Monday, 16 February 2015

Silent Ivories

My mother has always had a piano. Playing the piano is central to her idea of herself. The only thing other than a house she has ever taken a loan for is the upright Steinway in our living room. Having "time to play the piano" is a measure of how much control she has over her life. It is, to use modern parlance, her measure of self care. Yet, interestingly, the piano is not relaxing for her in the way that a movie or a book might be. She is always challenging herself to play harder pieces, to get better. It requires effort and energy: more of a discipline than a hobby. And when my mother does not have energy for the piano, then she knows that something else in her life is taking too much of her time.
My relationship to the piano is very different. Its presence and sound are comforting to me, yet I never really played. My instrument was the violin, and our relationship is estranged at best. I have dabbled in playing the piano (over the course of a decade I have taught myself the first two movements of the Moonlight sonata), and whenever I am back home I find time to refresh my memory.
During the year between ending my PhD and starting my postdoc, when I was unemployed and living back with my mother, I started playing the piano more seriously. At my mother's prompting, I took lessons with her piano teacher. I improved noticeably. I began to think of other pieces I would like to learn. And so, when I moved to Ohio, concerned I would be bored, I resolve to buy myself a piano.
I found a good electronic piano on Craigslist, one that was highly rated for its sound. In fact, it is based on sampling a Steinway concert grand. I set it up in our spare room, and got sheet music for the Moonlight (no point in losing the benefit of all that practice) and the next piece I'd resolved to learn, a piece of Tchaikovsky incidental music from his Seasons series. After almost a year, I can play 8 bars. I play the piano maybe a couple of times a month.
On occasion, I feel guilty about this. I enjoy the piano, and I want, on some level, to learn these pieces, and ultimately, one day, to master the third movement of the Moonlight sonata, which is currently far beyond my technical skill. And, of course, I compare myself with my mother, who throughout her always busy, sometimes hectic life has always been able to practice several hours a week. It would be easy to blame science, and its tendency to expand to fill all available space. It would be easy to argue that I could cut out more mindless pursuits (like twitter, or browsing the internet, or playing video games, or watching TV). Certainly, my upbringing was Protestant enough that I must always wonder if I am making the best use of the time allotted to me. And certainly the pressures of being an early career researcher don't help.
But I think also, part of the problem lies in being honest about what is important to us. As I was talking to colleagues over the weekend about the compatibility of science with time consuming hobbies, I came to a realisation. I have decided what matters to me: my work, my fiance, my friends and family, and exercising so that I can enjoy the outdoors in the summer. These are the things, when I look at how I spend my time, that I make time for. It is not worth feeling guilty that I do not play the piano enough. It is simply not important enough to me to make the cut. And conversely, it is clearly important enough to my mother that she will make time for it in the face of other pressures.
Life is difficult enough, and there are enough pressures and demands on our time as scientists, that we should not burden ourselves with feeling obligations towards activities that we do not in fact value that much. Embrace the things you care about, and make time for them. That choice is personal, and yours, and your choices are valid.
Maybe in ten years time I will have deciphered the Tchaikovsky piece. If that is the time it takes, then that is the time it takes. In the meantime, I will enjoy my fiance's company, invite my friends to dinner, and plan for a summer of camping trips in the Appalachian mountains.

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