Not All for Naught!

Above is a photo from my walk to school from the subway station. Most days it is bouncy walk full of optimism of the day ahead. It usually starts with a couple hours of practice to myself, followed by classes, lessons, and rehearsals. Occasionally it is the walk of doom if I know I have a difficult piece to perform, or if I feel underprepared for the day ahead.

Just last week I lamented about feeling like I’d hit a plateau in my piano playing. How many times would I need to play a passage before it finally sticks in my fingers? It reminded me of how I often feel in the middle of a training cycle for a race, when nothing seems to be clicking despite the hours, weeks, months of dedication. Without tangible results or noticeable improvement, I start to wonder why I even try so hard. Then, as it always seems to go, there finally comes a week when runs feel zippier and lighter, and I find myself running faster while working a lot less to do so. Ahhh!

I’ve been trying to remind myself of that parallel when it comes to my playing. With any discipline there’s a certain amount of belief, or keeping faith, one has to hold–that it’s not all for naught. A few days after reaching peak defeatism, and hunkering down to practice a whole bunch, I’ve finally had a few moments where I got to enjoy the fruits of my labor. To have sat down in front of a piano, and in spite of my nerves and shaky fingers, played a piece exactly that way I intended to. To execute. To communicate an expression and feel heard and received by my audience.

I wonder, in turn, what an athlete can communicate or evoke through their particular discipline and performance. Regardless of what it means to them, maybe it will take on a different kind of meaning for someone else. How many times have I wondered what a composer was thinking when they wrote a particular piece? I will likely never find out, but it doesn’t change that the song pulls at my heart strings and evokes an emotional response within. When I think of athletes I’ve been inspired by, I might not know anything about them personally but will be blown away and inspired by the grit and determination they display. Even Steve Prefontaine said, “A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many ways as they’re capable of understanding.”

In a recent check in with one of my mentors, I bemoaned how I felt so bogged down by classical repertoire that I didn’t feel I had any bandwidth left for more creative musical endeavors. They challenged me on this, posing a question of whether classical music and creativity had to live in two separate bubbles. And likewise with running, of course my general goals include getting from point A to point B as quickly and efficiently as possible. But then think of the multitude of ways to accomplish that! Humans are not machines, as my piano teacher reminded me yesterday. Music would be incredibly boring if it were played perfectly and predictably, and sports would be wildly unsatisfying to watch and/or take part in if the outcome were determined by statistics alone. It’s the human element that makes any of these things compelling at all.

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Who is Mercury?

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Boston, MA. She holds fastest known times for women on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).

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