The Plateau of “I Can’t” and the Six Magic Words that Might (or Might Not) Help

After several months of doing “all right,” my shoulder is hurting again. So far (knock wood) it hasn’t limited my abilities to swim or play piano, but the shoulder is definitely weaker and needs a return to some of those boring repetitive exercises.  Because things seemed better—guess what– I stopped doing the exercises!  I start physical therapy again tomorrow.

My piano lessons have started up again after the holiday break, and I was pleased to learn that the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music will only require two audition pieces this spring rather than four. This frees up a big chunk of time to focus on the pieces that need more work for the recital: i.e. the Beethoven memory work as well as the final variations in that piece, and the Rachmaninoff variations, as well as the Jennifer Higdon I played last year.  I really need to tackle the remaining, recurring technical difficulties so that I can begin to smooth my way toward performance.

I complained to my teacher Stefanie that improvements on the last Beethoven variation were not coming quickly enough—in fact, I said, I saw little improvement at all. This is where a teacher  can give you the perspective and encouragement you need.  She told me to stop telling myself that it hasn’t improved : it has. She also noted the common experience of “plateau” when seeking to learn or change a behavior. Sometimes we just need time to allow ourseves to catch up to the changes we have made before moving on. It’s hard to wait because, impatiently, we often seek much quicker results.

Recently Steve and  I hosted our grandsons for the weekend. One of them has been taking piano lessons for about a year but has run into a serious case of the “can’ts.”  “I can’t do it,” he said as he looked at the new piece he was supposed to practice, then turned around on the bench with his back to the music. I know that he loves music, so it is difficult for me to watch him wind himself up into knots about playing it. Perhaps that’s because, on occasion, I do the same thing, especially if I know someone whose opinion I value is listening and quite possibly judging me. There are so many “players” in the world, so many “writers.”   What standards we hold ourselves to!

So I tried the six magic words that have made it around Facebook over the 18 months or so since the article “6 words you should say today” by Rachel Macy Stafford  first appeared in The Huffington Post. Those words are, simply,  “I love to hear you play.”  If you haven’t read the article, I hope you will take some time to read it now.  It’s what we all need to hear—appreciation, minus the judgments and criticisms we often expect, sometimes most cruelly from ourselves—no matter what our occupation.

But right then, even those six words were not immediately effective with my grandson. He is traversing his own “plateau” at his own pace. When he gets tired of the easy monotony with few challenges, perhaps he will tackle another hill.

I doubt that my physical therapist will say that he “loves to watch me pull that resistance band,” but at this point I just need some encouragement, or perhaps, at my age, a whack on the head to remind me that it’s time to climb that hill again.  And no, it’s not supposed to be easy.

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