Exams, time, and practice: Re-framing our perspective

Now that I’ve been on holidays for a few days it’s hard to believe the level of stress that accompanied the end of term. With the number of concerts, exams, and papers, I experienced a level of stress that I hadn’t felt since, well, I was in school the last time.

It is only natural to want to do our best. For musicians, sometimes I think we want to not only do our best but be “the” best. I remember a friend of mine once called this the “diva complex.” As a person who performs it makes sense that you would want to shine the brightest whether it be on your solfege exam or at one of the many concerts.

So how do we measure success? Is it a comparison of how you measure up to your fellow students or is it a measurement of how much you have grown? I would say most of us would fall into the latter category but after some serious musings with my teacher, there is a third option.

What if we looked at time not as in where we have come or what we accomplished within a certain frame but as our limitless selves continuing to grow?

We were talking about piano lessons and deadlines. There will be some big time crunches coming up in the spring. We still have to meet all of these goals. But what if you could measure your success not by what you achieve at the recital but what you have the potential to achieve down the road, at home, with your students, personally over the next six months, two years, or even lifetime.

This experience at the Kodaly Institute when I am sixty years old will seem like a dream. Like dreams, they are fleeting and we can choose to frame our memory in a positive or negative light. What we tell ourselves about our individual experience shapes how we will feel about the moments in our lives. That’s why therapy works for so many people because we can recondition ourselves to not immediately find the negative in our personal experience but remember the positives. This is how we grow.

I didn’t have the greatest experience a few weeks ago. I had worn my contact lenses for nine hours on a very long and busy day. My eyes were really sore that night when I went to bed. I woke up the next day, tired and having to take an early morning road trip for a choir concert to a little village called Kisjakabfalva. My eyes and nose had started to water that morning when I got up at 7 am but by the time we had reached Pecs, I hadn’t opened my eyes for almost 4 hours. The director and my friend Tina accompanied me to the glaucoma wing of what was actually a semi-abandoned hospital. The hospital would have been built at the beginning of the twentieth century and they we were told that we they were scheduled to move to a new building in two days. We spent another 3 hours waiting for the doctor. By the time she met with me, those first eye drops hit my eyes and I burst into even more tears. It has to go down as one of the most painful experiences. You wouldn’t think that your eyes watering for 8 hours would be so excruciating but perhaps it was also knowing I wasn’t going to sing in the concert that evening and not entirely sure what the outcome was going to be. Luckily it was only surface level scratches on both of my corneas and with some antibiotic eye drops and cornea gel they were back to normal within four days. We spent another hour getting to the village for the performance. I had some mulled wine and went to bed!

This experience also couldn’t have possibly come at a worse time as this happened just a few weeks ago. The only real way my eyes were going to get better was to get lots of rest. That doesn’t exactly bode well for hours of practice time at the piano and homework assignments in front of a computer. I had to give myself a few really big pep talks and remind myself that I had put the work in this semester and my final exams in solfege would go fine and the assignments would get done.

Time is limitless and finite at the same time. We cannot know our path. What we set out to do in one moment can change in a blink of an eye. Right now I am learning new piano technique and it is really hard. I won’t know if it will pay off until it pays off. How rotten is that? Growth isn’t achieved in a day. Deadlines are real but there doesn’t have to be such pain and suffering in meeting them. We have to remember that what we are working on today is not the end result, we continue to grow. Great work takes time to achieve, so why sweat the small stuff?

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