, but from the all-important mental perspective. After all, you can spend a lot of time moving your fingers and memorizing notes, but if your mind’s not in the right place to demand excellence, with all the hard slogging and merciless repetition that entails, you’ll get nowhere, or at least nowhere close to where you might be.

Since college, I have been a fairly independent player. I chose music based on what I wanted to play and then tried to will myself up to the standard necessary to play it, not always successfully.

Now, I have someone who is saying, “Learn this piece because it can teach you something about phrasing,” or wrist action, or repeated notes, or whatever.

Practicing is lonely business. Everyone sees the end result, the glamorous concert gown, the after-recital reception. They might have a vague idea of what goes into making all that happen, but they don’t live it. Even in my own family, it’s pretty mysterious to most people the amount of time and effort that has to go into it. It’s the artistic pursuit in a world where artists are in the minority.

My husband is a martial artist, so he understands it. But our temperaments and mental makeups are very different, so we don’t always see eye to eye. He’s given me countless good suggestions and recommendations. It just takes me years to get over my stubborn resolve (“I’ll do it my way or no way at all!”) and concede the fact (“He does have a point.”).

To have someone who has a similar outlook, a similar psychological process, and who also is coming from the same artistic background is a wonderful thing, and a tremendous relief. With my other teachers, we were always chasing some other dream or pursuing some other goal. Whatever it was, it was important at the time, and I gained immense wisdom from those endeavors.

But now, this far up the mountain, to have someone take me aside and say, “You know, you may want to change the way you’re walking so you can climb farther and faster” … I don’t have any words to describe how that feels. Sometimes, frustrating, but more often, it’s just really reassuring because, at last, I’ve been given the teacher I’ve needed, although I didn’t realize I needed her until she appeared.

There’s an old saying: “When the world gives you lemons, make lemonade”. Lemonade is refreshing, but there’s always an underlying bitterness to it. It implies that you grab the lemon and squeeze it until it’s forced to become something it wasn’t before.

Me, I’ll look up at those lemons on the tree. If the light is just right, and I come at them from the right angle, they become golden spheres that fill my mind’s eye with beauty. I’m not putting a lot of effort into changing them, just letting them appear.

I’ve taken a long and roundabout journey in search of my art. Two years ago, that journey included a bus ride in Minnesota. Two weeks ago, it included a whole string of revelations on a piano bench in Kansas.

Two years from now? How knows? I only hope I can make the most of what I’ve been blessed with. Anne is an invaluable teacher, but also a priceless friend. But I had to be ready for her to appear in my life. Now that I am, I’ll savor every lesson she passes on.

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7 Comments on “When the World Gives You Lemons”

  1. Anne Schalker Says:

    I am deeply touched by the piano article written by Stephanie Pieck. She gives me more credit than I deserve, but of all the students I’ve ever taught, Stephanie has the sharpest mind, desire to learn and more determination than any student I’ve ever taught. There is no doubt in my mind but what she’ll conquer the “Tempest” and any other challenge that requires fierece determination — such as the Prokofieff Sonatas. She has a spirit that strives and is the dearest and most loyal friend anyone could ever hope for. She is a woman of many talents and will leave her mark on the world forever.

    Anne J. Schalker

  2. Edward Weiss Says:

    Excellent post. I’m going to have to share this with my students!

  3. halfnotes Says:

    Anne,

    Thanks for that encouragement. Right now, the chase is just begun and spirits are high. I’ll save your words for the days on which I wonder, “What on earth am I doing this for?”, or “Do I have any business doing this at all?”. We can all have dedication and our own opinions on why we do the thing we call our life’s work. But it’s really wonderful when someone else who shares knowledge of the same field and all its inherent challenges says, “You’re on the right path,” or “I know you can do it,” or, best of all (and usually only after long, hard striving) “Bravo! Well-done!”.

  4. halfnotes Says:

    Mr Weiss,

    I’m glad you found it useful. As teachers, our goal is to pass knowledge on from one generation to the next. How it gets passed–in hands-on lessons or something written down–doesn’t matter, as long as we’re preserving the art and fostering a passion for it in those who will inherit it when we’re gone.

  5. Andy Rosenbaum Says:

    Stephanie,

    You may not remember me, but I am a former student of yours. I took lessons with you for a short time in Guilderland, New York around 1997, when I was seven or eight years old. That was the only time I had formal piano lessons, but I have continued studying and playing on my own ever since.

    I was too young to realize it then, but you really inspired me. I was amazed that you could play the piano so beautifully without being able to see the keyboard. In my own practice, I sometimes close my eyes to experience the music the way you do. I’ve noticed two powerful effects this has on my playing.

    Firstly, with my eyes closed, I can’t watch the sheet music, so I have no choice but to memorize it. That gives me a boost of confidence, and even allows me to be more expressive.

    Secondly, I become more aware of the arrangement of the keys, the spaces between them, and how to position my hands to hit the right ones. I learn to trust my ears and hands to guide me. The sound of the music and the feel of the keys become more vivid.

    When I open my eyes, I feel calm and refreshed, and I’m proud and grateful to have learned from you.

    Music has always been important to me, and it will be with me forever. In addition to playing piano, I’ve studied music theory, I sang in my high school choir, and I’ve played trumpet since elementary school.

    Thank you for inspiring me in music and in life.

    Andy Rosenbaum

    • halfnotes Says:

      I’m glad you have found music to be such an important part of your life. More than anything else, that is the lesson I want all my students to learn from me, whether they study with me for two months or twelve years.

      Best,

      Stephanie Pieck


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