It has been refreshing and inspiring to watch this young England football team in action in the UEFA European Championship under the tutelage of Gareth Southgate (who, as a friend of mine tweeted the other day, is the kind of person you would happily introduce to your mum). I say “refreshing” this young team seems largely devoid of artifice and ego. As many commentators have observed, this England team is lean, keen and focussed, with a clear appetite for success. This is evidently due in no small part to the calm, composed leadership of Gareth Southgate, who chooses to encourage rather than berate, praise rather than criticise, thus establishing a supportive environment for the team to train and compete. The positive effect of this “kinder” management style has been evident throughout the matches England have played, and especially after the final when Southgate hugged and comforted his players.

England may have lost to Italy in the final, but this should not be regarded as a “failure”. To get to final of the Euros, and to play against Italy, one of the best teams in the world, is a huge achievement. What a privilege!

The result of the final will give Gareth Southgate and the team much food for thought and reflection, which, if done right, will enable this young team to develop and grow and, hopefully, achieve greater success in the next World Cup in 2022.

In ‘The Rise’, her excellent book on the search for mastery, Sarah Lewis explores the notion of the “near win” (rather than the “near miss”) as instrumental to achieving success.

A near win shifts our view of the landscape. It can turn future goals, which we tend to envision at a distance, into more proximate events….The near win changes our focus to consider how we plan to reach what lies in our sights, but out of reach.

Success motivates us, but a near win can propel us in an ongoing quest.

Sarah Lewis

To have reached the final of the European Championship, and to have played so confidently and largely very successfully in the matches leading to it, the England team should enjoy the glow of their near win and use it to spur them to greater victories. The road to mastery is paved with setbacks, but if we are prepared to embrace them, they carve the way for further endeavour, achievement and fulfilment – and scoring! – of goals.

This growth-mindset attitude applies as much to sportspeople as to musicians.


Further reading

The Success in Failure

A Passionate Pursuit

How the psychology of the England team could change your life

 

Alan Rusbridger, journalist and former editor-in-chief of The Guardian newspaper, gave us some fascinating insights into the world of the amateur pianist in his 2013 book ‘Play It Again’ – a world hitherto regarded by many as the realm of eccentric hobbyists and ‘Sunday Pianists’ note-bashing their way through Chopin and Brahms, and old ABRSM exam books….

What Rusbridger’s book reveals is something quite different, and anyone who has attended a piano course or belongs to a piano club will have come across the exceptional amateur pianist, the one for whom “the distinction between the feats they can manage on the keyboard and that of an accomplished professional pianist is pretty negligible” (Alan Rusbridger).

Who are these exceptional amateurs and how have they achieved a standard of playing which, if presented in a blind audition, would be indistinguishable from a professional pianist?

Perhaps the most obvious distinction between the amateur and the professional pianist is simply mercantile: the professional gets paid for their performances. Aside from this, there is no reason why an amateur pianist cannot achieve the dizzy heights of a professional standard of playing

I’ve met a few exceptional amateurs myself, on piano courses and in my piano club. They are individuals whose playing one would happily pay to hear in concert, yet they have “day jobs”, perhaps the most famous being Condoleezza Rice, who served as US Secretary of State from 2005 to 2009, and who has played at Buckingham Palace for The Queen. Then there is British-Australian pianist Paul Wee, a barrister by day, with two acclaimed discs to his name, including one of Alkan’s notoriously challenging Symphony for Solo Piano and Concerto for Solo Piano, works which require an exceptional level of technical and artistic executive function, and certainly not the repertoire would one normally associate with an amateur player.

But here’s the thing: amateurs can and do play repertoire like this, and the fact that they do debunks the notion that amateurs are cack-handed dilettantes. We know exceptional playing when we hear it – and being “exceptional” does not necessarily mean the ability to play the most demanding, virtuosic music. What distinguishes these people from other amateur pianists, what makes them truly exceptional, is their ability to play at and maintain this level, piece after piece, performance after performance.

Aspiration is everything” says Julian, an amateur pianist friend of mine who plays at an extremely high level of both technical and artistic fluency. But surely the ability to play at such a level goes beyond mere aspiration: we can all aspire to play the Bach-Busoni Chaconne or Gaspard de la Nuit, or any of the other high Himalayan peaks of the repertoire. But only a handful of amateurs can do so convincingly and, more importantly, consistently.

Some exceptional amateurs have had a formal musical training, a training which ingrains in them good practice habits, how to practice efficiently and deeply, and an appreciation that one must ensure the foundations are in place on which to build technical and artistic assuredness. This includes selecting appropriate repertoire, and listening and studying around that repertoire to broaden one’s musical knowledge and place the music in the context in which it was written.

Commitment and time management are also crucial for the exceptional amateur (as indeed for anyone who wishes to improve their playing). Music is “always something I’ve made time for” says Paul Wee in an interview for Gramophone magazine. Other exceptional amateurs to whom I spoke when researching this article said the same thing, that making time to practice is very important to their pianistic development. For many, this means a regular daily (if possible) practice regime. Paul Wee admits that he blocks off several weeks to devote to his piano playing and that he is lucky that his job as a self-employed barrister allows him to do this. He also points out that this approach to practicing is often used by professional players who, because of concert and touring schedules, may not have the luxury of a daily practice regime.

While many exceptional amateurs have had a formal musical training, they have chosen a different career path while keeping music as a significant part of their life. I think this goes beyond merely “playing for pleasure”; as mentioned above, one must be willing to commit to the task and adopt the ethos of continuous improvement, with an openness to new ideas and a willingness to put one’s ego to one side, rather than wanting to “prove oneself”. But amateurs enjoy considerable freedom too: they are not bound by concert diaries, the demands of agents or promoters, and they can choose when to be exceptional – unlike the professional who is judged on every performance and who is under pressure to be exceptional all the time.

Is there really a difference between the exceptional amateur and the professional pianist? No – because they are both pianists and the same technique, musicianship and artistry applies.  

 

The internet is full of articles promising to help you learn to play the piano

  • Learn to play in just 4 weeks!
  • Play piano in 10 easy steps
  • 5 ways to become a great pianist

And so on….

The British pianist James Rhodes entered this busy, lucrative market a few years ago with his book ‘How to Play The Piano’, in which he promises to get the complete novice playing a Bach Prelude in just six weeks. It’s an admirable attempt which may provide inspiration and support to some aspiring pianists, but I am sure Mr Rhodes would agree that to master the piano, whether a professional or amateur player, takes many hours of commitment and graft. As one of my teachers, the wonderful Graham Fitch, observed, “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it!”.

Those of us who choose to embark seriously on this crazy, fulfilling, life-enhancing, frustrating and fascinating path do so with the understanding that the acquisition of skill, improvement and development are hard won (and for the professional, there is the added burden of the cut-throat competitiveness of the profession).

It doesn’t matter at what level you play – you can be a serious beginner or an advanced player; what matters is the commitment, made in the knowledge that this is ongoing process. For many of us (and I find this attitude is common amongst amateur pianists), it is the journey not the destination that makes learning and playing the piano so satisfying and absorbing.

If you don’t enjoy practicing – the process – forget it. You’ll never achieve mastery of your Grade 2 pieces or Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. Practicing is the bedrock of the musician’s “work”. For the professional, this usually has an end point – or rather a string of end points – concerts; but alongside that, there is the need to learn new repertoire, keep existing repertoire alive and fresh, to revive previously-learnt pieces, and to continually reflect on and review one’s skills, technical, musical and artistic.

But there’s more. Because practicing isn’t just about sitting at the piano, turning the dots and squiggles on the score into sounds. Practicing – productive, thoughtful, deep practicing – involves the head and the heart as well as the body. Each phrase, each chord, each scalic run or passage of arpeggios must be considered and reviewed. Listen as you play (and you’d be amazed how many musicians don’t actually listen to themselves!). Reflect, review, play again. And again, and again….and make each of those repetitions meaningful.

Come to each practice session with an open mind and a willingness to fully engage with the music all the time. I’ve read accounts of great pianists practicing technique while reading a book propped on the music desk. This kind of mechanical practice is not helpful – and can even be harmful. Even when practicing the dullest exercises, or scales and arpeggios, find the music within, and bring expression and artistry to every note you play.

Approach your music with a clear internal vision of how you want it to sound. For less experienced players, this can be confusing, the fear of entering unknown territory. How do I know how it should sound? you might ask. But this marks your first forays into interpretation, into taking ownership of the music and making it yours. Our interpretative decisions about our music are shaped by our own experience – playing or listening to repertoire by the same composer, or from the same period, reading around the music, going to concerts, conversations with teachers and other musicians, and harnessing the power of our imagination to bring the music to life.

Don’t feel constrained by the notion that there is a “right way”, but rather forge you own way, and be committed to it. We take ownership of the music by recognising and committing to the value of what we have to say.

Mastery comes not from 10,000 hours of piano practice, but from 10,000 hours of deliberate, intelligent, thoughtful, self-questioning practice. During this process, basic skills are acquired, which allow us to take on new challenges and make connections which were previously elusive. Gradually, we gain confidence in our ability to problem-solve or overcome weaknesses, make more profound interpretative or artistic decisions about our music making, and at a certain point we move from student/apprentice to practitioner.

Now we have the confidence to try out our own ideas while gaining valuable feedback in the process, and our growing knowledge and skill allows us to become increasingly creative, and bring our own individuality and personal style or flair to the task.

When we practice we should do so actively and creatively with joy, playfulness and spontaneity, appreciating every note, every sound, the feel of the keys beneath the fingers, the way the body responds to the music, the nuances of dynamics (both indicated and psychological, as the music demands), articulation, expression, and so forth.

In short, our music making should be an ongoing, responsive process of discovery and refinement, rather than one of predictability, averageness or “good enough”.Such dedicated craft takes inordinate amounts of work – concentrating on very short sections of the score, seeking feedback from intense self-monitoring, at all times remaining curious and open-minded – but this approach provides us with accountable pianistic tools (interpretative, technical, artistic, and psychological) and validation methods that put us on the path to mastery. From a practical perspective, such pianistic tools are a virtuous circle of intense self-evaluation, analysis, reflection and adjustment, and the ability to always see errors as pointers to improvement. It’s a kind of “apprenticeship of incremental gains” informed by continual reflection, adjustment and refinement.

Learn the piano in 6 weeks? Bah! It’s a lifetime’s work.


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“I am a beginner. I am always learning”*

Fou Ts’ong

This wonderfully humble quote from Fou Ts’ong, the acclaimed Chinese pianist, who died on 28 December 2020, is a reminder that even those at the top of the profession should never stop learning.

Our learning journey often begins in childhood, with early music lessons under the guidance of a teacher and later, for the aspiring professional, in music college or conservatoire. The support of a teacher or mentor may continue after graduation and many professional musicians return to their teachers/mentors for critical feedback and support during their career, even if they are no longer taking regular lessons.

The decision to cease regular lessons is not a sign that one has ceased learning; rather that one has reached a level of competency and confidence to continue on the learning path alone, and a good teacher can instil in a student the necessary tools to study and learn independently.

Ongoing learning requires curiosity and an open-mind, a willingness to accept and reflect on setbacks, the ability to self-critique one’s work, and to set realistic goals to maintain focus and motivation. This continual learning process is allied to mastery – embracing the role of the life-long student and dedicating oneself to the pursuit of excellence.

But there’s more, because what I think Fou Ts’ong’s quote also reminds us is that, as musicians (and human beings in general), we should always try to retain that thirst for knowledge and childlike inquisitiveness of the beginner student, unburdened by preconceptions and past experiences. The beginner’s mindset keeps us alert, curious and questioning, ready to accept doubt and open to possibilities and alternatives – important for the musician, not just when learning and refining music but also in performance and teaching.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

The beginner’s mindset can also be helpful when trying to problem solve or overcome obstacles. The “habits of the expert” can actually be an impediment, leading us to overthink or become mired in problems which aren’t really there. The “innocence of first inquiry” (Suzuki) allows us to see things as they are, to simplify, and to problem solve step by step.

Studies have shown that the accrual of greater knowledge can lead not only to us becoming bogged down and distracted by our expertise, but also rather complacent in the face of problems, which then leads us to approach issues in ways which are familiar or habitual, rather than thinking more creatively “outside the box”. Here too, we allow our ego, enhanced by our perceived greater knowledge, to over-complicate a situation. This may also prevent us from finding a better or more creative solution.

The accrual of greater knowledge and expertise, advanced technical facility and musicianship should always be tempered by the beginner’s curiosity and open-mindedness. It can only make us better musicians.


*from an interview with music journalist Jessica Duchen

I recently heard a performance of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, D959, a work with which I spent three years in preparation for a fellowship diploma in piano performance which I took back in 2016. The experience of learning such a large work and to a very high level of competency and artistry was an interesting, rewarding and occasionally frustrating experience during which I learnt a great deal about the practice of practising, the art and craft of performance, and how to take ownership of a piece of music and make it mine – an important consideration for any performer. During the preparation for the diploma recital, I grew to love the music and regard it as “my” sonata, even when I heard other people playing it – pianists who had clearly made it their own and whose sense of ownership was clear in their presentation of the music. Despite not having gone near the music for two years, it is still “my” sonata.

I didn’t pass the diploma, and on reflection I didn’t deserve to pass it because a number of things were not right in the lead up to the recital and on the day – things which I should have taken care of, given I had already taken two other diplomas. Facing up to failure is not a particularly pleasant experience but it is important that one reflects on that failure and to try and learn from it. The most uncomfortable issue was accepting that my ego had got in the way. I do not regard myself as a particularly egocentric person, but one does need a degree of ego to commit to a large project like this and also to push one out onto the stage to actually perform the music (at which point the ego needs to be put away). Unfortunately, my ego got in the way throughout the learning process as well as on the day of the recital: having passed two previous performance diplomas with Distinction, I told myself (and others) that the Fellowship diploma was well within my grasp. In addition, I decided I would take the diploma in my 50th year. It seemed significant, and I felt I needed to prove something – that I was “good enough”, and that it was possible to return to the piano after an absence of some 20 years and play/perform at a high level.

The diploma result was bruising – to my ego, and my confidence and self-esteem as a pianist, which I felt had been hard won, having come back to the piano after such a long time away from it. Although I tried to revisit the sonata and even considered retaking the diploma, it was too caught up with all the unpleasant negative feelings associated with my failure. Despite kind and supportive words from family, friends, teacher and mentors, I was hurt and angry by the result, particularly some of the examiners’ comments, and it took me a long time to process the experience and draw positives from it. I consigned the score of the sonata – or rather scores because I had not only a working score but several other copies – to the back of my bookcase and vowed I would never touch it again….

But things can change, and the passage of time has allowed me to put some distance between the diploma result and my emotions. Hearing the Sonata again reminded me of how much I like it, and during the performance I kept thinking how I would approach this or that phrase or passage. There were moments when I thought “I like this, but I prefer my version” (a sign I still “owned” the music), but I also heard the work afresh: new details were revealed – a little inner melody here, the articulation of a particular passage there – and a few days after the concert, I got out my score of the Schubert sonata and put it on the music desk of my piano. The next day I played the entire sonata from start to finish (including the exposition repeat in the first movement). There were rocky places, of course, but it was encouraging to find that much of the music was still “in the fingers”.

How often do we set aside a piece of music and swear we will never return to it? Fairly frequently, I should think, perhaps more so amongst amateur musicians than professionals who may need to keep certain repertoire going. An unpleasant experience – a bad exam result or unhappy performance – can colour our attitude to certain pieces of music. When I was learning the piano as a child and teenager there were pieces which I simply disliked and never wanted to play again (an important note for teachers to ensure their students, whatever their age, are playing music they enjoy to keep them engaged and motivated).

Returning to a previously-learnt piece of music can be like reacquainting oneself with an old friend – and I certainly feel this with the Schubert sonata. Picking up a piece again after a long absence can be extremely satisfying and often offers new insights into that work, revealing details, layers and subtleties one may not have spotted the first time round. One also recalls all the things one liked about the music and why one selected it in the first place.

Another important aspect is acknowledging that a work can never truly be considered “finished”. Young or inexperienced musicians often think that a learnt piece is finished and are keen to move on to the next one. A satisfying performance of a work to which one has devoted many hours of study can be said to put the work ‘to bed’, but only for the time being. This process of “continuing” and “returning” means that each performance informs the next, and all one’s practising and playing is connected in one continuous stream of music-making.

And what of the Schubert sonata? I have been playing it regularly, and working on it seriously again. It’s satisfying and revealing, and playing it afresh has largely erased the uncomfortable feelings associated with failing the diploma. That I can get around the music, play it well, and convincingly, is extremely gratifying – a reminder of how much good, careful and deep practise I did when I originally learnt the work, work which has not been wasted, nor was thrown away in the moments when I received the diploma result. An important lesson in learning is knowing that everything we do has value, that it is part of an aggregation of gains which cannot be taken away. Those of us who acknowledge this are on a path to self-determination and fulfillment which allows us to move towards a goal which is imperative for any musician – autonomy. It requires an open-minded, ever-curious, spontaneous and mindful approach to the task in hand and a willingness to embrace setbacks and cul-de-sacs along the way.

Will I retake the Diploma? It’s unlikely, though some have encouraged me to re-attempt it. Having given myself plenty of time to reflect and move on, I realise that I do not need to prove anything to anyone but myself, and that competitiveness needs to be tempered by pleasure in learning and music making rather than constantly seeking the outward trappings of success and progress.

Why would a talented leading British composer include a document called a Failure CV on her website, alongside details of her extensive oeuvre and the many plaudits for her work?

British composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad is not alone in including such a document on her website. She prefaces it with the comment that “for every success I have, there are usually a LOT more failures that nobody ever gets to hear about”, and each entry on this Failure CV includes a note of how each project or submission turned out. On one level, it’s sobering reading – proof that composers (and musicians in general) must work hard and that success is often hard won. But it’s also rather inspiring and positive. Its honesty shows that Cheryl, and others like her, accept that a successful career trajectory is paved with many setbacks and failures, and it reveals a certain confidence which seems far more genuine than a list of accolades, prizes and press reviews.

The more usual kind of CV lists successes only, but this does not represent the bulk of one’s efforts. Nor does it acknowledge that failure is a necessary part of progress and without it, one cannot reflect on nor learn from those failures.

A composer can “hide” their failures. They need not mention the rejected funding applications nor the works which never got commissioned. A performing musician, however, exposes themselves to criticism in the very public forum of a live concert and errors will be remarked upon by audiences and critics. As musicians, failure can have a very profound effect on how we approach our music making and professional career. It can create feelings of personal humiliation which in turn may stifle our ability to learn and develop. Sadly for many of us, the “wrongness” of making mistakes is inculcated in us from a young age – by parents, teachers, and peers – and such prejudices combined with a constricted mindset lead us to blame and criticise ourselves for our failings

In fact, mistakes and slips in concert are a very tiny part of the “setback-reflect-progress” habit of the serious musician, who regards mistakes as positive learning opportunities rather than unresolved failures. Failure is part of creativity and mastery, and without it we cannot learn, explore, experiment, expand our horizons, and progress

It also fosters resilience and equips one with the tools to cope with the exigencies of one’s creative life. Being honest about failure is empowering, for oneself and for others, as it can help them deal with their own shortcomings and career setbacks, and encourage them to stick to the task.

What Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Failure CV so neatly proves is that failure – and a willingness to learn from it – is a fundamental part of success: without those setbacks, Cheryl may never have reached the pre-eminent position she now holds in classical music in the UK and beyond.

Meet the Artist – Cheryl Frances-Hoad