It may surprise you to learn that Austrian cyclist Anna Kiesenhofer, who won the gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics women’s road race, is an amateur rider. She doesn’t belong to a professional team (she left the Spanish team Lotto Soudal in 2017) which would pay her salary; she holds a PhD in mathematics and is a researcher and lecturer at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

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She may be an amateur on paper, but watching her dominate the women’s road race, storming far ahead of the main field, it was evident that she is someone who takes her training and preparation very seriously, as seriously as any pro rider.

“….cycling takes up a lot of space in my life. I don’t earn money. For the last one-and-a-half years, I was completely focused on today.

– Anna Kiesenhofer, in a post-race interview

There are several aspects of Anna Kiensenhofer’s attitude and training regime which I feel are particularly relevant, and also very inspiring, to the serious amateur musician – and indeed the professional too – and her dedication is proof that if one sets to a task with efficiency,  commitment and self-determination it is possible to achieve greatness.

Of course we may not aspire to Olympian greatness, but many of us strive for self-improvement, personal fulfillment and excellence in our music making – at whatever level we play.

Like the sportsperson’s, the musician’s training can lay the foundations of efficient, intelligent practice habits, secure technique, confidence in performance, musicianship, artistry, and – importantly – independence. While many of us may rely on the advice and support of a teacher or mentor, there comes a point when we may choose to step away from a teacher, either temporarily or permanently, and pursue our musical studies independently (and I will explore my own decision to do this in a later article). It takes a leap of faith to set oneself on a path of self-coaching, encompassing self-reliance, self-determination, and personal autonomy without the support of a teacher, but this is, I believe, necessary for one’s development as a musician seeking excellence and mastery.

Anna Kiesenhofer’s principles of self-coaching:

Don’t trust authority too much/Don’t necessarily believe your coach/teacher

By her own admission Anna Kiesenhofer is “anti-authoritarian” when it comes to coaches/trainers, especially the ones who claim to have all the answers and who seek to impose their own ways of doing things on their students.

“I started to realise that all those people who say they know, they actually don’t know. Many of them don’t know, and especially those who say that they know, don’t know, because those who do know say that they don’t know.”

A good teacher is not authoritarian; be wary of those who claim to have all the answers. A good teacher is open to discussion, adjustment, reflection to find what is best for the individual student, rather than a “one size fits all” approach. Don’t expect a teacher to have all the answers – and the best teachers know that they don’t have all the answers! A good teacher will equip their students with the skills with which to become an independent, self-reliant learner, and also a self-coach.

Find out what works for you personally

I meet people in the amateur piano world who’ve had lessons with a wide variety of teachers and attended many piano courses, hoping for the big answer, the miracle, which tells them “how to do it”. Instead, they are overwhelmed or confused with such a wealth of advice (much of it expert or well-meaning) and lack the confidence to extract from that advice what will actually be useful to them. This is also connected to the notion that there is a “right way” to play the piano (there isn’t!).

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, and select what advice works for you to support your own musical development.

Be wary of overly dogmatic or controlling teachers whose approach is “it’s my way or the high way”. Such a blinkered attitude will not serve your progress.

Create your own training (practicing) plan

Someone else’s practicing regime may not be the right one for you. Again, the “one size fits all” approach is impractical because we are all different, and while one person may do the bulk of their practicing first thing in the morning, others may prefer to break up the practice sessions into smaller sessions throughout the day. Create your own practicing regime and stick to it, but be willing to make adjustments to suit your changing needs, progress and goals.

And talking of goals…..Set yourself clear and achievable goals – a series of smaller targets is easier to manage that one big one and also helps to keep you motivated without feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the task ahead.

It may be helpful to discuss practice habits with others and to observe what others are doing, but be wary of comparing yourself to others as this can lead to issues with confidence or self-esteem. Have the confidence to stick to your own plan.

There are no short cuts, no miracles 

“If it was easy, everyone would do it” was a favourite line from one of my teachers, and he’s right. Playing the piano is difficult, at whatever level one plays, and appreciating and accepting this is an important part of the self-coaching mindset.

There are no miracles: self-determination, commitment, grit and, above all, a willingness to submit to the ongoing process of learning with persistence and passion are the qualities which drive achievement, whether you are a pianist or an Olympic athlete.

Further reading:

A Passionate Pursuit: The Pianist’s Mastery

Persistence and the concept of ‘Grit’


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Part 2The problem with perfectionism, and releasing expectations


 

In my first article, I discussed how musicians can judge when it’s time to ‘let go’ of a piece of music and decide it is ready for performance or should be put aside for awhile.

In this second article on ‘letting go’ as a musician, I will explore how criticism and negative feelings can hold us back as musicians, and how ‘letting go’ allows us to cultivate a greater sense of acceptance, self-reliance and confidence.

Musicians are by nature highly self-critical, a habit which is often inculcated at a fairly early point in one’s musical study, by teachers, peers and one’s self.  Self-criticism is important: the ability to self-critique is a significant aspect of productive, intelligent practising. It also encourages musicians to become independent learners who are able to make informed judgements about their progress, technical facility, artistry in performance, and career development.

Alongside this, there is also the need to seek feedback and endorsement from others – teachers, mentors, peers and critics – which also help support one’s musical development.

Music is a world where there is much judgement and criticism (both positive and negative); it is also highly competitive, and such competitiveness can lead to questions such as “am I good enough?” and toxic feelings of inadequacy and failure, which can impede one’s musical progress and even seep into one’s daily life, affecting self-esteem and confidence.

Letting go of such feelings, the need to seek approval or endorsement from others, stepping away from competitiveness, is not always easy, but the ability to recognise, confront and manage them can make us better musicians – more confident, resilient, centred and motivated.

Letting go of perfectionism

The notion that one must play every single note perfectly is, in my opinion, one of the most significant contributors to feelings of failure and inadequacy as a musician. Unfortunately, the musician’s training still places an undue emphasis on perfectionism, which can lead to anxiety, stress and injury, and encourages unhealthy working habits. Perfectionism can destroy our love of music and rob us of joy, spontaneity, expression, communication and freedom in our music-making. In short, it can lead us to forget why we make music. Perfectionism filters into the subconscious and creates a pervasive, hard-to-break personality style, with an unhealthily negative outlook.

Instead, it is far more healthy and productive to let go out perfection and strive instead for excellence in everything one does. Excellence is realistic, quantifiable and attainable. Excellence develops confidence and responsiveness and offers continued inspiration. And by striving for excellence we can stay connected with our artistic muse, our desire to make music, and the overall meaning of that music.

Letting go of the fear of failure

Hand-in-hand with perfectionism goes the fear of failure – failure to play the music “correctly”, failure to achieve that grade, diploma, competition result, failure to secure that job. We fear that we will appear foolish, weak or inadequate, or that we will be embarrassed, or an embarrassment to others, if we fail.

Fear of failure may also lead one to take a “what if…?” attitude to one’s music-making. “What if I make a mistake in a performance?”. Will my teacher/peers/colleagues think I’m a lesser musician because of it?

Let go of the fear of failure by recognising that “to err is human”, and that mistakes and failure are a crucial aspect of learning. A mistake can and should lead us to evaluate what we are doing, and all errors and setbacks should be seen as opportunities for self-analysis and critique, resulting in self-correction, adjustment, improvement and, importantly, progress.

In a performance situation, letting go of the fear of failure allows us to play our music “in the moment”, creating a concert experience that is spontaneous, communicative and enjoyable – for performer and audience.

Fear of failure is also related to ego, and letting go of ego makes us better musicians, and human beings.

Letting go of external validation

Throughout one’s musical study, as a child, teenager and adult, one seeks and receives approval, endorsements and validation. While such feedback can be extremely helpful – and outward signifiers of achievement such as good exam results or positive critique from, for example, a respected musician, teacher or critic can encourage greater motivation – it can be all too easy to place too much emphasis on negative feedback or to “read between the lines” of critical commentary.

We may also measure our progress against that of others, but comparing oneself to others is negative and counter-productive. Just because so-and-so can play Gaspard de la Nuit, it does not necessarily make them a ‘better’ musician. Stop trying to compete or compare: accept that we are all different as musicians, and instead focus on our own strengths and talents. Alongside this, release the notion that there is certain repertoire that we should play (for too long I felt trapped by this pressure, but when I let go of it, I found far greater fulfilment and enjoyment in my music making).

We develop and flourish as musicians if, instead of looking for approval from teachers, colleagues, reviewers or the audience, we self-critique and recognise the value of what we have to say. We should measure our personal success against the challenges set by the music, not by extrinsic aspects – the endorsements of others (except perhaps a few respected or trusted mentors and colleagues). As Schumann said, “As you grow older, converse more with scores than with virtuosi.” 

Remember why we make music

Above all, it is important to remember why we make music – because we love it and want to share our passion with others. Music is also a shared cultural gift, and one which gives pleasure to many, many people. This knowledge should infuse our playing and sustain us over the long term.

Photo by Javardh on Unsplash