In the Swim

I swim every day. And I’m sure every day it looks exactly the same to the lifeguard, yet each time it’s a drastically different experience for me. The details of a stroke change in minuscule ways: where your hand enters the water, how much your body rotates on its axis, how high your elbow stays on the recovery, etc. But I can always tell instantly whether my workout is flowing or not. It’s the same with the piano. Every day, I play the same scales that I have played for fifty years. Some days they feel great. Some days I could swear that I had never seen a piano before. But to the casual set of ears off in the kitchen, I sound exactly the same. The difference between a good-feeling warm up and a miserable one is basically inaudible. As musicians, we choose to live in a world where we grade ourselves harshly on the smallest things. It is a special interior hell, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I feel lucky to have an inner sense governing the tiny but all-important gradations in performance. And, unlike with swimming, where I sincerely doubt that I will ever equal my teenage times, we actually can practice music and get better our whole lives. As Pablo Casals famously said when asked why he continued to practice at age 92, “I think I’m starting to see an improvement.”