A few days after I moved into my present apartment building (almost 10 years ago), I heard the faint sounds of a piano coming from upstairs. Not from the apartment directly above mine but maybe down the hallway from that or possibly even 2 floors up. The sound wasn’t intrusive; just the soft sounds of Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu played v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y and m-e-t-h-o-d-i-c-a-l-l-y. I didn’t know who was playing it, but they obviously loved the piano and were practicing in a diligent and determined manner.
At first I enjoyed hearing my musical compatriot practice every day, but then I began to realize that their routine never varied. Every day, the same Chopin piece, played very slowly and methodically. My piano teacher instincts wanted to take over and scream, “Play the hands separately! You’ll never get any better if you always play the hands together like that!” “It’s a hard piece, also play something easier!” You’ll never learn it well enough to really enjoy it unless you try other learning strategies!!!”
But I resisted these urges and simply listened to the same piece, played over and over at the same slow tempo, day in and day out. After a few months of this, the music changed. Now I heard Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude played even slower than the other piece (it’s more difficult and has big chords)! I didn’t know who this person was, but since there were a lot of elderly residents in the building, I presumed it was some nice senior citizen who didn’t have a clue as to how to practice effectively but enjoyed playing their favorite classical piano pieces even if they never got any better at it. I figured I’d just try to enjoy the pleasing sounds when I heard them and not go into “teacher mode.” (It’s less frustrating that way.)
Well, 10 years later I still don’t know who the mystery pianist is (I could ask around to find out but feel it’s somehow more touching not to know). But here’s the amazing thing: They’ve improved! Sure, they would have improved much more rapidly if they’d sometimes practice the hands separately, but still, they’ve improved!
I now hear the above two Chopin pieces plus some Bach and Beethoven and a scattering of other pieces, and they’re played a little closer to the correct tempos. This person played they way they enjoy playing and has spent lots of good, quality time at the piano. And maybe for this person, that’s enough. They’re not preparing for a concert. There’s no pressure to “get it right.” They simply enjoy spending time at the piano.
So now when I hear those slow tempos I smile to myself, knowing that somewhere, close by, there’s a kindred spirit who’s spent a lifetime loving music and finds it fulfilling to sit down each afternoon and play the piano for a while. It doesn’t matter one bit how “fast” they improve, or if they ever play The Revolutionary Etude up to speed. They’re playing piano, and it’s making the world a better place. What more could anyone ask for?
My upstairs neighbor perfectly embodies what I was trying to get at in The Practicing Paradox.
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