photo: Malta Girl on flikr

I can hear you now. What on earth is piano prison?! Is it a place for people who steal baby grands from cocktail lounges? A penitentiary shaped like a giant piano? A room full of people playing Feelings and Tiny Bubbles?

Oh no, my friends. It’s worse. Much worse.

Let me explain.

I was trained in classical piano as a kid. I played for over ten years until I quit at age 20. I was tired of classical music and bored with practicing. Plus I hated playing in front of other people. Actually, hate is too mild a word. I despised it. I detested it. I absolutely, unequivocably loathed it.

photo: woodleywonderworks on flikr

So I stopped. I quit. I ceased to be a piano-playing member of society.

That is, until I joined the choir at the Center for Spiritual Living Santa Rosa a few years ago. They found out I could play, and they decided it would be a good idea if I start accompanying the choir for their performances.

photo: Will Bakx

The Center has over a thousand members. They have three services every Sunday morning. The first time I played with the choir, my hands were shaking so hard that it was all I could do to make proper contact with the keys.

As it turned out, shaking hands were the least of my problems.

The biggest nemesis to my renewed musical expression was what would happen in my mind after every performance.

The minute I stepped off the stage – and sometimes before – every mistake I’d made would be blown up to huge proportions in my mind. I would then review this monstrously-sized gaffe in my mind again and again and again and again.

It was like being chained to a chair and being forced to watch a particularly traumatic horror movie over and over.

photo: izusek

I was explaining this mental torture to one of my fellow choir members, Rev. Maggie Buck. She dubbed it piano prison. And, boy howdy, was she right.

It was painful, excruciatingly so. People would come up to me after a performance and tell me what a great job I’d done, and I could barely hear them. It was as if my head was being dunked in ice-cold water and their words could only faintly penetrate my awareness.

It is interesting to note that, in spite of this, I was truly enjoying playing again. I was learning how to read chord charts, how to play contemporary music, how to improvise. If I was honest with myself, I had always dreamed of being on stage playing with a band, and here I was, doing it!

photo: Will Bakx

Every time I played, I got better. To ground myself – and, let’s face it, prevent unwelcome fainting spells – I centered myself in Spirit before every performance. This helped immensely. It reminded me I was not alone. It reminded me Who I was playing for. It reminded me What was playing through me.

My piano playing became a spiritual practice. In order to get through the anxiety of playing in front of an audience, I not only prayed before each performance, I made a practice of staying absolutely present while I was playing.

When I was able to do this, I found incredible resources of aliveness and creativity available to me. I began to get more and more relaxed in front of an audience, more and more able to let Spirit play through me. I was expressing my love of the Divine through music. It was amazing.

And still, my sentences to piano prison continued.

photo: Tim Pearce on flikr

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I often forget to ask for Help when I most need it. Even though my experiences on stage were increasingly filled with Love’s presence, my experiences once I got off stage were still marred by my crazy mind. Apparently, I wasn’t willing to invite Love to the after-party.

And yet Spirit has a way of hunting me down, wrestling me to the ground, and forcing me to accept Its unending grace. This was one of those times.

After months of enduring my mind’s scathing post-performance critiques, I finally asked the Divine to help me escape piano prison.

It was time to put Love, not condemnation, in charge of the after-party.

Soon after my request for Help, I remembered something I’d heard Louise Hay say years ago. She said that after every speaking engagement, she would only allow herself to focus on what went well. Then, after enough time of focusing on the positive, she could look at any mistakes in the context of what had gone right.

Simple? Yes. Easy? Not necessarily. But I had spent enough time in the gallows of piano hell. I was willing to give it a try.

And, lo and behold, it worked.

There were always tons of positive things to focus on after each performance. There were always a lot more things that had gone well than things that had gone “wrong.”

Not only that, this technique allowed me to learn from the mistakes I made. Because I was viewing my errors in their proper context, angst-free, I could objectively look at what had gone wrong and take any needed steps to change things in the future.

It was a miracle.

I’m still playing the piano, and I still go to piano prison from time to time. But now, when I catch myself diving into the lower regions of hell after a performance, I have a way out. I have the key to my own freedom. And I am grateful.

photo: Javier Parra on flikr

What are your self-imposed prisons? And how do you free yourself from them?

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