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8 minutes reading time (1531 words)

Culture of caution

Our culture is saturated with slogans, advertising and otherwise, encouraging people to be bold and brave and fearless.

No fear. 

You go, girl! 

Go for it! 

Just do it! 

Yes you can!

Given the sheer volume and intensity of these and other slogans, one would think that we all would have assimilated the message by now and our culture would be one of empowered citizens confidently striding forward to a glorious future- daily undertaking feats of death-defying derring-do and succeeding with almost contemptuous ease. So why is it that so many of our students approach learning to play the piano like timid little chipmunks? 

Peter Jancewicz on top of Mount Lawrence Grassi, near Canmore, Alberta. This mountain is quite close to Mount Baldy.

Timid Chipmunk Syndrome

 A couple of recent incidents got me thinking about the cause of "timid chipmunk syndrome." In the first case, I was at the airport. As I went from the parking garage to the terminal, I had to cross a street. When the automatic door from the garage opened, a mechanical voice bellowed at me, "Caution! Bus!!!" I peered carefully around the corner only to find a deserted street. No cars, no trucks, certainly no buses. Out of curiosity, I backed away from the door, watched it close, and walked towards it again. It opened, and the same voice again warned me of impending peril. As before, the street was deserted. It turned out that my anxiety about getting run down by a bus was completely unfounded. While this is, of course, a trivial example, I think it illustrates the degree to which we are subjected to unnecessary warnings. I have survived this long in part because I tend not to blunder obliviously onto a busy street. I can safely say the same for almost everyone else. Our roadsides are populated with so many warning and cautionary signs, it's a miracle that there are not more accidents while anxious drivers struggle to decipher them all.

The second experience pointed out another facet of the timid chipmunk issue. One of my favorite activities, when not making music, is climbing in the mountains, usually in the company of my wife Susan. She being out of town last weekend, I went for a solo hike up Mount Baldy in Kananaskis Country near where I live. Returning from the peak, I was gingerly negotiating my way down a steep and quite irritating scree slope when I noticed three scramblers below me. Not wanting to kick a landslide of rocks on their heads, I stopped and waited for them to climb out of the way. As they passed, we had a pleasant conversation. In parting one of them said, "Have a safe day!" I should point out that these three were not senior citizens; they were a good twenty years younger than me. I wished them all a great climb, and as I descended, I thought about their comment. In fact, it provided the inspiration for this essay.

The issue of safety had not even crossed my mind until those scramblers brought it up. It's not that I hike and scramble in a reckless manner. Where there is need for caution, I am careful. But I've never thought to wish anyone else a "safe day." I would be happy to wish them a good day, a rewarding day, an exciting day, a fulfilling day, but a safe day? It started to make me think about why I love hiking and scrambling. 

Focus on the path to the goal

When I am at the trailhead, I see the distant peak and sometimes think, "I'm going all the way up there? I must be nuts!" I think of all the potential hazards, from treacherous scree slopes to cliffs with exposure, from hungry bears to angry elk. As I start out, these fears occupy me. But then, as I progress, and as I deal with each difficulty as it arises, my confidence grows. I become increasingly aware and moved by the magnificent scenery surrounding me. When I finally reach the summit, I realize that I have ascended to the top of the mountain on my own two feet. There have been potential dangers on the way, and it is likely that on some climb, I may find something that I can't handle. If this is the case, I'll turn back. But for the moment, I stand on the summit of Mount Baldy, surveying the gorgeous scenery around me, and basking in the fact that I did it. Now, I just have to get all the way back to the car in one piece...

Was the issue of safety foremost in the young men's minds? I understand that on some level they were wishing me well, and I did appreciate that. But the reason for my climbing that mountain was not in any way connected with safety, any more than I go into a supermarket to enjoy the view. I scramble because it is a challenge, and because it is physically, emotionally, and spiritually rewarding. As such, there is a certain element of danger to it, of which I am all too aware, especially when perched at the edge of a cliff looking all the way down. But looking the dangers in the face and thereby conquering my fears makes my life that much more worth living, and the fact that I do this helps me in many other areas of my life.

I can say the same thing about playing the piano. When I start a new piece of music, I see the summit in the distance and wonder how I am ever going to find my way there. Once I get down to working on it, the fears recede. I take it one step at a time, careful when I must be, but also working in such a way that instills confidence in myself rather than fear of failure. If I make a practice of being cautious all the time, I always have the possibility of failure sitting right in front of me. Instead of finding a way to do what is musical and beautiful, I simply avoid doing the wrong thing and have little attention left for the beauty of the music. When I concentrate on what I want the music to sound like and how I am going to achieve that, there is no room for anxiety. I do not have to be careful; I am simply making music.

Sometimes after one of my student recitals, a parent will come up to me and the only thing they will mention is the slip or two that their son or daughter made. I am always astonished that they don't hear or comment on the lovely phrasing, or beautiful tone, or even the fact that their kid negotiated their way through such a difficult piece with only one or two slips. If the parent focuses on the mistake when talking to me, then I am sure their child gets the same treatment. Nothing about the success, but everything about the slip. What a perfect way to instill paranoia in the student! I have no objection if my student has an honest slip. That they get carried away in the heat of a passionate performance and lose a few notes is, to me, a sign that they are connecting with the music, and therefore with the audience. Of course, if the slip occurs regularly in the same place, that is an issue with faulty practicing, and I am quick to jump on it. 

A "can-do" attitude

When I work with my students, I am very aware that an over- emphasis on caution and security will lead not only to a lifeless performance, but also to an anxious and timid approach to music and playing the piano in general. This approach restrains them from stretching out and reaching for the miracle that music is. They remain content with just the superficial aspects of music making, getting the notes and being impeccable and unimpeachable, and this can pall very quickly. I try to show them ways that they can play and learn with confidence-technique that is secure and reliable, and habits of thought fostering the "can do" attitude that results in vital and moving music making. Then they can approach music making with the spirit of adventure that it requires.

Don't get me wrong. Please! I am not condoning or encouraging careless, reckless, or inattentive practicing in any way, shape, or form. But I do firmly believe that practice founded on an uneasy bed of caution produces timid, stilted, and ultimately unsatisfying music, both for the performer and the audience. Music that is approached from a foundation of love, curiosity, and the spirit of adventure is bound to move the performer as well as the audience, and this is what makes piano playing worthwhile. Never mind the bus and all those voices of caution. Have a rewarding and fulfilling musical life at the piano, and get out of the way only when necessary! 

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