People change people. On the bumpy rides that are personal journeys of growth and transformation, fellow men and women may nudge us into changing the course of our lives with their examples, actions, or words. For me, one of these influencers was my piano teacher Monsieur Laurent.
Slow is fast
As I was looking to find my way through the McGill University Conservatory of Music, I felt happy but anxious and 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 sitting 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 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.
Letting my deep connection to music reveal itself to me, I had, over the previous months, poured time and love into the practice. But the teachings came from the teacher. If unlocking my musical abilities looked like some miracle, 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 golden icons on display, his music room was mystical. Every week I would sit on his couch to observe, like a fly on the wall, how he skillfully taught Chloé. I was 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. 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, sensing that I was about to bail out, Chloé looked at me with a mischievous smile, then turned to Monsieur Laurent and spoke for me: "my dad would like to know if you would teach him how to play the piano." Monsieur Laurent asked me to commit to the discipline of a daily practice. I nodded. There was no turning back.
The day I sat at the piano for my first lesson, Monsieur Laurent insisted on another rule to follow: I could slow down the tempo as much as I needed to, but never allow myself, under any circumstances, to make any single mistake.
Monsieur Laurent's golden rule's inflexibility would soon challenge my rebellious personality. Often, I would look for ways to cut corners to speed up the learning process. Inevitably this would make me stumble. Monsieur Laurent would calmly remind me:
"Dominique, please, 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 heard a whisper:
"Slow is fast, Dominique."
No faking joy
Monsieur Laurent then followed his instinct to jazz things up a bit. My next piece to study would be the Brazilian bossa nova song "Garota de Ipanema" by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes. 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. I kept my eyes on the prize.
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, and my hands got 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 reviewing the homework. A recital of sorts, for Monsieur Laurent's eyes and ears only. On occasions, the audience would triple: Monsieur Laurent would invite his wife and daughter, both accomplished pianists, for a mini-concert. When the day came to play The Girl from Ipanema in front of this massive audience of three, I was nervous but excited and pulled off a passionate, expressive, and somewhat theatrical performance.
Monsieur Laurent congratulated me and offered a bit of gentle feedback: "this was a colorful performance, Dominique. But joy cannot be the product of performance. If you want your audience to experience joy with your music, you must be joyful yourself, deep within, and let the bright feelings transpire through your playing. The true challenge is to find joy within."
Could Monsieur Laurent see right through my melancholy and despair? Would this journey into the world of music finally end the masquerade? I started to take Monsieur Laurent's teachings at a deeper level.
The speed of your joy
Then came a proposal: would I be willing, like Chloé, to align my study 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.
A key learning 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 willpower left in me to sit at the piano and warm up with a few scales. Soon I would start to relax and re-energize. As the practice progressed into the evening, time would freeze, minutes would stretch 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 was enjoyable and rewarding.
On weeks that work travels were few, I would practice regularly, diligently. On weeks that work travels were many, the piano practice suffered, and the mini recitals were, at times, a total disaster. On one of those occasions that I showed up ill-prepared and tried nevertheless to sustain a challenging tempo, Monsieur Laurent intervened to end the fiasco. Speaking in an unusually solemn fashion, he interrupted me: "Dominique, please, stop. Let me ask you a critical question. Please turn your chair around." Ashamed and puzzled, I went along and listened: "Dominique, please 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 deep joy, not struggle through stress and anxiety. So, on days that you are not showing up at your best, you must slow down as much as you need to find and play at the speed of your joy."
"Play at the speed of your joy."
– Lawrence Djintcharadze
Later, I understood that Monsieur Laurent had been a brilliant piano instructor and a spiritual guide. And then, experiencing life at the speed of my joy, I found myself on a fast track.
Slow is fast.
#asksowhat | © Dominique Bel, 2020. All Rights Reserved in all Countries.