What the gym has taught me about piano practice

About seven months ago I decided to start going to the gym and radically changed my diet.  I have  type II diabetes and my AIC,  (the blood test that determines how much sugar is in your blood) was becoming bad.  I was on three diabetes medicines and about to be put on a forth.  I was progressively getting worse and was told I would soon be taking insulin shots.

I joined a local gym and started researching exercise and diets.   I learned that I could hugo_newyear4_cimprovemy diabetes and overall health by working in the gym on a regular basis and going on a plant based (starch based) diet.

At first the gym was intimidating, painful and slow.  The diet was also a major change.  I decided that I would go to the gym every other day to give my muscles a chance to rest in-between workouts.   After all, I was almost 60 and need to be realistic about what I could do.  I decided to spend about two hours in the gym each session.  I would do weight lifting for over an hour and finish by doing a cardio exercise.  (This became interval training on a treadmill)

My progress was slow.  I could only bench press and squat 75 pounds.  I felt inadequate and awkward.   After all, you are supposed to be able to lift your body weight.  I weighed 265.

After each session I was sore; really sore.   I questioned why I was doing this.  Somehow I stuck with it for the next two months.  I had a regular scheduled appointment with my family physician around the same time.   I was surprised.  My AIC dropped 10 points and I was taken off of two of my diabetes medications.  This gave me the motivation to keep going.

I have now gone to the gym for eight months straight.  I only missed a couple of sessions, but when I did, I learned a valuable lesson.   I went backwards.  No, I didn’t stay the same, I got worse!  Just taking off an extra couple of days made me go back to lifting a lighter weight than I did the time before.  So missing a session was not a good thing.  Others in the gym told me the same thing.  There is a “momentum” you get from working out in the gym.  If you stop, you go backwards,  you don’t stay at the same fitness level.  You have to constantly keep working at it.   You just can’t afford to take a session off!

After eight months I’m now bench pressing 200 pounds, dead lifting and squatting well over 250 pounds so I have clearly progressed.   I still find plateaus in my progress.  Sometimes I need to stay at the same weight for weeks before I can lift more.  Others in the gym told me this is normal.  How do I get past this I ask?  They told me to force my body to lift heavier weight than I’m comfortable with.  Keep pushing your body beyond your comfort zone.   Once you do, you are rewarded with the fact that you need to work even harder to get the same benefit you did before.  You see, your body becomes more efficient and burns even less calories at each session.  You therefore need to work even harder at each session to get the same physical benefits as before.

So what does this have to do with practicing the piano?

Just about everything – hear me out.

When you first start taking piano lessons you feel clumsy and inadequate in making any sound that resembles anything like music.

Progress comes slow, just like lifting weights.  You make progress in small increments.  You seem to plateau on a regular basis.  How do you get past the plateaus in learning?   You push yourself harder than your comfort zone, just like lifting weights.  All of a sudden you break through.  Once you do, you have to work even harder as the music becomes more difficult.

How long does it take to start playing something that is pleasing to you?  Most of our students take about two years to learn the fundamentals depending on how hard they work.  Lifting weights and getting in shape seem to be similar.   It takes about two years for an out of shape adult like me to get back in shape.  Is it worth it?  To get rid of debilitating diseases like type II diabetes?  You bet!  Is it worth it to learn to play a nice piece on the piano?  Ditto!

What happens when you take time off from your practice?   You get worse.  That’s right, you don’t stay the same and your progress goes  backwards, just like in the gym.  You have to practice on a regular just to stay at the same level.   How hard you push yourself determines how much you improve.  Persistence is more important than time.  I can tell you that from experience.   It’s better to go to the gym on a regular basis for shorter periods of time than to spend hours in the gym one day a week.  Your muscles need time to develop and rest just like your brain needs time to digest what you practiced on the piano.

I have learned a lot about practicing the piano from spending time in the gym.  I learned that nothing in life comes easy.  I hear students tell me how they wish they could be as talented as this person who plays the piano well.    You see, it really isn’t about talent, it’s all about the work.   Yes, there is some innate talent that helps to become good at anything, but you won’t get there without the consistent work.

Every great pianist that I read about has spent countless hours practicing their craft.  I have talked with concert pianists who told me they spent well over 2000 hours working on a single piece of music.  J.S. Bach spent literally every waking hour of his life working on music.  It didn’t come easy for him either.  There are no short cuts to becoming good at anything.  Bach is regarded today as a musical genius, but did he just work harder in his day than anyone else?

We live in a culture that wants everything fast.  We want our food, information  and our music fast.  We want instant gratification and results.  If you are sick, take a pill.  If you want to communicate with someone, send them an instant text.   I can take diabetes medicine to lower my blood sugar instantly, but that only treats the symptoms.  I’ve learned that I can totally reverse the illness with hard work and diet.

I’m sorry to tell you this, but you won’t become good at the piano quickly just like you won’t get in shape quickly if you are out of shape like I was.

So, if you want to learn to play the piano with some proficiency take what I learned from spending time in the gym.  Expect slow gradual progress.  You will feel inadequate, clumsy and ignorant at first.  You will question why you are even doing this.

Expect there to be many plateaus along the way.  Be willing to stick with it for the long haul.  Push yourself beyond your comfort level, that’s how you progress.

Make long term goals on what you want to achieve.  Pick that piece of music out early on that you want to learn how to play.  It’s important to have long term goals.

Remember that if you don’t practice on a regular basis,  you will go backwards.   Be prepared to start over again at an earlier level.  Don’t beat yourself up – just continue on.  You learned something from this regression.

Work at it every single day, even if you don’t want to.   Expect there to be constant pain along the way.  Without the labors of work, you will never achieve your craft.

Most importantly, don’t quit.  Anything worth achieving is worth working at.  Why spend time and energy learning a craft if only to quite before you achieved your goals?

This is what the gym has taught me about piano practice.

Dave Sass

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