Mind games

The other week I gave a concert in a church in a small town in Cheshire. I felt well-prepared and confident, my anxiety was under control and I was looking forward to performing the programme to a friendly audience. The opening sentence of the Sonata passed off without incident: I felt it had the requisite majesty to contrast with the falling arpeggios which followed. I was just silently congratulating myself on having played the arpeggios with just the right amount of wit and playfulness when the left hand flopped onto the keyboard and produced a chord sequence of utter rubbish. And at that point, a voice piped up in my head warning me of the perils of pianistic hubris, that “pride comes before a fall”, and that I should probably focus fully on the task in hand.

The mind can play strange games with us when we are performing and also when practising. At that moment when we should be concentrating hardest, the head has a tendency to wander off on other pathways and cul-de-sacs of thought. Most of us are well aware of the “inner critic”, that poisonous, heckling little voice within that reminds us of our fallibility and our weaknesses, that we haven’t prepared this or that section properly, that we are going to make a mistake, or repeats negative comments from teachers. This voice can seriously get in the way of our concentration and, if allowed, can sabotage a successful performance with its judgemental tone which can rob us of confidence and self-esteem.

A number of adult piano students have talked to me about their difficulties with concentration when practising and particularly when performing to others such as teachers, other pianists or in exams.

Concentration can be learnt, and trained, and I have successfully used some simple strategies to improve my concentration when practising and performing:

  • Do not practise for long periods of time. The idea that one should do hours and hours of practising is a fallacy. Successful practising is about quality rather than quantity: set aside small segments of time (up to 45 minutes in one session) and achievable targets for practising. After 45 minutes take a break, make a cup of tea, do some arm- and shoulder-loosening exercises, take a walk round the garden.
  • Banish your phone and tablet, either to a drawer away from your piano or better still turn it off and put it in another room. The urge to check in with your social media networks, “just to see what’s happening”, can be quite potent. These quick check-ins distract the mind away from the task in hand (practising) and can seriously affect concentration.
  • Practise with extraneous background noise – the radio playing in another room, for example (this is my normal practising state as my husband works from home and listens to Radio 4 all day), someone mowing the lawn outside or vaccuming in the house (the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould would practise while his mother vacuumed). Rather than attempt to completely shut out the noise and grow frustrated because it is distracting, accept that the noise is present and then switch your attention back to the music. I find practising when I cannot always hear every single sound I make encourages me to really focus on other aspects, such as touch, flexibility and fluency in passage work.
  • Get someone to come in and try to distract you. In the preparation for some recent concerts, I asked my husband to randomly stroll through the piano room, go in the garden, crash around a bit, come back in etc. On one occasion he did his Pilates routine right next to the piano. I’m glad to say I was able to carry on playing while accepting that he was there.
  • Accept that the Inner Critic exists – when we do this we take away his/hers/its power and regain control ourselves. Then show him/her/it the door – literally by imagining you are ushering the nasty creature through a doorway and out of your brain.
  • Use techniques drawn from Neuro-Linguistic Programming and mindfulness
  • Often something as simple as taking a deep breath in and exhaling slowly can pull your focus  back to the task in hand.
  • Aim for excellence in your music (which is achievable) rather than perfection (which is impossible)
  • Take confidence from knowing you are well-prepared and use positive affirmation such as “I can do it” and “I know my pieces”.
  • Don’t worry about what other people are doing – just because your friend from piano club practises Hanon exercises every day, it doesn’t mean you should be too. Find a practise regime that works for you.
  • Take confidence from positive comments and endorsements from trusted friends, colleagues, teachers and mentors. Carry these positive comments with you into the performance situation.
  • Take time after the performance to reflect on what happened and why, and then find positive ways to avoid such things happening again. Most errors can be identified and put right very easily.

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

~William Shakespeare


Further reading:

The Inner Game of Music – Barry Green

The Musician’s Way – Gerald Klickstein

Music From the Inside Out – Charlotte Tomlinson

The piano and Neuro-Linguistic Programming

Mindfulness and piano playing