You might be surprised that I’m writing about astronauts. Like many people though, I’ve been hooked reading Chris Hadfield’s fascinating book, “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth“. Apart from quirky bits of trivia, like learning that jam floats off toast onto the walls with no gravity around, I’ve been reflecting on the similarities of pursuing an endeavour to a high level, whether it be space walking or playing an instrument.
There were many reminders to be taken from Chris Hadfield’s approach. From the age of nine, he knew he wanted to be an astronaut, and also knew it was impossible. Seeing Armstrong walk on the Moon changed his life. So, from that early age, he made decisions based on what he thought an astronaut would do. If there was the choice of potato chips or vegetables, he ate his veggies, like an astronaut. Instead of staring outside the bus window on his two hour commute to school, he studied, like an astronaut. For me, his attitude was beautiful. During the decades of stringent study, he worked with absolute commitment towards his goal, but without any neurosis. He worked incredibly hard, but with a Buddhist-like detachment, deciding that if he never became an astronaut, he would not be devastated, as he had done his best. The result of his sacrifices? Hadfield was selected from several thousand astronauts to join the space program, was the first Canadian to walk in space, and later, commander of the International Space Station.
Unsurprisingly, training for space missions is incredibly rigorous. Endless simulations are undertaken, with every possible error that could go wrong analysed, solutions found, delegated, rehearsed. Rather than seeing this as a pessimistic focus on potential disasters, Hadfield’s motto was “Be ready”. Apart from the huge amount of funding invested into space travel, and the pressure to meeting the demanding day-to-day program, life is fragile in space. Tiny errors can have huge consequences. As such, the adopted attitude is constantly evaluating, “What is the next thing that can kill me?” He tells of a particular spacewalk in which his eye became irritated, to the point that he could not see. As tears do not roll down one’s cheeks without gravity, the blob of tears containing the irritant rolled towards his other eye, rendering him all but useless to complete his task, and even a little dangerous for the expedition. Completing the spacewalk was under question. The cause? A tiny drop of detergent had not been wiped away properly after cleaning his visor, nearly derailing the mission. After this experience, every astronaut spent extra time wiping down the visor after cleaning, and a new cleaning product was chosen that was not as noxious. We can learn from others mishaps.
Fortunately, practising piano is not as perilous, yet we can also learn from these maxims. We may not face death if we forget to move smoothly in towards the fallboard for a thumb on a black key, but we will experience an awkward movement, a sudden lunge, possibly an unwanted accent. There may be tension, fatigue, a wrong note, or several false notes as we attempt to recover.
We can also benefit from thinking, “What is the next thing that can kill me?” In piano terms, this translates to: Have I organised that leap? Do I understand the harmony? Is my memory secure? Is that fingering watertight? Have I sent myself to the next place? Have I really worked out all of the closest notes in that section?
“Be ready”. Before we begin discussing performance anxiety, be ready. If a passage does not work in a practice room, you have every right to be nervous. Too often, the first performance is simultaneously the just that: the first time anyone apart from the teacher listens, as well as being the dress run, opening and closing night. To perform something as complicated as a piece of music at a high level, with tens of thousands of tiny movements to coordinate, we need to practice performing, in as similar conditions to the real event as we can create. All too often, we do not have time, we are working under a short preparation period, and this does not happen. To our detriment. Hadfield believes that one is only terrified when not prepared for mishaps, I tend to agree.
We can also make decisions based on “What would a real musician do?” We can use our practice time playing through our pieces, ignoring what we know really needs attention, or we can roll up our sleeves and work, even if it is difficult, time consuming, and we’d much rather relax on the couch. We listen to multiple recordings of the work we are playing, get to know other works by the composer, read, study, learn, challenge ourselves to think and experience beyond the walls of our small practice rooms. A huge world of possibility awaits.