Creative Discipline, Creative Freedom

As a teen, I remember being woken daily before dawn, so that I would be able to fit in part of my piano practice before school. I would slouch downstairs in my robe, dress shivering before the gas fire, eat a quick breakfast and set to work.

Up to the age of fourteen or so I had been an early riser anyway, always waking full of energy, ready for anything. But when puberty struck, something catastrophic must have happened to my biorhythms, as almost from one day to the next, I seemed to need a lot more sleep and felt horribly jet-lagged and grumpy when woken.

I was thinking about this earlier today. Despite how wretched I felt, my mother obliged me to practice. How I felt simply was irrelevant (unless I was actually ill). And so I learned a huge amount of discipline, first imposed on me, but later self-engendered. I know how to ‘carry on regardless’.

This quality of discipline proved extremely useful at university, music college and subsequently as a freelance professional pianist. Sit me at a piano with a large pile of music to learn and I’ll have it ready in time. I became known not only for musicality, but for my efficiency, reliability– a super-quick learner who would show up on time and do a great job. As an collaborative pianist, this was a great reputation to have.

Of course there were times when I got distracted. Without anyone around to crack the whip, it was tempting to answer the phone/make another cup of coffee/read the paper/pop out for a snack (thank God I had no internet access at home back then)! But I knew how to be purposeful, disciplined and efficient when it counted, and in many ways those qualities have served me well.

They didn’t have much to offer me, however, when I first developed a painful right arm eleven years ago. I now realize that I was completely programmed to ‘carry on regardless’ and so I did, several weeks longer than I should have (sound familiar to anyone?). My condition had deteriorated rapidly by the time I stopped, and eventually became a chronic condition which is still with me. Some days I can play and some days I can’t. I love my writing, teaching and coaching, but I still miss performing and my intimacy with the piano.

What I wish I’d known back then

It is important, no, vital, to learn to listen to your body even when it is not in pain.

Ditto for mind/emotions.

Discipline is good, but only when it is practiced with awareness.

Discipline needs to, and can, include flexibility.

These days I am learning about creative freedom. No one is expecting me to play the piano, but I can if I like (usually around 30 minutes maximum. There’s nothing like knowing you only have a few minutes to make music-making a precious experience).

I don’t have to play every day.

I need to ask my body if it feels up to playing, and , if so, what.

I can play any music I like or create something new.

I don’t have to practice.

To some of you with a heavy workload this may sound idyllic, but I’m realizing that it has been challenging for me. Without the obligation to play, and with the flexibility I now need to incorporate as a vital part of my relationship with the piano, I am having to discover a new relationship to creative discipline and creative freedom.

I didn’t even realize this until my husband pointed out to me that I had barely touched the piano in months (except when teaching). Without my former draconian schedule, I have felt a little lost . How can I rebuild my piano skills without practice? Yet how can I build a practice routine when I never know how my body is going to be? Will I slip back into being rigid with myself and end up setting myself back? How can I stay conscious and aware?

It strikes me that a lot of these questions are useful ones for any musician recovering from injury– and from what I’ve heard recently , that could be some of you. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone… which brings me to the topic for another blog entry– the taboo subject of musicians’ injuries.

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