Notes from the Piano

A personal perspective on grief and music, practice mindset and the psychology of practice.

I have not written anything for several weeks, nor have I practiced the piano until last week, the first time I have gone to the piano to work on for my own playing since my father passed away on March 26th.

It is not that music has not featured heavily in my life since this time, quite the opposite in fact, as one of my first tasks was to choose the music for my father’s funeral service; this involved a long trip down memory lane, reminiscing about the music my father used to listen to, his very eclectic taste in music was hugely influential in my own diverse musical taste.

I was thinking  a lot about my father buying me my first piano, taking me to my piano lessons and piano exams, and following all the ups and downs of my musical journey and career, with his most recent supportive gesture of buying me a watch as a graduation gift when I completed my PG cert in Performance at Guildhall School  where I also teach piano, something my father was very proud of; he didn’t tell me that himself, his best friend told me at his wake just over a week ago. Dad was never one for great praise, always believing that we should stay humble, something which is very much ingrained in me and me which I recognize is a huge factor in both my teaching and performing.

At one point, when he retired, my father also became my student as he decided to learn the organ and to join a male voice choir, so he asked me to teach him music theory. A retired pharmacist, my father was fiercely intelligent, and it didn’t take him long to reach his goal of grade 5 level theory. My late mother, on the other hand, whose mother had been a professional pianist and teacher, was not at all keen on learning music theory and always maintained that she couldn’t possibly count whilst she played! Like her cooking and her art, she just did her own thing, but it really worked for her.

To my frustration, I found that the further my mind went back over my childhood musical memories thinking about the influences and support I had been lucky enough to have from both of my parents, the more I just could not bring myself to play the piano much to my great frustration, it just felt almost too painful.

For me, playing the piano is like breathing; I love practicing, I always have, I had to be dragged off the piano as a child, I am always learning new works, not just to perform or research, but out of the sheer love of music, if I don’t practice every day then I begin to feel like part of me is missing after a couple of days. I am driven to it, I really do need to be at the piano and yet during the last few weeks (as during previous losses), whilst I was happy to immerse myself in my teaching, I just could not find the right headspace to practice.

Every time this has happened (and it has only ever happened in times of grief), it has felt like an additional loss. Sadly, we had a 7 week wait until we could finally lay my dad to rest, so this extended the time scale of this particular ‘dry spell’ at the piano.

During the last few weeks, I have asked myself why this might be so, it has led me to think very much more deeply about the different head spaces we occupy for teaching and our own practice. I have always been aware of this, it is not that teaching is not creative, but is it possible that in times of grief (or for some, extreme stress) we cannot go to that very personal space we go to when we are practicing or playing. This led me to wonder, is our ‘musical self’ so deeply personal and perhaps vulnerable that our brain is protecting us from that by almost shutting that part down? Interestingly I find I cannot read books either during times of grief, reading is another love of mine and of course uses a very different part of the brain to for example watching TV which is more of a passive activity.

I am now inclined to do some research for a further post on what happens to our brain during grief or stress, I have begun to wonder if it is similar to the ‘amygdala shut down’ that can happen with performance anxiety and other form of stress, whereby strong emotions associated with stress can ‘hijack’ your brain’ in such a way that it I not possible to think straight or function in a way which would be ‘normal’ for you, it certainly felt like a huge part of my brain had shut down and I could not access it no matter how hard I tried, and  yet I could function on every other level.

The amygdala is of course part of the limbic system, the part of our brain which helps to regulate our behavioral and emotional responses and is involved in detecting danger and processing emotions and emotional memories. Most musicians who perform on any level, may well, at some point, have felt the effects of this part of the brain as the ‘fight or flight’ emotions we can experience as ‘stage fright’ or performing anxiety. This situation, however, was very different to that, it was more of a total freeze or block.

I know that many musicians, amateur and professional, find comfort in playing their instrument during difficult times in their life, they can lose themselves in it, but the very opposite happens to me and I am fascinated to know whether other musicians have experienced this inability to connect with something so deeply personal and so much a part of their being during difficult times in their life.

Thankfully, although grief is a long process, I am now able to return to my practice and feel happily reconnected and reunited with my piano. I just woke up one day after the funeral and the block that had been there was lifted-just like that, no process, no gradual return to what is normal for me, it was just gone!

I remember one teacher telling me ‘don’t wait until you feel creative to sit down at the piano, you just have to sit and practice, it is your job, when you start it will begin to flow, you will engage with the music’ I have always maintained this, it works for me at any other time, after all practice is indeed part of my job as a pianist and teacher, I usually go to the piano every day, no matter what.

I have written quite a lot about practice, practice is ‘my thing’ I consider that showing my students how to practice is one of my biggest strengths as a teacher and yet…

Like every teacher I encounter students who don’t practice anywhere near enough to achieve their musical goals, I have extolled the virtues of just ‘going to the piano’ and beginning.

I have also written about motivation, both intrinsic and extrinsic, the situation I describe is not about motivation but is more about a psychological or emotional block.

I have always considered the effects of trauma, loss and illness on students and taken these into account when teaching but my recent experience leads me to explore the psychology of practice in much more depth.

I will be researching this topic for a more detailed blog post on the subject but in the meantime, I would love to hear from others, I am particularly fascinated to hear from fellow professional musicians who may have found a way through such a block.

Lorraine Augustine is a Pianist, teacher and adjudicator based in Bedfordshire, with over 40 years’ experience of teaching and performing she teaches piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and runs a busy private practice in Bedfordshire.