The Pianist’s Autonomy – Part 1: going it alone

autonomy: the ability to make your own decisions without being controlled by anyone else – Cambridge Dictionary definition

Olympic gold medallist, the cyclist Anna Kiesenhofer is entirely self-coached. She manages everything herself, from her training regime to nutrition, tactics to equipment. Rejecting the norms of professional cycling, she doesn’t always do things the way the coaches say she should. “Don’t trust authority too much” she replies, when asked in interviews what advice she would give to aspiring cyclists. For me, she represents someone who has attained autonomy and proved that it can bring achievement and success.

Her fiercely self-reliant, “go it alone” approach appeals to me because five years ago, after failing to score a hat trick in my performance diplomas (I failed to achieve the final, Fellowship diploma), I decided to cease having regular piano lessons and to instead “self-coach” myself. 

Failing to secure that final diploma, after I had recovered from the initial disappointment, made me appreciate that I had in fact achieved something far more significant than additional credentials and letters after my name – and something that is imperative for the musician, whether professional or amateur: autonomy.

In the early and intermediate stages of our learning, and even later on, it may be necessary to have a coach encouraging us to play more accurately, with more expression, greater freedom, artistry and confidence, but ultimately it is important that we recognise the value of what we have to say and to measure this against the score, rather than seek external critique or endorsement or mark our progress against that of others.

As you grow older, converse more with scores than with virtuosi – Robert Schumann

Of course, it takes a degree of courage and a leap of faith to step away from a teacher, especially one with whom you have enjoyed a longstanding, trusted and productive relationship. We may become reliant (sometimes overly reliant) on a teacher’s support, advice and encouragement, to the point where it can become very difficult to part company. But good teachers know that there will come a time when a student needs to move on, and the best teachers aim to make themselves redundant by equipping their students with the necessary tools to be confident, independent learners, able to make their own decisions about their learning and progress, interpretation and artistry. (Bad teachers, on the other hand, are possessive of their students, can be autocratic and dogmatic in their approach (“it’s my way or the high way“) and are less concerned with helping their students succeed than with bolstering their own egos.)

I am fortunate in having received many hours of expert tuition, coaching and mentoring from a number of leading pianist-teachers, who helped me lay the foundations of efficient, intelligent practice habits, secure technique, musicianship and artistry. Their support was invaluable, and without it, I doubt I would have had the confidence to pursue my own path to autonomy.

From observing other teachers and students, in masterclasses and on courses, conversations with pianist-teachers, concert pianists and other musicians, my own reading and research, and indeed a growing scepticism about mainstream methods and didacticism in music teaching, led me to form my own ideas about how I wanted to approach my music making and my ongoing musical development.

I’m fascinated with what happens to the creative output when you isolate yourself from the approval and disapproval of the people around you. – Glenn Gould

There is no doubt that the necessary confidence to pursue this path was imbued in me, in part, by the support of highly-skilled master teachers and mentors, and my achieving Distinctions in two performance diplomas, taken in my late 40s, having returned to the piano seriously after an absence of nearly 25 years. For me, the diplomas were less about external credentialisation, and more about improving my pianistic techniques, along with personal development and self-fulfillment – the best reasons, as I see it, for pursuing qualifications such as these. 

Autonomy can be hard won – it took me eight years and two diplomas to step back from regular piano lessons and attending piano courses, quite a few conversations with myself and self-reflection – but one can gradually work towards greater independence, self-determination and self-reliance, for example, by reducing the frequency one’s piano lessons and becoming less dependent on the guidance and feedback from a teacher, and instead relying on one’s own musical knowledge.

The ability to make one’s own decisions about one’s music making and progress – important aspects of autonomy – comes from growing confidence, including the confidence to accept or reject advice, retaining what one will find most helpful and discarding the rest. Be wary of a teacher or mentor who claims to have all the answers and exercise a degree of healthy scepticism when taking advice from others, even the most highly respected teachers. Be open to suggestions, but also questioning and curious.

Alongside this, the autonomous musician will create their own validation methods and accountable tools – technical, interpretative, psychological and artistic – and use such methods and tools in every day practicing and performance. These may include:

  • Trial and error, exploration and experimentation, reflection and adjustment
  • Really close attention to all the details of the score
  • A willingness to learn from mistakes and to see failure as part of the learning process
  • Acknowledgement and acceptance of one’s strengths and weaknesses and an ability to play to those strengths
  • Remaining curious and open-minded at all times, alert to new possibilities or alternative ways of doing things (remember, there is no “right” way).
  • Feeding back to oneself through self-monitoring, recordings/videos, reflection, adjustment – and rinse and repeat
  • Setting realistic, achievable goals which encourage motivation and ongoing development
  • Regular study away from the instrument – listening (including going to concerts), reading
  • Try out performances in less stressful settings (at home to friends, for example), and self-critiquing and reflecting on one’s performance
  • Trusting one’s own musical knowledge and judgement rather than following received ideas about what the music should sound like/how it should be played
  • Guarding all the time against routine (which leads to boredom and counter-productivity) and a lack of mindfulness
  • An acknowledgement that there are no short-cuts or miracles, nor that there is a “right way” to play the music, and that the authority of one’s own interpretative decisions should be borne out in convincing performances
  • Seeking advice/critique from trusted colleagues, mentors and friends with whom one can have an honest and mutually respectful exchange of ideas. Such discussions may be regular or occasional, but they will have value, offering stimulating food for thought, and often allowing one to see the bigger picture of the music, rather than always focusing on the minutiae, as one surely does – and must – in daily practice sessions.

These points may appear rather exhaustive, but they are habits and skills which can be gradually incorporated into one’s regular practice regime, and developed and finessed to the point where they become intuitive. And then one continues to build on them, making small but significant positive gains which go to create a greater whole.

In achieving autonomy, I have felt liberated, enjoying greater physical and psychological freedom in my playing, less bodily tension and much more pleasure and personal fulfilment in the music which I choose to play. 

The point is not to take the world’s opinion as a guiding star but to go one’s way in life and working unerringly, neither depressed by failure nor seduced by applause – Gustav Mahler

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