This morning I was teaching a Skype piano lesson to a really great adult student in North Carolina. We've worked together for around six months. He's making great strides in his playing, and he is an incredibly hard worker, probably averaging around three hours of practice a day. I had a valuable lesson reiterated to me as I was working with him. He started out the lesson by saying, "You know, I've been working hard on my scales, and I can play them at mm.160 (4 notes per click) if I'm lucky, but I feel pretty confident at about mm152." If any of you play or teach piano, you know that this is no small feat. "Mm" is just an abbreviation I use for metronome marking, and each metronome marking indicates beats per minute. Personally, I feel like my scales are maxed out at around mm.184. I can play individual ones faster if needed in a piece, but I really have to work at them. Most students that I teach average anywhere between mm.60-120 for their scales. So, needless to say, he is quite advanced in this respect. He is playing also playing the Chopin Op.18 Waltz in E-flat Major at a really high level, along with Tchaikovsky's "October".
He recently brought the Chopin Etude Op.10 No.3 to one of his lessons. He decided to learn the middle part first, which is much more demanding technically than the first and last parts of the piece. We worked the middle section a lot together, and he improved greatly. However, the opening line of the piece, a slow singing line, seemed to be giving him a lot of trouble. I was a little stumped because he'd played the Tchaikovsky so well. Some students are stronger lyrical players, and some are stronger technically. I've never come across someone who'd played the middle section so well, and other lyrical pieces so well, but struggled with this particular passage. Similarly, I've had students tackle extremely difficult material, only to struggle with material that I've deemed "easy" in my mind.
An example from my own playing is the fact that I feel quite confident playing Scarbo from Maurice Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit. Now, I know I'm no master, but I've competed with it for several years with some success. It's considered by many to be one of the more difficult pieces in the piano repertoire. I also feel quite comfortable with the last movement of Samuel Barber's Sonata in E-flat Minor, Op.26, a daunting fugue that was originally premiered by Horowitz. However, if you give me Chopin Etude Op.10 No.2, my hand and mind immediately forget that I'm a pianist, fear clutches my whole being, and the piece turns into useless mush. I have such a death grip on the notes that my fingers could probably snap off, and I want to go kill myself when I hear the 10-year old Chinese girls playing it twice as fast as I can on YouTube.
The lesson to be taken from working with this great adult student is that comparison to others is ultimately an empty pursuit. I'm not implying that it's not important to strive to be as good as someone you admire, or that you cannot learn from a great master. What I'm getting at is that depression can quickly set in when we allow ourselves to be defined by others' achievements. It's the whole mentality of "If he or she has more, I have less." This is a shameful and destructive way to think, but we all fall into that trap if we're not careful. The opposite is true as well. If we've achieved a high level of anything, humility is key in order to keep achieving great things. It's so easy to get out of touch, become comfortable, and stagnate. Ultimately, comparison to others is completely meaningless, and almost always debilitating. Rather, setting ideals in your mind, even unprecedented ideals, and striving for these is how we become something, rather than simply achieve something or cross it off of a to-do list. Becoming should be our ultimate goal, for when you've become something, riches are gleaned through your mindset and skill-set that money or materials cannot purchase.