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Notes from a musician's journal.

I go to yoga class to remember how to play and teach the piano.

It certainly didn't begin that way. I started going to yoga for the physical exercise, thinking it would be a good complement to the Pilates, walking and biking I regularly do. As I get deeper into the practice, however, I have discovered that the real work of yoga is only superficially about toning my body; instead, it is reminding me how to live. In particular, it is reminding me how to be a practicing musician and teacher.

I think the revelation came in a yoga I class--one of those fundamental classes, which centers on establishing the foundations of breath, alignment, length and awareness. Although I can and do take upper-level classes, I have found that when I do, the challenge of surviving the more difficult poses is so great that I compromise everything yoga should be about, just to get through the class. True, upper-level classes stroke my ego, but at what cost? If I have to compromise my breath, awareness, posture and alignment just to survive, perhaps I don't belong there after all.

I have learned this lesson slowly, to be sure. After all, I have a lifetime of practice being an over-achiever. Give me a hoop to jump, and I will jump it. Higher. Faster. With my eyes closed. If it hurts, I must be doing it right. If it is really hard and I think I might die from the effort, clearly I must be on the road to sainthood.

This mind-set hasn't worked in yoga, much to my surprise and dismay. Instead, I have learned that the path to achieving difficult poses is not to try harder but rather to back up the pose to the place where I can learn from what my body is telling me, to the place where I am no longer compromising breath and awareness to survive. I have learned to not assume anything--but rather to explore during each practice session, each class, where my body is on that particular day, what it needs, how far I can comfortably push and stay honest with my breath and awareness.

Surprising me most of all, the practices I am learning in yoga class work on the piano bench. I realized that l often practiced the ego-gratification habit of learning something quickly at the cost of good, thorough music making. I discovered my students doing the same thing--compromising notes, rhythms, tone, posture and breath to get to tempo, or just survive. None of us want to slow down, sit quietly, breathe deeply and learn something more organically. We don't practice the patience required. We haven't learned the stamina demanded. Somehow I have to slow down my accelerated learning process to the point where I can stay honest about what I know about the music and the limits of my technique. Regularly, I must remind myself to back up the music to the place where I can handle the notes, the tempo, the physical demands and still manage to be aware of my breath. Daily, I tell students that they can't sacrifice notes to speed; that if they say they can only play fast I will know they can't play slow; that repetitions slumped over keyboard with their feet crossed under the bench aren't doing much good. "Where are your feet?" I prod my students, "Are you breathing?" "Check in with your breath," my yoga teacher tells us. "Are you sacrificing length for mobility?"

It was that beginning yoga class that opened my eyes one day. What I realized is that I don't much need complicated yoga poses. Difficult yoga poses don't change me much; they just make it hard to breathe. What is changing me in profound ways are the little things--the precision of doing more accessible poses well, the clarity of learning to hear the voice within myself, the peace I have found by sitting quietly and breathing deeply. What I really need is not challenging yoga poses, but reminders of the basics over and over again: Breathe. Observe the length of your spine. Really straighten your legs. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Truth is, that's most of what my students need as well. Yes, of course, they need new concepts and fresh music that builds week after week upon their growing skills. But more than that, they need a safe place to practice making music where the focus is on the most basic elements. Starting with the fundamentals of posture, hand position, sound production and breath while playing slow, simple scales and warm-ups every lesson wouldn't be a waste but a good weekly reminder of the fundamentals on which all music should be built. I know I don't observe nearly enough in my yoga practice at home or in the more challenging upper-level classes because I need the regular voice of a teacher reminding me to breathe, to reaffirm the length of my spine, to raise my sternum to my chin. My piano students are no different. Like me, they need constant reminders of the little, most basic things that day after day, practice session after practice session, they forget and ignore.

It occurs to me that maybe we have made the art of pedagogy too complicated. Yes, it is an art form, but the art may lie in the truth and simplicity of the message and instruction, not in the number of tricks up our sleeves. I wonder if we don't possess far more expertise and knowledge than we think we do, and need less gimmicks than conventional wisdom makes us believe. Perhaps, as teachers, we just need to be regularly reminded of what we already know. There is a word for this idea, lifted from another context: monitrice--a person who reminds a birth mother during labor what she intuitively knows and has learned in birthing classes. I think we all need a monitrice in our lives, reminding us of what we know and forget. Certainly I need this. In my yoga practice, I don't need difficult body-contorting poses as much as I need weekly reminders to really straighten my legs, check in with my breath, observe the length of my spine. In my own piano playing, no matter how esteemed the teacher, it is less valuable for me to take a lesson full of new techniques, than when I receive a lesson full of reminders about what I already know about how my hands, body and musical soul work. In my teaching, I have little interest in more pedagogical tricks, but I do need reminders of the treasured tried and true pieces, ideas and approaches that work over and over again.

Today in yoga class we did inversions, our teacher reminding us that we once hung happily from trees. "We grow fearful of what was once natural," she told us, "and as a result, stop looking at life from different perspectives." It's the idea of seeing life from a different altitude that most attracts me. I like exploring the idea of tone production from different perspectives, whether it is teaching a simple pedagogical piece or a Beethoven sonata. I need to experiment with the concept of breath, both when I am accompanying a singer and when I am learning a Brahms intermezzo. I want to discover what flexible and long postures feel like, both when working with tiny students with their feet on a stack of books and with my own spine in downward-facing dog.

Of course, I forget how much I might intuitively know, and go racing out to the latest workshop. I spend a great deal of time chasing down the most recent pedagogical trends. I devote way too much energy towards reading through new music in hopes of finding the next brightest, shiniest, most appealing teaching piece. I know--I know--that I don't need more of anything, but a lot less of most things, and a lot more reminders of the simple things I so easily forget: to listen, to observe, to breathe deeply.

I know all too well that professional temptation: that if we attend the newest workshop, reading session or convention, the fix-all-our-problems solution might just be out there. But I wonder what it would look like if we stop looking out there and start looking within. If instead of gathering together to ooh and ah over the newest thing, we gathered together to support one another in our search for becoming simple, raw, vulnerable, healing teachers and artists.

Monitrice: a person who reminds us of what we already know. In a million and one ways, we could be this and find this in one another. I'm looking everywhere: in yoga, in music, in my relationships with teachers, friends and family. My reminders may be anywhere, in the most unexpected of places.


Amy writes a blog about music and teaching at

Amy Greer, NCTM, lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she is an active performer and teacher. She has maintained piano studios in Boston, Texas and Missouri. Greet received a master of music degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a bachelor of music degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
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Title Annotation:Marking Time
Author:Greer, Amy
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1U8NM
Date:Feb 1, 2008
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