What Do You Do When You're Not Practicing Law?: Learn a New Song on the Piano

What You Do When You’re Not Practicing Law piano2 800x300px
How Rhapsody in Blue is Making Me A Better Lawyer

By: Alice Sherren

“What the hell do you want to work for somebody else for? Work for yourself!”  - George Gershwin

When we focus solely on career objectives, do we sabotage our personal and professional happiness? 

Like most people, I have difficulty focusing when I’m anxious and tense. At times I feel overwhelmed by my workload and the complexity of issues I’m tasked with unraveling. My unhappiness manifests in knots in my stomach and throbbing temples. I’m physically in my office, fingers hovering above the keyboard, but my mind refuses to concentrate. The sounds of the phone ringing and emails pinging heighten my distress, and I sometimes struggle to keep the annoyance out of my communications with other people. 

I am too busy. The problems I’m supposed to be solving are too complex and complicated. I want to give up.

I’ve found I’m better equipped to face professional challenges when I consistently put energy toward things that personally fulfill me. Solutions come more easily when I’m relaxed and happy. Conversing with colleagues or opposing counsel is enjoyable, not irritating. 

I’m not advocating that we sever ties with our law firms and venture out on our own (unless such a path speaks to you, in which case, get after it!), but I challenge you to consider when you last pursued a non-work-related goal. 

My current personal ambition is to perform George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue piano solo in front of a live audience at Antonello Hall in downtown Minneapolis

My current personal ambition is to perform George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue piano solo in front of a live audience at Antonello Hall in downtown Minneapolis. I think it’s helping me become a better lawyer. It’s undoubtedly giving my days purpose and delight. 

I started piano lessons when I was six years old. By the time I was in junior high, I was practicing an hour a day, in addition to homework and sports. I would sometimes get up very early in the morning to practice before school (to the pride and horror of my family). I was tested on theory, technique, and performance and earned the opportunity to play with other young people on grand pianos in giant halls before large audiences. Not every moment of practicing was “fun,” but I did enjoy the feeling of accomplishment when my hard work paid off. 

By the time I entered law school, I no longer had access to a piano. I lived in tiny apartments, and I didn’t seek out a practice studio. What law student has time for that? I certainly didn’t! 

But I did miss the joys (and frustrations) of delicate trills and thunderous chords. Once I was established as a lawyer, with discretionary income and a larger abode, I bought myself a five-and-a-half foot baby grand. “Jezebelle” is shiny and black and lives in a special room in my house. Over the years, I have played for fun, mostly pieces that I remember easily, or hymns and accompaniments for the congregation and choir at my church. My teen daughter has also been playing piano since she was six. Like me, I think she “enjoys” it, though perhaps not every practice session.

This past Christmas my father asked me whether I ever mastered Rhapsody in Blue. He had given me the solo piano score when I purchased my piano but had never heard me play it. I was almost ashamed to admit that I had begun working on the piece decades ago but had quit because I was “too busy” and because the piece was “too complex and complicated.” Granted, during those years I was focused on various work and life challenges including becoming a mother and moving from private practice to working in-house. 

In the final days of 2021 I considered whether perhaps I had sold myself short in giving up on Rhapsody in Blue all those years ago. I set a personal goal for myself: Starting January 1, 2022, I would practice the 31-page, incredibly intricate, lightning speed Gershwin piece every day and have it “performance ready” by the end of the year. 

The timing was perfect! Although I’ll be returning to my downtown office a couple of days per week soon, I’ve been working from home since March 2020. I generally practice after business hours, but since my home office is only a flight of stairs away from Jezebelle I can visit her during the workday for five minutes (or fifteen) and then return to my computer, more relaxed and ready to refocus. 

I’ve been gaining confidence playing the relatively easy parts some days and attacking the seemingly impossible sections (twelve notes in one chord, for example, when I only have ten fingers) on others. I listen to various maestros’ interpretations of the piece. I’m taking piano lessons for the first time in 30 years. I’m hopeful I’m prepared to perform the piece at some point during the year, but the process of “getting there” is more important to me.

Taking time every day for something that fulfills me gives me a purpose that carries over into all that I do.

Taking time every day for something that fulfills me gives me a purpose that carries over into all that I do. When I feel overwhelmed in my job, I think of my Rhapsody in Blue journey. I know that if I break a seemingly impossible workload into manageable sections, I can attack them one by one and eventually accomplish it all. I can ask for help from those with more experience or a different perspective. There is a time for struggling through complex issues and a time to enjoy the beauty of an argument well presented. And I can be happy throughout it all, giving myself grace for knowing which time is which.

I encourage all lawyers—all people—to find something that brings you joy and pursue it. You may be surprised how much all aspects of your life will be enriched.

P.S. If I get to play Rhapsody in Blue on a beautiful grand piano downtown, you are all invited!

220531 - Alice Sherren
By Alice Sherren

Alice Sherren is a senior claim attorney at Minnesota Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company and co-chair of the MSBA Well-Being Committee.

Managing Editor
Elsa Cournoyer

Executive Editor

Joseph Satter