Progress in piano – “It’s all in the mind”

Guest post by Howard Smith


Glenn Gould once said “One does not play the piano with one’s fingers, one plays the piano with one’s mind.” Sounds plausible, but what did he mean? I’ve heard similar ideas from my piano teachers. One suggested, “spending time away from the keyboard with the sheet music.”  Another urged me to “fully concentrate while practicing”.  And, an experienced concert pianist told me that “Practice must always be ‘mind led’. Do not touch the keyboard until you are sure of things.”  

What does it mean to play the piano with one’s mind?

I should explain why I am writing about this topic. I am an upper-intermediate pianist struggling to make a solid transition to ‘advanced’. I stress ‘solid’. How come? I did little piano as a child and my gap before returning to the keys was 45 years! The cards are stacked against me. Whenever I use this cruel fact as an excuse with my teachers, they ramble on about practice approaches – of course – and the conversation always ends in the same place: “It’s all in the mind, Howard.” Well, is it? 

I must start with how I feel. It is taking me an inordinate time to bring new pieces to fruition. I won’t go into details but I will make an assertion. Unless I can get on top of pieces more readily, I simply won’t be getting through enough varied music to make progress. Imagine a tennis player who rarely played against more able opponents. The only way top-ranked players progress is to play regularly against their peers. Likewise, the only way musicians progress is to expand their repertoire. If the amateur pianist is taking weeks, months or in some cases a year or more to get a new piece under their fingers, is it surprising that their progress will be limited? No. One could easily find oneself going backwards!

I am sitting with my regular teacher and explaining the dilemma to her. She explains that it is common to take weeks and months on new work. She also explains that she generally requires her students to tackle the set pieces for upcoming grade examinations in a single term, or at most two terms. I tend to agree with her.  I don’t think you can count yourself to be ‘at’ a grade level if it takes a year or more to bring the required three pieces to a good standard. But I am no exam chaser. Far from it. My interest in this topic is borne out of my own frustration in crossing the chasm from upper-intermediate to advanced. It is also an intellectual curiosity. My teacher observed, for example, that I have no trouble moving my fingers and hands once the piece is absorbed. “It is not your fingers that are the problem,” she said. So what, precisely, is the problem? 

Another teacher talked about patterns.  “It’s all about patterns, Howard,” he said. “You must be able to recognise the patterns, not the individual notes”. I can relate to that, my sight reading is sub-standard. But I am unconvinced this is the only, or even the main, thing that is holding me back. Even after I have spent time ‘learning the notes’ the hard way (rote repetition) I still feel an impediment buried deep in my playing. It rarely feels … easy, relaxed. There is a hesitancy in my transitions, especially in more complex or rapid passages. I must admit, it does feel as though it is my mind being the sluggish laggard in those moments, not my nimble fingers. It ‘feels’ as if a signal is not being communicated from my brain to my hands as quickly as required to keep the music moving forward. Or perhaps the conjuring up of the correct signal, the moment of thought, is lacking. It is often enough to disturb the play. I can enjoy the occasional sense of ‘flow’ but it is rare for me to experience what other pianists have described as ‘letting go’.  When I do, everything falls apart, more often than not.

Teachers cannot easily see into the mind of their pupils. My starting point for thinking about this impediment can only be, therefore, how I feel while playing. And believe me, I have tried. This kind of self reflection is like trying to swivel your eyes to look inside your head. Yes, I do have a sense that something mental lies at the heart of my blocks. The question is, what? 

It’s easy to become paranoid. I am in late middle age and only too well aware that the mind is less agile than perhaps it once was. It starts with little things, forgetfulness, not remembering people’s names, forgetting where one left one’s glasses, etc. Is this what is holding me back? Am I simply the victim of biology and the ageing process? The thought horrifies me. I stepped into this ‘piano journey’ game late in life. I understood there was a diminishing ‘window of opportunity’. But every time I raise this with a teacher they assure me the impediment can be overstated, that adults have certain advantages over children. We are able to spend more time at the keyboard for example, and with developed intellects we can immerse ourselves in more of the theory and practice that tackling this instrument requires. There are stories of amateur pianists still making progress well into their late 70s and early 80s. Will that be me, I wonder? I have to believe so. 

If the ageing process is not as much an impediment than I once feared, what else could be holding me back? My career was spent in the computer industry, specifically, software development and complex systems design. That takes intelligence? What is the role of intelligence in piano playing? I’ve never met an unintelligent musician at the top of their game. There is a reason why you find super-intelligent people around music. Perhaps I have the wrong kind of intelligence for the piano? Is there such a thing as ‘musical intelligence’? Am I lacking it? My penfriend, a biologist, is quick to point out there are not different types of intelligence, just differences in the way the brain develops depending how it is applied, the object of our attention. Does the child who plays music from the age of six develop a musician’s intelligence different in kind than the intelligence required of a software engineer? Is it now too late to change the wiring? 

When I think about great pianists, when I marvel at their superhuman feats of virtuosic performance and memorisation, I have to conclude that raw IQ must play a significant role. Is that what is holding me back? Am I less intelligent than required for piano? I never was any good at those ‘recall twenty objects on a tray’ games. Or perhaps my kind of intelligence (logic and math) is simply the wrong colour for music? The thought terrifies me. Having taken the decision to step out of a career of one kind for an activity of quite a different nature, to have spent years in the journey on a quest that leads nowhere, I’m not sure how I could handle that. My friends, sensing such a possibility, urge me to have ‘realistic’ expectations. So what’s to be done? I’m not ready to give up. On the other hand, unless I can make more progress and tackle more advanced music more readily, I do not believe that playing a stream of simpler pieces could sustain me. There is a real possibility of never touching the keys again. For someone as passionate about music as I, who has entered into the spirit of the journey as fully as I, this is quite a statement to make. But I have to admit it: as I write this article, I am on a knife edge. To use a metaphor from my book, Note For Note, I may be about to fall off the escalator and never jump back on. 

What’s to be done? 

A friend from my piano circle urged me to reassess my practice regime. He was kind enough to send me a detailed systematic approach that he is experimenting with. I looked at it, but was unconvinced. I have used some of those techniques before, perhaps not as rigorously as he would advise, but I don’t think doing more of the same will help me. He also suggested that I step back and work on simpler pieces, a few grades below my current level, so as to get through more music and, at the same time, benefit from the sight-reading.  Sounds sensible, but I was not immediately motivated to do this. No, another idea popped into my mind, and it was reinforced by an experienced pianist I met at summer school. He said, “Given your age, Howard, it’s now or never.  I would recommend you tackle a few works far in advance of your grade. Stretch goals.”  His idea held great appeal to me. His theory was that even if I did not complete the pieces to the standard required for performance, I would learn a lot in the process. And so, somewhat tentatively, I chose such a piece. 

Have you ever come across a piece that, on first listen, touches you so deeply that you decide, there and then, that you simply must be able to play it, no matter what the cost in time and effort. Not ‘wish’ or ‘hope’ to play it, but ‘must’ play it, with all your soul. I have found such a piece, by complete chance. It is more than gorgeous. It is not one of the greatest works of music, nor is it so complex that a diploma level pianist would find it daunting. For me it is pitched just right. It lies far from my comfort zone but not so far as to be permanently inaccessible. And so I have set myself this goal: unless I can truly perform (not merely play) this piece by the Spring, I hereby make a solemn oath: I will never play again. 

Postscript

I’ve not yet learnt to play with the mind, but I have learnt this:  As I practice I must practice even more slowly than I had previously realised. Every note and every chord must be ‘read’ from the sheet music. I must never assume my fingers will take me to where I need them to be. I must will them to do so, by brain power alone. Every movement must be fully considered. As I move through the music I must make no mistakes. For to make a single mistake will engrain it for next time. If I am making mistakes, even small ones, this is the signal that I must slow down even more. If necessary I must not move to the next beat until the positions of the hands and fingers for the subsequent beat are correct. This correction must occur in the mind before it is manifest in the fingers. This mind-led practice is what I will strive to perfect from now on.  Whether this is what Glenn Gould or my teachers meant I am less sure. I must find out. 

As ever, I wish to learn from the piano community, many of whom will have made more progress than me. Let’s have a conversation. What do you think Glenn Gould and my teachers meant? Please feel free to comment below


Howard Smith is a keen amateur pianist and author of Note for Note, a compelling account of his piano journey. Find out more here https://linktr.ee/note4notethebook

 

8 Comments

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  1. Do you know the book ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’? It may be helpful. It was to me. Also: experiment (and keep experimenting) with finding your own methods of practicing, and, indeed, the mentai aspect of this is key. Also: different sorts of pieces (or even passages within the same piece) will typically require different methods of practice.

  2. An update … thank you again to the new folks who have entered the conversation. I am hoping you will be notified that I am replying, since I don’t want to reply to each and every person. WordPress is not ideal for such collaboration. In any case, I am now a month and a half into my ‘challenge’ to play the ambitious (for me) piece I refer to in the article. It is not yet clear whether I will eventually be able to perform this music. But the goal of ‘by the Spring’ remains.

  3. Dear Howard
    Thank you for the heart-felt post. I’d like to offer a few observations from my own experience.

    First of all, I wonder if you are over-thinking/over-analysing? As a scientist, I know I fall into this trap myself. It’s important not to lose sight of the end-point, which is the music. Do you have a well-developed musical image/goal in your mind?

    Secondly, I am sure you are aware of Graham Fitch’s computing analogy? When practising, one is coding, but when performing, one is running the code. The danger is to try and write the code at the same time as it is running!

    Thirdly, have you got some new approaches to try with your piece? To quote Henry Ford: `if you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you have always got`. I worry a bit about the postscript, which implies your practice is very controlled and rather joyless.

    I have discussed several of these issues with my teacher, who is a great virtuoso, when trying to move off my playing plateau. His comment is that in more advanced music, you have to use large gestures. He thinks about arm movements, position of his elbow, using his shoulders, leaning right/left, back/front of the keyboard etc. His fingerings are designed to help him achieve the musical gesture he wants to make. So for instance, a fast arpeggio up the keyboard: as well as learning the notes and fingering, you have to learn/practice the arm gesture, and not just hope it happens as your fingers move. In fact, your arm moves in order the bring the fingers to the right place.

    Apologies for the long post, and for trying to teach my grandmother to suck eggs. Good luck.

  4. Thank you for your comments, everyone. I appreciate it. Do tell others about the post and let’s see what additional thoughts we have on this topic of ‘mind play’. I find it very important. Everyone is saying so, but few can define it or show ‘how’.

  5. 1. I’d love to know the piece you’ve so fallen for

    2. Reflecting on my own playing and the teaching I’ve done since leaving IT, I think I reached a plateau on leaving school and ceasing lessons. The learning methods I’d employed – not much more than incremental sight-reading maybe a shade under tempo but never really slow or hands separately – could not get me to play the pieces I wanted to. I needed something different to enable me to break into higher level rep. Internet resources and working with a teacher have enabled me to do that.
    In my teaching I’ve had pupils who’ve had learning methods that worked for them up to grade 3, 5 or 7 but in spite of my coaching they’ve not been able to give attention to detail, embed fingerings, practise slowly enough or put in the time to break through. I don’t quite know why. I suspect they have not loved piano enough or have failed to understand that the methods and techniques that took them so far won’t carry them further.

    • John – thank you for those supportive thoughts.

      Oh my – what piece or pieces and what about the learning process…

      First, at nearly 72 years old I am still doing pretty complex state-of-the-art-ish application integration coding as a part-time employee and there is little doubt that I hide behind project deadlines as an excuse not to practice enough – in terms of time and mindfulness.

      My second adult teacher (coming up on two years, first one 5 years), has been wonderfully insightful and patient — rhythm first, tone-production (listening to oneself) second, pressing the right wooden sticks third. How do I learn patience and how do I listen and really be mindful – figure out what “it’s all in the mind” means to me and make it actionable?

      I hear pieces on SiriusXM in the car and they grab me, or watch Netflix (“Unorthodox”) and something grabs me. I am all over the place.
      I found the theme from “Sophie’s Choice” in a throwaway box at music school – actually simplified version of Mendelssohn’s Op 30 no 1. I’d played other SWW before but this one just got me – not that hard, but tricky to get right. Tchaikovsky’s Seasons various, March, May, June, October. Schubert D 960 slow movement (Unorthodox), D 664, Schubert Impromptus several in 90 and 142, several Moments Musicaux. The usual suspects for my abilities in Chopin nocturnes, op 32 1 especially grabbed me as did op 48 no 2.
      A fair number of Chopin mazurkas – e.g. op 53 C minor – I probably have no business trying that but it grabs me.
      My teacher introduced me to Scriabin op 11 preludes. I’ve worked on 4-6 of the slower ones – their cleverness and fingering challenges astonish me. Most recently I’ve been trying to get no 9 in E major actually right to play for others.
      I just got back from the Warsaw Chopin competition and again had sleepless nights after the late Stage III session with the Largo movement of op 58 spinning in my head. I have worked pretty hard on that.
      I’ve just been playing the Chopin b minor prelude no 6 for my teacher as an assignment in this concept of listening to oneself. I balked at it at first and quickly realized the assignment is spot on – I could spend months at it, coming back intermittently for “check up” on mindfulness/listening.

      Where does that fit in your own teaching panoply and do you have any other comments or advice?
      Thank you.

  6. Howard – our journeys are uncannily similar despite the Atlantic separating us, which is why I bought your book shortly after I saw it discussed on CrossEyedPianist. I am a few years older and still working as a software engineer past conventional retirement age. The gap for me was a bit closer to 50 years. I have most assuredly not put the remarkable energy into learning that you recounted, but with a lot of sweat I’ve come reasonably to terms with theory. (I’ve also not crashed my bike, but I think about it a lot and pay more attention to road features).
    I too have thought about and queried on “musical intelligence”. I’ve read that there is no genetic basis but perhaps a genetic predisposition to tolerate intense and long work at the keyboard. I find, paradoxically, that I can still spend many hours on a tough software problem, not noticing the time which has passed, but I can NOT seem to do the same with piece I’m working on – I start to fidget and be frustrated.
    I too have the same feeling that I don’t want to work only on pieces which should be more within my grasp, although when I listen to my teacher and do so, I immediately understand the point. A balance is required of course. I would be curious to share repertoire with you and your circle.
    Most recently I have spoken with my teacher about listening – really listening – to oneself. My software engineer self rejected that as airy-fairy and intangible. But just now after a session of trying to do so with my teacher, I’m of the opinion that in fact it may be quite important. And it may be a hard-won, learned discipline, and one which runs counter to my impatience, but perhaps that alone makes it worth trying.
    Cheers and thank you.

  7. I can’t agree more. A mind-led practice is helpful to achieving a well-rounded performance. It keeps you in control of your fingers rather than the other way round.

    When I was young, I used to practice repetitively regardless of my mind. That caused me an immense amount of struggle when I got into university.

    It took me a while to grasp the concept of playing with your mind. But once I did, I was more in control of my performance on stage. Nervous – yes. But I knew what I was doing.

    Being mindful during practice sessions is an excellent way to prevent mindless performances.

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