Letter to a Young Pianist

Hi David,

Thanks for your message.  Sorry for the delayed response.  I don’t get these kinds of messages often, but when I do, I like to put alot of thought into my replies.  Especially since you’re at a very impressionable age and I take my responsibility as a teacher and artist very seriously.

I’m sure you’ll understand that it’s difficult for me to give you specific advice; I haven’t heard you play!  That being said, I hope you have a local mentor or hero from whom you can learn – someone who knows you personally and who can guide you positively in all things music.  Their guidance may manifest through teaching, recordings, live performing and more.  The inspiration they bring you is priceless and you should use their standard of excellence as a preliminary benchmark for your own.  I’ve observed over the years that local heroes are severely underrated; yet they’re critical to the development of youth.  Connect with them as best as you can!

After all, music is all about connection isn’t it?  With music, we connect with our inner self, we connect with others and we connect with the rhythm of life.  Be mindful of these relationships.  When we play, hear, compose and interact with music, we’re not only connecting with the actual music, we’re connecting with a time, a place, and the people with whom we share this experience.  We should strive to maximize these connections.

For this reason, I would encourage you not to limit yourself to playing and reading music from the page.  Here’s a challenge: Sit down at the piano, close your music books, and just play.  But follow one rule: You’re only allowed to play what you hear; if you don’t hear anything, you don’t play!  This exercise is meant to make connections that you may not be familiar with.  At the very least, I hope it opens you up to another dimension of music making.

Here’s another thing: Don’t limit yourself to playing solo music; find friends with whom you can play music.  They could be other pianists, or bassists, drummers, singers, violinists, dancers or poets.  Anybody you can interact with musically.  The skills acquired though this are cultivated on a deep, communicative level and you’ll experience new, fresh connections with yourself, the music and your friends.  Individual practice is still very important, but this should be balanced with the communal aspect of music, which is often neglected in mainstream music education.

When it comes to actual practice, your time is best spent practicing what you love.  If you love music and the piano, then practice them!  If you truly love music and the piano, then you’ll feel compelled to apply discipline to your practice.  Real, disciplined practice isn’t always fun, but if you’re encouraged by the fact that it improves your skills, that won’t bother you (too much!).

So, rather than tell you how many hours I’ve practiced, or how many hours you should practice, I’d prefer to encourage you to simply practice what you love.  Yes, I’ve spent many hours, over many days, over many years practicing music.  But if you’re doing and practicing what you love, whether it’s music, sports, cooking or video games, it won’t matter how many hours you’re putting in.  What matters is that it’s a source of positive experience in your life and that you’re using it to create more positive experience for others.

Actually, this dynamic reflects my supposed purpose as an artist, teacher and human being:  To make life better and to pass the torch!

I’d like to leave you with a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.  I was given this book in my teens, but didn’t learn to appreciate it until recently.  I hope it resonates with you as it did with me.

“Works of art are of infinite loneliness…Only love can grasp and hold and be just toward them.”


Chris Donnelly

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