Slow is fast
People change people. On the bumpy rides that are personal journeys of growth and transformation, fellow men and women may nudge you into changing the course of your life with their examples, actions, or words. For me, one of these men was my psychoanalyst Robert, without whom I would have drifted far away as I was struggling to stay afloat through my roaring forties.
I would be late for almost every session and would step into his office in haste, hoping to draw him into compassion with a smile. He would remain kind and cordial but unmoved by my manipulative ways. As a leadership consultant, a trainer, or a coach, corporations hired me to help their managers deliver better results efficiently. It is no surprise, then, that I would regularly inquire into when at last, I would find peace. To this naive mark of impatience, Robert would respond with a gentle smile, and with a soft and caring voice, he would offer a few reassuring words that echoed like a mantra:
"Slow is fast."
And there I was, left to go back into the outer world, the world in-between therapy sessions. In this space of paradox, I was hanging between knowing and not knowing: not knowing when the winds and the waves would calm down; not knowing what the next steps into the unknown would bring to me; knowing – or holding onto the fragile belief – that all would be fine in the end, eventually, for Robert had said it would, because:
"Slow is fast, Dominique."
Another man who gifted me with words that changed me is my piano teacher Monsieur Laurent.
No faking joy
As I was looking to find my way through the McGill University Conservatory of Music, I felt both happy and anxious. I was breathing deeply with a focus to keep calm. It was the day of my piano exam; the first-ever. On a schedule taped on a door, there was my name. I sat on a bench, waiting for my time to come, and engaged in cordial small talk with a couple next to me. Their fourteen-year-old son was in the auditorium, alone before the jury. Through the wall, we could hear him play quite beautifully. He had been learning since the young age of four. They were proud parents. As he walked out, I stepped in.
I was nervous. I was very nervous. The breathing techniques I had been relying on earlier to stay peaceful were now of little help to calm my racing heart. After months of practice on a digital keyboard, striking the Steinway grand piano's keys felt like riding a wild, untamed stallion. My mouth dried up, and my fingers became irresponsive. I froze and choked many times. Once it was over, I left the Victorian building in haste to call Monsieur Laurent: "I am so sorry, please forgive me for being unworthy of your time, efforts, and attention. For sure, I failed." A few weeks passed. Eventually, I got over the nagging feeling of disappointment.
The official transcripts from McGill University came much later in the mail. No. What a surprise. Not a fail. It was a pass. What a ride it had been. I had started at ground zero, not knowing how to read scores. After eighteen months of practice and so many years thinking that I was not fit for music, I had just passed the exam marking the completion of ten years of piano study at the McGill University Conservatory of Music.
Letting my deep connection to music reveal itself to me, I had poured time and love into the practice. But the teachings came from the teacher. If unlocking my musical abilities looked like some miracle, it is clear that most credit goes to Monsieur Laurent, for it is his patience and kind words of wisdom that allowed the magic to unfold.
All had started a year and a half earlier. At that time, one of my roles in life was to drive my then nine-year-old daughter Chloé to her weekly piano lessons at Monsieur Laurent's, next to Saint Joseph's Oratory over Mount Royal. In Georgia, where he was from, Monsieur Laurent was a piano soloist and the National Jazz Orchestra's conductor. In Montreal, where he immigrated, he became a devoted teacher. With icons hanging on every wall, his music room was mystical. Every week I would sit on his couch, and, like a fly on the wall, I would observe how he would skilfully teach Chloé. I soon became mesmerized by his pedagogical ways.
Chloé was keen and studious. She loved to play and was a gifted interpreter. As I admired how she was growing and blossoming into and through her musical practice, I started to feel a budding sense of inspiration. One day over the Christmas Holidays, I timidly asked her if she would mind if I too would take piano lessons with her teacher Monsieur Laurent. She responded with a cheerful grin.
At the end of her lesson the following week, as she sensed that I was about to bail out, Chloé asked bluntly: "Monsieur Laurent, my dad has a question for you." Then, looking at me with a mischievous smile, she added: "my dad would like to know if you would teach him to play the piano." Monsieur Laurent set his conditions: to learn with him, students had to commit to the discipline of daily practice. I nodded. There was no turning back.
The day I sat down on the piano for my first lesson, Monsieur Laurent insisted on another rule to follow: I could always slow down the tempo as much as I needed to, but I could never allow myself, under any circumstances, to make any single mistake.
Monsieur Laurent's golden rule's inflexibility would soon challenge my rebel and type-A personality. Often, I would look for ways to cut corners to speed up the learning process. Inevitably this would make me stumble. Monsieur Laurent remained patient and calm:
"Dominique, please, remember, one rule, one rule only, no mistakes."
It took me weeks to learn a one-page Menuet in d-minor by Leopold Mozart, a piece for beginners he had composed to teach his young son Wolfgang Amadeus. Cranking up the tempo and playing it in a way that did not sound like music for turtles took an eternity. When I would close my eyes, I would hear my psychoanalyst whisper in my ear:
"Slow is fast, Dominique."
Monsieur Laurent was starting to peel off the veneer, uncover some more secret facets of my personality. Following his instinct, he jazzed things up a bit: my next piece to study would be the Brazilian bossa nova and jazz song "Garota de Ipanema" by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes. I had my eyes on the prize: I loved this warm, sunny and merry tune. I had been humming it in Portuguese for years. Being able to pull it off on the piano would be such a treat.
My head would get dizzy as I was painfully progressing through the music sheet, trying to decipher elaborate chords a few bars at a time. The fingering was tricky; my hands stretched beyond their natural abilities. I pushed myself so much with contortions that I developed shoulder pain that required physiotherapy to heal. Eventually, after a couple of months following Monsieur Laurent's mantra "slow you can go, mistakes no go," I managed to play the piece at a reasonably jazzy tempo.
"Slow, you can go, mistakes no go."
– Lawrence Djintcharadze
Every piano lesson would start with a review of the homework that Monsieur Laurent had assigned the week before. A recital of sorts, for the teacher's eyes and ears only. On occasions, when I had learned a piece, the audience would triple: Monsieur Laurent would invite his wife and daughter, both accomplished pianists, to the mini-concert. When came the day to play The Girl from Ipanema in front of a massive audience of three, I was nervous but excited and pulled off a passionate, expressive, and somewhat theatrical performance.
Monsieur Laurent congratulated me and gently offered a bit of feedback: "this was a colorful and interesting performance, Dominique. But joy and happiness cannot be the product of performance. If you want your audience to experience joy and happiness with your music, you must be happy and joyful yourself, deep within, and let the bright feelings transpire through your playing. The true challenge is to find the within."
What did Monsieur Laurent mean? Could people see my melancholy and despair right through me? Would this journey into the world of music finally mark be the beginning of the end of the masquerade?
I started to take Monsieur Laurent's teachings pretty seriously.
The speed of joy
On the day of the Girl from Ipanema recital came a proposal: would I be willing, like Chloé, to align my study program with the program of the Conservatory of Music and possibly, within a year, take the official piano exam? I was hesitant. I had enjoyed my first months of apprenticeship tremendously, but the learning curve had been steep. With this new dare, it would become steeper. Would I stick to the commitment? I went along tentatively and embarked on the slow study of two new pieces: one of Bach's Inventions and a Song Without Words by Mendelssohn.
The first of my learnings was to enjoy the process of learning itself. After suppers, when my tired and lazy self could have gone straight into chilling mode and to the TV room, I would harness the little bit of will power left in me to sit in front of the piano and warm up with a few scales. As the practice would progress into the evening, I would start to relax and re-energize. Time would freeze. The half-hour practice would expand into hours. In the end, I would feel rested, restored, happy, and ready for a night of sound sleep and colorful dreams. Not at all the painful process that I had imagined. Under Monsieur Laurent's guidance, the learning journey became, in itself, enjoyable and rewarding.
On weeks that work travels were few, I could practice as required of me and played with confidence before Monsieur Laurent, when came the day of my lessons. On weeks that work travels were many, the piano practice suffered. The mini recitals were, at times, a total disaster. On one of those occasions that I showed up ill-prepared but tried nevertheless to sustain a challenging tempo, Monsieur Laurent intervened to end the fiasco. Speaking in an unusually solemn fashion, he insisted: "Dominique, please, please, stop, I must ask you a crucial question, please stop, turn your chair around and listen to me." Ashamed and puzzled, I went along and listened:
"Dominique, tell me: why do we play music?"
I hoped to save face with a witty answer but could find none that seemed appropriate given the sense of gravity floating in the air. Monsieur Laurent broke the embarrassing silence: "Dominique, we play music to experience the feeling of joy. Joy is why we play music. And whether you are an accomplished pianist or an apprentice makes no difference. The purpose of playing is to experience deep joy within. For this, you need to attune to yourself and the circumstances of your days. Suppose you are somewhat tired or a bit feverish or show up ill-prepared for your piano lesson. In that case, your attempts to play a difficult piece at a challenging tempo will cause stress, anxiety, and inevitable mistakes. Nothing could be further away from inner joy than stress and anxiety. Remember this: we play music to experience a deep feeling of joy, not struggle through stress and anxiety. So, on days that you are a little tired or ill-prepared, you must slow down as much as you need and play at the speed of your joy."
"Play at the speed of your joy."
– Lawrence Djintcharadze
I prioritized my experience of and connections to the warm and fuzzy feeling of joy from that moment forward. My inner "joy-meter" became the barometer of my learning, my playing, my doing, and my being.
Years later, I understood that Monsieur Laurent had been much more to me than a brilliant piano instructor. He had been my first spiritual teacher and nudged me onto new paths to explore life at the speed of my joy. And then, fairly quickly, as I took my first slow and cautious steps on this journey, I started to experience life on a fast track.
Slow is fast.
Inspiring Leaders START WITH WHY.
For What's Next, We Ask: SO WHAT?
Far from being a fad, the search for a purpose is foundational to our quest for a better future. In words that sing to our ears like a Chopin melody, French writer, poet, aviation pioneer, and author of The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it beautifully:
"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."
Doubting that the quest for a purpose was a silver bullet, I embarked on a strange journey beyond purpose. The CEOs, entrepreneurs, social innovators, advocates, researchers, artists, adventurers, and spiritual leaders I met en route revealed some of our new blind spots: purpose bloating, purpose washing, and purpose myopia, to name a few. The leaders and changemakers I interviewed also shared valuable keys to clear the way forward with courage.
To organize my unorthodox findings and unsure of where the adventure would take me, I started to write The Book of So What, with stories of reconciliations and transformations from the Loire valley in France, the St. Lawrence valley in Canada, and the Jordan valley in the Middle East.
If I had to pitch it to you in an elevator, I would say that The Book of So What explores the liberating powers of the modern jester's question:
"Inspiring leaders start with WHY. For what's next, we ask: SO WHAT?"
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#asksowhat | Book Launch: Fall 2021 | © Dominique Bel, 2020. All Rights Reserved in all Countries.