The first of a series of short films made in collaboration with Casio UK and Pianist magazine. In this film, Frances Wilson AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist offers suggestions on how to make the most of limited practice time, and making practising productive and most of all enjoyable.

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Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, writer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. She holds Licentiate and Associate Diplomas (both with Distinction) in Piano Performance, and for 12 years ran a successful piano teaching practice in SW London. She is now based in West Dorset where she teaches from her home in Portland. Further information

My interest in this form of meditation was piqued when a friend talked of following a mindfulness course and employing mindfulness as a way of dealing with feelings of inadequacy as a musician and the exigencies of everyday life. I decided to explore further to see if employing some techniques drawn from mindfulness could help me, in my musical life and every day.

Basically, “mindfulness” is an awareness of yourself and your surroundings. When in a mindful state, mindless “daydreaming” is replaced by presence, and attention to the here and now. It can also refer to specific meditative processes, such as those popularized by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding director of the University of Massachusetts Medical School Stress Reduction Clinic. Mindfulness has been shown to help people suffering from stress, anxiety and depression, including physical manifestations of stress disorders such as eczema and psoriasis, pain and ill health, and is approved by the UK Mental Health Foundation.

How I am using Mindfulness in my musical life:

Reaching a state of acceptance

I suffer from a certain lack of confidence as a musician (despite appearances to the contrary when I play and the many positive endorsements I receive from teachers, colleagues and friends). I realised that part of this stems from a habit of constantly comparing myself to others. I have resolved to stop comparing myself to others, to accept that certain repertoire just isn’t “right” for me (for whatever reason, technically or emotionally), that I don’t have to attempt pieces just because others are, and to focus on developing my own playing in repertoire that I enjoy and which interests me.

Banishing the inner critic

Alongside this sense of acceptance, I am learning to switch off the voice in my head which tells me I am “just not good enough”. I’ve realised that this voice is, in part, the manifestation of a variety of critical comments, from a music teacher at school to certain others who have hinted that I am committing some form of pianistic “hubris” by performing in public concerts or taking on works such as Beethoven’s Opus 110 or Schubert’s Sonata in A D959 (my current preoccupation). I now try to draw confidence from the positive and supportive comments from colleagues, diploma adjudicators, mentors and friends.

Mindful practising

Mindfulness enables us to practise thoughtfully, with concentration, commitment, improved focus and care. Too often I come across students (and others) who simply “type” their pieces, processing notes with little care or thought and revealing that their practising has been repetitive and mindless. Repetitive practise is important, for sure, but it should be both thoughtful and repetitive – and each repetition should be considered. Taking notice of what one is playing – each phrase, dynamic nuance, subtleties of touch, expression, articulation – will result in more efficient and rewarding practise, leading to vibrant and authoritative playing.

It also enables us to become more aware of our physical state when playing, to check that the wrists are supple and mobile, arms are soft, shoulders relaxed, and so forth, and to know to stop playing when the body becomes tight, sore or stressed.

On a broader level, mindfulness can make us more insightful as musicians, to connect better with our inner selves, be less self-critical, to see mistakes honestly and without fear and know how to understand and adjust them more easily, and to improve our playing and musicianship based on experience and intuition rather than self-criticsm: in essence, to better trust our musical self.

Dealing with anxiety

My main strategy for dealing with performance anxiety is knowing that the music has been practised deeply and is fully prepared, including at least three “practise” performances. In addition to this, I try to perform “in the moment”, to focus on the “now” of performing and to silence the destructive inner critic voice that wants remind one of all the slips and errors, and can stifle creativity and spontaneity in performance. After a performance, I try not to post-mortem it too closely, but to return to practising the day after with renewed interest and (hopefully) deeper insight, while looking forward to the next opportunity to perform the pieces.

Daily meditation sessions may not be for everyone (and this is not something I actively engage in) but increased awareness while engaged in music practise can help us reconnect with our instrument and our musical self, leading to improved concentration, physical awareness of the feel of the instrument under the fingers, tone control, quality of sound, expression, a vibrant dynamic palette, flow, musical insight and communication. While playing, banish the “mindless” thoughts that distract and fill the mind – “what shall I cook for dinner?”,  “did I remember to collect the dry-cleaning?” – and focus instead on observing and listening to yourself playing. Try to notice things that perhaps weren’t apparent before or which you previously took for granted, and bring meaning, value, love and life to every note and phrase you play.

(source http://www.gracebelgravia.com)

My students don’t believe me when I tell them there is a book called The Perfect Wrong Note. Nor do they believe me when I tell them that mistakes are good, that mistakes make us better musicians.

The desire for perfectionism is all around us in our modern society, from the need to produce a perfectly cut and edited film or CD, to the pressure to achieve the “perfect body” (whatever that is!). Very young children are immune to this pressure: they learn from mistakes, often made during play, and by doing so gain a huge amount of knowledge about the world around them before they have stepped foot inside a school environment. But from the moment they are in school, they are encouraged not to make mistakes, and through the demands placed upon them by teachers, peers and parents, they develop a certain moral judgement and become self-critical. They learn that not making mistakes wins praise, while making mistakes results in disapproval.

Being a musician, particularly a professional musician, is highly demanding, and the training required is extremely rigorous. Music students strive for mastery and perfection in their playing, because they know that being well-qualified in this respect will earn them merit and recognition, from teachers, peers, audiences and critics. As musicians, and teachers of musicians, it is important that we set ourselves high standards, but constantly striving for perfection can promote false or impossible standards.

As pianist and teacher Charlotte Tomlinson says in her excellent book Music from the Inside Out, people frequently – and wrongly – equate perfection with excellence. While perfectionism is negative and damaging, excellence is achievable and positive.

When I’m teaching students, and when I’m practising myself, I never see a wrong note as a mistake. Wrong notes and mistakes are instructive – and we can always learn from them. When an error occurs, we need to ask ourselves some key questions:

  • Do I know where the mistake happened?
  • Do I know why the mistake happened?
  • Do I know how to put the mistake right so it doesn’t happen again?

All mistakes happen for a reason and it’s important that we understand why a mistake happened and what we can do to prevent it re-occurring. Sometimes it may be something quite simple like a poor or awkward fingering scheme; but sometimes mistakes, particularly those that recur in the same places, may be the sign of a more deep-seated issue, technical, physical or psychological.

When students come to lessons with me, many of them play their pieces with slips and errors – and many of them stop to correct these errors, despite my saying “keep going!”. I try to encourage students to “play through”, to keep the flow of the piece going by not stopping to correct each and every mistake. Look at any exam report, for whatever grade, and you will see that “flow”, or rather lack of flow, is a constant gripe of music examiners. Constantly stopping to correct mistakes becomes ingrained in the muscle memory to the point where one will always stop at the same point, even if the mistake is no longer there.  I worry when students play blindly, not taking notice of what they are doing, not listening, because this is when mistakes get overlooked, and keep cropping up, week after week. Mistakes such as these are hard to correct and need careful, detailed practising to put right. Mistakes made from poor conception and understanding, lack of preparation or careless practising need consistent work to put them right. But mistakes made from off the cuff inspiration and insight can be wonderful and exciting.

Mistakes show we are human, and fallible, that it’s ok to have an off day when your playing and practising may not go as well as usual. Giving ourselves permission to make mistakes allows us to be fulfilled by our music and to feel positive about our practising. A willingness to make mistakes teaches us to be self-critical, but in a positive, productive way.

An excellent performance may not be a perfect performance – but the excellent performance will almost certainly be the one which conveys the meaning and emotion of the music, which tells the story, communicates with the audience and allows the listener to be carried away by the music, to the point that the performer almost becomes invisible. Some of the greatest pianists of all time made visible mistakes in their performances – Liszt, Anton Rubinstein, Paderewski, Cortot, Hofman, Moiseiwitsch, Horowitz, Richter, Gilels – but these people remain piano legends because of the beauty of their playing, their insight and communication, and interpretative skills. I have been to concerts by some of the top professional pianists in the world and have heard mistakes – split notes, a smeared run, a missed chord. I’ve even been party to a few memory lapses on occasion. Did these spoil the concert experience as a whole? Of course not, because the performer played with conviction, emotion, musical understanding, passion.

We need to learn how to free ourselves from the tyranny of perfectionism to become more fluent, confident, convincing and expressive musicians. We should strive for the “ideal” not the “perfect” version in our music. And as Charlotte Tomlinson says in Chapter 3 of her book, sometimes we just need a “f**k it switch”, to free us from stress and allow us to stand back and see the bigger picture.

Further reading:

Music from the Inside Out – Charlotte Tomlinson

The Perfect Wrong Note – William Westney

The Inner Game of Music – Barry Green

The Musician’s Way – Gerald Kilckstein

This article originally appeared on my sister blog Frances Wilson’s Piano Studio.