My friend Catherine Anderson gave me a card with one of her beautiful photographs, this one of outward spreading ripples in a pond brimming with tree reflections, and with this Chinese proverb:
Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid of standing still.
This message is what my heart needs to hear. So much of the time, my growth is so slow that I feel like I AM standing still with developing any skill at playing the harp. And it’s when I believe I am standing still that I am most likely to want to abandon the whole enterprise, to throw in the towel, to conclude that I’m wasting my teacher’s time, and to declare and believe that I won’t ever really be able to play the harp.
But when I can be as still and as receptive as the pond in Catherine’s photograph, in that moment before the pebble first kisses the surface of the water, I can see and claim my slow growing towards being a musician who plays the harp.
There are things I can do today that were totally beyond me at the end of the 2009 Fall semester. My left hand is comfortable playing a 1-5-8 accompaniment pattern, and is learning to manage the reach for a 1-5-10 chord. For the first time, I played all the harp ensemble pieces using both hands. I am learning new tunes much faster than I used to – I can get uncomplicated pieces into my fingers within a couple of weeks, instead of taking a couple of months. My eyes and hands can now recognize and land on many of the repeating patterns in traditional tunes, instead of having to learn each pattern in each measure as a separate task.
I am practicing more deliberately and effectively, which is also helping me learn tunes more quickly. And while practicing, I am finding more moments where I like how I played, where I feel like I am creating music instead of another drill of a tricky phrase.
While my sight-reading skills are still comparable to the first-grader reading “Run Spot! Run!” I can for the first time slowly read really, really simple tunes and get both hands to move and play the correct notes at the right times. Enough new neural pathways seem to have developed to overcome the paralysis that sets in and allows only one hand to move when my brain is trying to comprehend information on two staves at the same time. While this would not be a big deal for those musicians who apparently emerged from the womb able to sight-read, it’s a major accomplishment for me, and one that seemed totally impossible a year ago.
And this fall I stared down the performance demons that have tried to derail me as I’ve played for other people. I played my solo at the harp ensemble recital with both expressiveness and gracefulness. Last weekend I played for Catherine’s studio open house, and yesterday I played for a Christmas party at an assisted living facility. Despite my painful and embarrassing performance experiences this semester, I am still playing. I did not retreat back to my basement practice room to play with only cat and dog as audience. Like the movie cowboy breaking a wild horse, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and hoisted myself back onto my harp bench.
And to my great surprise, both at Catherine’s studio, and at yesterday’s Christmas party, I enjoyed playing. Without the usual shaking hands and racing heartbeat, I enjoyed how I felt as I played, enjoyed the feel of the harp strings under my fingers, enjoyed the vibrations of the harp in my chest. But most of all, I enjoyed having tunes I love spill out of my fingers and my harp into the room and people around me; I enjoyed being a part of what made the afternoon a joyful experience for others.
Today I am able to accept that I grow as I grow – yet another version of “It is what it is.” There’s no posted minimum speed limit, nor any timetable stating when I must arrive at a certain destination. Today I know I am not standing still, and today I am not afraid.