Stepping Back to Go Forward

I used to be a fairly good pianist. Not impressively good, I don’t think I had the raw talent and I certainly didn’t have the dedication to practicing to take it anywhere beyond a serious hobby and a minor role in my high school orchestra. But I was also far better than “knows chopsticks and picked out the melody to ‘My Heart Will Go On’ once”; 12 years of lessons (more, if you count the keyboard classes before I was old enough for private instruction) will do that to you. At the end of each school year I participated in a program called “piano guild,” in which students were tasked with playing—from memory—a number of pieces for an adjudicator. One year, I presented 10 selections by Bach. In others, I included movements of sonatas by Mozart and Haydn. So yeah, I was good.

Then I went away to college. And grad school. And across the country. And to Canada. And I just stopped playing. Sure, I occasionally got to put my fingers on a set of keys, but I never made any effort to seek out regular access to a piano so I could continue practicing regularly. 

And that’s okay. I’ve always loved making music, but it’s just something I enjoy rather than an unyielding passion for me like it is for some. So letting it fall by the wayside wasn’t a heartbreak. 

Still, though, I have always enjoyed it, so since I’m back at my parents’ house for a few months before Steve and I head off to NZ, I decided I wanted to shake some of the rust away and start playing again. My parents were kind enough to have the piano tuned, and I’ve made it a point to practice a few times each week.

Here’s the thing: I’m still good. You don’t just lose your skills at something you worked at for over a decade just because you spend some years away. I don’t remember most of the songs I once knew by heart, but I can still play them if I look at the sheet music, and they still sound pretty decent. 

The problem is this: while I know logically that I am undeniably rusty, my intuition doesn’t seem to be able to make the connection. I still have a degree of muscle memory so my fingers try to fly over the keys a tempo to hit notes they don’t quite know anymore. 

This wouldn’t be an issue if I could get my brain on board with the logic side of things, if it could tell my fingers, “hey, we gotta slow down until we can pick this back up again.” But instead my brain, traitor, thinks, “oh yeah, we knew this once, time to power through.” And so I reach the end of the song but it feels like a requirement rather than an accomplishment. 

Why is it so difficult for me to take a step backwards until I can work my way back to the level I was at before? I’ve been thinking about this and I’ve come to realise how much we seem to view moving backwards as a failure, no matter how badly needed that move may be. 

I know people who have refused to move back in with family (when they have a welcoming option to do so) even though living alone is gutting their bank accounts and their wills to live.  I know others who fear leaving a job they hate because will once more be the new hire. I know folks who have gotten injured while exercising because they’ve tried to push themselves too hard after an illness or injury. I know friends who subscribe to the sunk cost fallacy and are afraid to leave unhappy relationships into which they have always invested so much time. 

But to view a step backward in any of these aspects of life as a failure is an unfair perspective, even if in the short term that’s how it may appear. Sometimes a step backwards is really a step forward—a step into regrouping, reassessing, taking a new, better path or taking the same path but armed with knowledge that will bring us farther along that path than we managed to walk before. 

For that matter, we need a new perspective on the way we look at failure. Because guess what? We’ve all failed at something, at some point or another. Probably more than once. Probably many, many times. We’ll probably continue failing at things for the rest of our lives. Our choices are either to never try anything we want to do in order to ensure that we don’t fail, or to try everything we want to do and recognize it’s not always going to work out exactly right.

I don’t know about you, but to me the latter sounds way more fun. 

So what do we do? We stop being so hard on ourselves when our paths, large and small, don’t follow the usual trajectory. We realise that sometimes we have to go backwards before we can go forward, and that stepping back isn’t the same as giving up.

On a minor scale (pun intended), I could continue to muddle through Beethoven’s Pathetique (my favourite piece) and reach the end without improvement, but instead I plan to take that step back with my practice, force myself to play slower, more deliberately, until I’m ready to return to the level at which I could play it before. Then, hopefully, I’ll be ready to move forward. My goal is to have the first two movements memorized by the time I leave, and I know that a longer, more winding road still reaches an end.




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