When I started playing piano in January of this year I had no idea how fast I would progress. I set two goals at the beginning of the experience; the first, to practice every day and the second, (my hoped for outcome as a result of the first) to be able to accompany myself singing a song by the end of the year.
Now that it is June, I have been at it for just about five months and I am feeling confident that I will meet goal #2 even though I recently had a major setback on goal #1.
My mid-May vacation to Whidbey Island was on the calendar for over six months and, once I started practicing piano in earnest, that block on the calendar started looming as “that week when I won’t be able to practice” and then, as the time approached, “that week when all the work I’ve done so far will come crashing down into a heap labeled ‘Nice try. You’re starting over.'”
And so off I went on vacation, partly happy for the break in my piano routine and quietly concerned about the coming setback.
On my first full-day home from the trip, I didn’t go near the piano. I was busy playing catch-up, of course, but I know I steered clear in part to avoid being proven right, my hard won gains lost to my eight day hiatus.
On the second day home, I put in a good practice but it wasn’t pretty. My wrist and finger strength were diminished and I fumbled my way through scales and exercises that I had already mastered. A little sore and disappointed, I tucked the bench back in, closed the keyboard and resuscitated some optimism for the following day.
On that day, and in the week or so since I’ve been back, I discovered just how important it is to take a break from learning. Aside from that awkward first practice when I was re-introducing myself to the piano, my sessions at the keyboard have been marked by feelings of ease and clarity. I am seeing the music and playing it in ways that I could not do before I left on my trip, which tells me that the only explanation is that I took a break.
Not only did I not lose any ground during my time away, I broke through to a new plateau of competency because of it. It’s such a joyful feeling to arrive at that new place that it’s difficult to adequately express just how satisfying it is.
The seduction of competence is that to attain it we must do more and more and more, and that we must do it ever faster and more intensely. We don’t talk much about the role of taking time off, about the necessity of allowing our brains, hearts and bodies to get synced up, about trusting what is happening in the background when we challenge ourselves to do something hard, something new.
We don’t talk about it because doing is so much more fun than not doing. It’s so much sexier, attractive and stimulating. But it’s only one part of the equation. That other part, the walking away, that’s when the magic happens.