To my students: a letter at commencement

by Sally Harmon

People who play the piano are usually successful. They are leaders, thinkers, inventors, creators, athletes and professionals — or well on the path to becoming so. The icing on your “cake” in life may be performing at beautiful venues for legions of adoring fans. Or, just an impromptu slide across the keys in some unlikely place: a hotel lobby, a school cafeteria, a friend’s house, a church basement, a college dorm or in the back corner of some office building. Friends, family, colleagues, and even strangers will marvel at the fact that it’s just one more thing you do well. They may even get a peek into your soul.

So, are people generally smarter and more successful in life because they have studied piano? (This claim delights teachers and devoted parents out there.) While that can never be objectively answered, I like to think the challenge of piano is not only good for the brain, but also for the heart. It takes a great deal of effort to learn piano and courage to share what’s been learned. I’m reminded of The Wizard of Oz. Life would be better “if I only had a brain, a heart, the nerve!” Dorothy had determination. The Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion realized they had what they wanted all along: brains, heart and courage.

Let’s start with the brain. Yes, apparently playing the piano is good for the mind. Leading studies by top neurologists have revealed that playing the piano, at any level, is among the most difficult of all human tasks. There are several current books out on this topic, showing MRI scans and graphs to prove the point.

And yet, successful musicians also try to nurture their own hearts. The piano accepts and gives back whatever feelings one puts into it: joy, sadness, beauty, power, love, triumph, anger. At the piano, you are safe. Free to emote.

That brings us to courage. Successful pianists choose to take a big risk: performance. Here, our inner workings are displayed for all to see. Recitals can often cause our frightened hands to suddenly start shaking, fingers frantically rooting for the notes as our heart rate soars.Someone is surely judging us: our teacher, the audience, the critics, our family, our peers.

Those who succeed and thrive are those that recognize that the more you perform, the better you get at it. The thrill of performing starts to become fun, and the rewards happen both internally and externally. It is my belief that if you have performed in a piano recital, at any level, any other public performance you do in life may seem a whole lot easier in comparison. You’re most likely better equipped than most in speaking to a crowd, leading a board meeting, running for office, nailing that interview, or just being strongly convincing to others.

To all my students: You have come this far because of your determination to succeed. As you step out into your next adventure, consider what you have learned, conquered and loved at the piano over the years, and apply it to everything you do.

Show up. Keep the flow by playing slowly and thinking fast. Anticipate what’s coming next, while savoring the present moment because life, like music, is a moving train. If you fall off, just jump back on. Listen and pay close attention to how you sound to yourself and how you play with others. If you can hear and admit what you did wrong, you can often isolate the problem and go in and fix it. If you love what you hear, you’re in the zone! Try it a little faster, now. Again. Focus. Don’t slouch. Relax your shoulders. Work on improving even when you’re not in the mood. Challenge yourself every day and enjoy even the smallest of successes. The big ones are in the lineup.

Sally Harmon is enjoying her ninth year as a music instructor at Marylhurst University. A pop, jazz and classical pianist, she performs concerts in the US and beyond and has recorded 25 album projects. You can learn more about her music at her website.

Photo: MaltaGirl via Flickr, Creative Commons license