Simple and Easy: A Complex Idea

by | Mar 7, 2022

Simple and Easy
The Studio Sign

I like to keep things simple and easy in the studio. Sometimes this can be tougher than you might expect. Playing music is challenging and the language can be complex. Still, we are just playing music. With a carefree and childlike attitude, you have the power to make anything simple and easy. I imagine that things are as simple and easy as I make them and that I can make everything simple and easy. With a little practice and mental awareness, your relaxed and focused mind is free to perform any task at hand. Exploring the complexities of the “Simple and Easy” sign on the wall in the studio shows how I make everything simple and easy for myself.

A Tip Jar that Really Pays

Have you heard of a swear jar? It’s a jar that gets a dollar added to it when an inappropriate word is uttered in the presence of royalty, or the teacher. Since ALL of the students who come to see me are polite and never say any bad words a swear jar in the studio would remain empty. Some days, like today, I wonder how much extra cash I’d have with a jar that got a dollar every time a student said something was going to be difficult before attempting it. As I sit down to write this on a Wednesday the jar would have made five dollars yesterday and I only taught five students.

Studio Tips
Studio Tip Jars

In moments like this, I point to the “Simple and Easy” sign on the wall. Or maybe take it down and put it on the piano. Then remind the student that they haven’t tried to play anything yet. I point out that they said the same thing the last time they faced something new. We agree that they can easily play it now. Finally coming to the realization that it’s simple and easy, just like the sign says. Wash, rinse, repeat. Eventually, we will remember to put off judging the level of difficulty of a new piece and just play it. This process might seem complex but I’ll never stop reminding myself that it is simple and easy.

What are “Bad” Words

Labeling something as difficult bothers me as much when I do it as when I hear it from a student. I mind when my mind paints a picture that isn’t helpful. Staying mindful of what I say can help prevent this from happening when I face new things. The words I use to express myself can lead to a clearer mind, a greater sense of confidence, and greater enjoyment and success in music and life. It is not difficult, it is challenging. Things aren’t hard, they are just new and always simple and easy. Then when I learn how to play it, I still say it is easy.

I don’t mind curse words in the studio. Go ahead and let it out! I have a different idea of what makes a “bad” word. If we say something is hard and put ourselves on alert the body will react in ways that will make things harder. When we say we are just not good at something, we are comparing ourselves to people we have seen perform, and likely they’ve worked hard to achieve that level. Staying focused on the task is much easier without worrying about all this stuff. I’ve heard when you worry you suffer twice.

The Hyper Bowl

Maybe we enjoy making things seem difficult. The thrill of accomplishment might seem greater if we build up the story of how hard things were before we’ve conquered the skill. The playful art of hyperbole has warped from “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” to “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my whole entire life!”

What if we went through life always saying that things were easy? You’d be fearless and always believe you would be successful in the end. Think of how relaxed we would be while performing a new skill. How clear-headed and mentally focused we could be with the thought of simple and easy, or no thoughts at all. Without an inner monologue, our expectations vanish leaving no worries about how we are going to do. This frees us to just play. Just do it! I’ve heard that one before too.

People Will Still Think You’re Amazing

Have you ever seen someone performing and thought, they make that look so easy? Your next thought may have been how difficult what they were doing really was. Don’t worry if you think you will make things look too easy when you play. People will still think you are doing amazing and difficult things. And if they ask, you keep your narrative simple and easy. They won’t believe you anyway. They’ll still think it was hard.

As with all the lessons learned in the lab, they are for me, the first student. I have learned to be careful of the words that come out of my mouth and make sure that I don’t unconsciously cloud what I see in front of me. The story of Shree and the Little Submarine for Adelle illustrates the power that our narrative has and how easily we can get into habits that hinder our success.

Shree and The Yellow Submarine for Adelle

A Simple Smile on Adelle
Little Adelle

Some adult students come into the studio to learn to play music for the first time but often the adults that come in already play very well. One of these students was Shree, a thirty-six-year-old pianist who could sight-read as easily as one might type words on a typewriter. Wanting to learn more about the music she was playing and find new music to play, she decided to try piano lessons.

In our search for new music, we’d begin each lesson with something new for her to “sight-read”. I soon realized that these words terrified her. This became her least favorite part of the lesson. She was so good at sight-reading I couldn’t believe she dreaded it. Each week she came in knowing that something new would be on the piano. She felt excited to get new music, and terrified of having to play it for the first time in front of me. The Lesson ahead of Shree was Little Adelle, smiling above. Adelle loves the Beatles so I arranged Yellow Submarine for her. When she accidentally left it on the piano for Shree to “sight-read” a happy accident was set up with new lessons for me and the studio.

Simply scary sight-reading
Yellow Submarine for Adelle

Shree’s Ah Ha Moment

Shree walked in a little flustered from the rain and she sat down to play. She was late so she got straight to it. As she sat, she commented on the new piece to “sight-read” with a gasp and a sigh, “Again?”, she laughed as she started to play awkwardly. She took a few seconds and then realized what she was playing was really very easy. We both laughed and sang, “We all live in a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine.”

After the fun, I pointed out how she had psyched herself out enough to believe what she was looking at was challenging. When I pointed this out to her she paused and I saw the “Ah-Ha” in her eyes. It was the realization that she had done this, and that she did this all the time in many situations. She laughed uncomfortably as she told me that she was even having trouble playing Little Submarine at first, frozen a bit with distracting thoughts of how she didn’t like sight-reading to start the lesson swarming in her mind. She couldn’t see what was really there because of the picture she had painted of the experience. All before having any actual experience.

The Mind Wanders, We Can Direct It

Shree was able to notice that she had preconceived notions of how the lesson was going to go before it happened and that this bit of predicting the future would build her up to certain expectations. She expected something challenging and labeling it sightreading she would come in with a fearful attitude. With this mental veil over her, she couldn’t see the page in front of her only the fear. The preconceived thought of what sight-reading in this lesson would be like was in the way. Lost in these thoughts she’d rehearsed how this was going to go in her mind before she got there so she was missing out on what was actually there. She couldn’t see the Yellow Submarine right in front of her face.

Shree decided to make a conscious effort going forward to keep the background music in her day bright and peaceful. She was done psyching herself out before attempting new music, meeting new people, or giving a presentation at work. Her Ah-Ha moment was in seeing all of the ways she was getting in her way and clouding her experiences in life. The terror of sight-reading is real enough to teach us many things about the way we deal with other situations that pressure us.

The Drive for Perfection

Part of what bothered Shree during the sight-reading was playing something for someone that wasn’t perfect. She hadn’t practiced it yet! Yikes!!! Many musicians, myself included, suffer from the desire to never make a mistake. If we stop and fix every note along the way we may never make it to the end. Once you start playing music and enter the storytelling mode, make it a habit to let nothing interrupt your music, not even mistakes. Be ok with imperfections and you will have fewer mistakes.

Faithful readers know that I am the student here and the musicians learning in the studio teach me lessons about my playing. When you see others sabotaging themselves over and over it is easier to see it in yourself. Shree showed me something I would do when I sight-read music on the piano. A skill most agree is difficult and I still struggle with new music on the piano. But in my mind, it is always simple and easy.

The Amygdala

There is a part of your brain that can mess with you, and it has no intelligence. When the amygdala stimulates the hypothalamus, it initiates the fight-or-flight response. The hypothalamus sends signals to the adrenal glands to produce hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. When this stimulation happens many distracting physical symptoms occur. Your heart starts pumping more blood and your vision narrows as you prepare for battle.

When I say it has no intelligence I mean that it doesn’t know the difference between the lion coming to eat you, or a little piece of paper on the piano with The Yellow Submarine on it. It can send the same level of alert and once the switch is flipped, a flood of thoughts may come your way and interrupt your experience. It will put you in the mode to escape from danger when you look at something with the feelings that initiate this response. Not the thought, but the feelings. Maybe you have noticed that the feelings often come before the thought. To prevent this you will have to change your habits in the way you look at things you do.

Nothing is Scary

How do we develop good thinking habits? It is not just about positive thinking or pumping yourself up for success. You can drive yourself crazy trying to do what you tell yourself you should be doing. Who are you talking to anyway? It is this inner dialogue that gets us in trouble. This is the middleman that keeps the inner musician from being the most efficient.

Try to find joy in that scary or awkward feeling you get when faced with something new. That awkward feeling is your brain making new connections. It only feels scary if you label it that way. You can call it anything, or nothing. Embrace it, love it, and find the joy to better enjoy everything you do. Joy is in there somewhere or you wouldn’t be “trying” to do it. Sometimes we can get overwhelmed and forget the joy. If you have a creative mind you can find joy in doing the dishes. When I think of a mind that knows joy, I think of a child’s mind. Everything is playing and thoughts of wrong notes or judgemental teachers, parents, or friends don’t exist. Whether for an audience of two or two thousand, you perform for your own enjoyment.

Simply A Winning Attitude

So we are not only looking for our inner musician, we also need the inner child. Maybe they are the same. Think back and you’ll remember when you could be playful and in character as the storyteller. Acting out each part and performing for your own enjoyment. Finding joy in everything without judging or labeling. Ready to explore anything new with childish curiosity and a serious desire to play.

With the right attitude, work becomes play, easier to start, and easier to finish. Attitude is everything and when you choose one that is helpful, you’ll get more done and you’ll be in a better mood while you’re doing it. With less tension, you will be able to tap into a relaxed and focused mind that doesn’t ask questions but makes statements. Without thinking you’ll have the mental ability to have the song in your head be the one you are playing. The music will just flow. Simple and easy.

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