When he plays, Marc’s fingers move feverishly, but also playfully, hitting the notes with a deliberateness that seems almost reckless. From my privileged position, propped onto the stool to Marc’s right, I listen, and watch, in awe. How can anyone move their fingers so quickly, almost carelessly, yet produce such clean, harmonious sounds?
The answer is undoubtedly complex, but you can get a glimpse of it by looking at the pianist’s body become possessed by the music as he performs. Right now, I’m so close to Marc that I can feel his shoulder brushing up against mine whenever he needs to hit the higher keys of the piano, and I eagerly take in all of the nuances of his playing: The subtle changes of expression, the way his shoulders relax before a particularly slow and heartfelt sequence, or the way his lips form an imperceptible smile, and his eyes close, to savor an especially beautiful sequence… These are just some of the things that make Marc a great pianist.
His technique is not perfect, mind you, and he has given up on becoming a concert pianist years ago. Nevertheless, Marc continues practicing, albeit “only” for two hours a day. And I wonder, where does he find the discipline to sit in a stuffy room day in – day out, even during the sunniest days of summer, or the morning before an exam, when all the other students are studying? And where does he find the energy to play late at night, at times foregoing dinner, to return to a house that has long been enveloped by the comfort of slumber?
I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I realize that a writer has a lot to learn from a pianist, especially someone who is deeply devoted to his art, like Marc.
I, for one, learned that I had to practice, that I wouldn’t just wake up one day and become a great writer. I should have probably woken up to this realization earlier, but I hadn’t. My perfectionism had led me to believe that a real writer should be wonderfully eloquent from day one. Hence, I lived by the dogma that everything I wrote had to be good and, when it wasn’t, I got discouraged… and stopped writing.
Now, I’m “forcing” myself to sit down and churn out at least 500 words of my novel every day. Sometimes it’s incredibly hard, even though I know that 500 words is actually not very impressive – this short post is a lot longer than that! And yet, by becoming more forgiving towards myself and finding the courage to write, I am slowly learning to love the creative process, to lose myself inside the world brought to life by my words. When that happens, time passes by without me noticing, until I have 700, 900, 1100 new words on the page. Of course, not all of those rapidly, almost recklessly typed words hit the mark, in the same way that Marc’s fingers sometimes miss the right keys. But I keep going, knowing that it is only by giving myself the permission to write “crap” that I allow myself the possibility of – perhaps accidentally – ending up with a string of almost-decent sentences.
Another precious lesson Marc taught me is to be accepting of the unpredictability inherent in art. Since a pianist is not a robot, his performance is always unpredictable. Sometimes you play wonderfully, other times less so, and you can never be entirely sure that, when you sit down on that stool, in front of the audience, you won’t suddenly forget half of the piece and completely humiliate yourself. The only factor that can counterbalance your performance anxiety is the love for playing. If you can stay present with what you are doing, and forget about the audience, or your future readers, you will be able to enjoy the act of playing the piano or, in my case, writing. I noticed that, if I concentrate on enjoying what I do, rather than letting every sentence be smothered by the fear of writing a mediocre novel, my fingers finally feel free to dance on the keyboard, and the terror which had formerly paralyzed them finally subsides.
This leads me to the third crucial lesson Marc taught me: the importance of relaxing, of enjoying your work as much as a child enjoys play. Today, I was reminded of this as I listened to the speech Steve Jobs had given during Stanford’s commencement ceremony in 2005. He had talked about death, and its uncanny power to put everything in perspective; to remind you to follow your dreams today, not tomorrow.
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” – Steve Jobs
This is one of the parts that most resonated with me, and it has acquired a further sense of gravitas now that Steve Jobs has sadly passed away. Although it might be tempting to postpone putting your most ambitious hopes on hold as you pursue easier, but less satisfying goals, don’t do it. It’s better to confront your fear of failure, and put all of your energy in doing what you love. This way, when you wake up in the morning, you might be a little nervous, but you will at least be able to say that, if this were the last day of your life, this is what you would want to be doing.