When in Doubt – Scales

When I sit down at the piano to begin practicing, it takes a certain level of focus just to get me into the mode of playing. That’s why I like practice rooms – they’re small. The force you to focus because there’s nothing else for you to do in a practice room but practice.

Everyone knows that warming up is an important part of practicing anything. Drilling certain techniques are also as important. They help align the muscles and prepare them for the task at hand. They produce a familiarity, a repetition, that gets you into a conditioned mindset.

The first thing I do when I sit at the piano (after positioning the bench) is scales. Four octaves of each major scale with both hands. Twice. It takes about 3 minutes. Sometimes I try to do it with my eyes closed, to get a sense of the keys in relation to my body. Interestingly, I have a quirky habit of watching my left hand the entire time and not looking at my right hand at all. That’s thanks to my corpus callosum (the part of the brain that connects the two sides together). If I look at my right hand, my left hand messes up.

Why warm up with scales? I do it for a number of reasons.

  1. It’s a good assessment of the piano – I can experience the touch and sensitivity of the instrument, and also find out if it’s in tune.
  2. It’s good for my finger dexterity – the main reason for warming up. It gets my fingers moving, arms moving, hands moving together, thumbs crossing under.
  3. It gives me time to empty my thoughts and focus on the task at hand.
  4. It brings me back to the beginning. One of the first things I learned in piano lessons was scales. By early high school I was required to know all major (and a few minor) scales and be able to play them two octaves with both hands. I increased that to four octaves in college. If nothing else, playing scales at the beginning is such a fundamental and familiar exercise, the muscle memory connects with my real memory.

Why am I telling you about playing scales? Can you taste the spiritual allegory? You knew that’s what I was doing, didn’t you?? You’re one of those people that sniffs out the Biblical principle before the second sentence of the sermon illustration has left the pastor’s lips.

The other morning I was thinking about how we’re supposed to seek God. Truly. Seeking God is the answer to any and all questions, problems, tests, situations. I’ve learned so much about myself from seeking God. Because when I seek God I’m on the same wavelength, the signal is strong, and He talks back to me and reveals things to me.

The thing is, sometimes I forget to seek God. I say hi to Him, thank Him for my blessings, but I forget to take the time to sit down and seek Him. And then I wonder why He feels distant. Sometimes I get so far from seeking God that I can’t remember how to get back. One of two things happens then: 1. I try to go it alone, entangle myself in my own web of self-righteousness and insecurity, and fall to the depths where God is waiting to pick me up again. Or 2. I turn around.

Back to the how. How do you get back if you’ve gone that far forward without God’s guidance? Let’s go back to my practicing piano. If, for whatever reason, I don’t have time or forget to start with scales, I become disoriented at the piano. My muscles don’t seem to be working right, I hit all kinds of wrong notes, and I can’t seem to get the expression out that I want. Without the foundation of the scales exercise, I’m not grounded.

So how do you get back to God? For me, it’s the Bible. Why not prayer? If I’m that far away from God, I don’t trust my prayers because it could easily just be me talking to myself. The Bible is an external communication device. Sometimes I need to read Genesis 1. Sometimes I need to read John 13-21. Sometimes I need to read Psalm 4, or 27, or 137, or Romans 12. I know these passages because of my study of the Bible from years past. Just like my scales. I trust what I know, and God uses it to draw me close to Him.

The cool thing is that God is always right next to us. He never left. But instead of getting our attention, He wants  us to seek Him out. Why? Because He wants us to grow. And He wants us conditioned so that we know what to do next time we feel distant and stop seeking Him.

When I feel I’ve lost all groundedness, I have to ask myself, “what is this all about again?” And I think through a paraphrased version of John 3:16. Foundation. When I have that foundation, like the piano scales, everything aligns and is more focused. There is a purpose to the task.

What routines or rituals help focus you on your tasks or bring you back to what’s important?

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