I’ve “borrowed” this quote from the great Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx. Nicknamed “the Cannibal”, Merckx, the most successful male rider in the history of competitive cycling. I reckon Eddy knows what he’s talking about when he says:

Ride as much or as little, or as long or as short as you feel. But ride.

But what does he really mean, and how does this apply to musicians?

“Ride lots” – an abbreviation of Merckx’s above quote – was his simple opinion on how to become a better cyclist. “Play lots” might be a mantra by which musicians can improve their skills.

For the serious cyclist, or committed musician, training or practicing is – or should be – a habit, something we do every day, as regular as brushing one’s teeth. No one, not even professional musicians, or sportspeople, at the top of the game, is born with an innate talent which negates the need to practice and to hone one’s skills.

Those of us who are committed to our musical development, whether amateur or professional, know that regular, intelligent practice equals noticeable progress. There are tens of thousands of articles, blogs, books and social media posts about how to practice better, more efficiently, more productively, in addition to advice one may receive from teachers, mentors, peers, friends….yet this “noise” of information can become overwhelming, to the point where one may feel stalled, unable to practice.

This is where Eddy Merckx comes in.

Merckx was an incredible cyclist. He achieved 525 victories over his eighteen-year career, including 11 Grand Tours (5 Tours de France, 5 Tours of Italy and 1 Vuelta d’Espana), all 5 Monuments (classic races which include the brutal Paris-Roubaix), and three World Championships. He attributed his successes less to rigorous training programmes or advice from coaches and more to simply riding “lots”. He believed that any time spent on the bike was hugely valuable, that there were no short cuts to winning, and that if one really desired success, one should simply “ride lots”. In many ways, his attitude mirrors that of Anna Kiesenhofer, the Austrian cyclist who won the women’s road race at the Tokyo Olympics. Both were/are driven by a fierce, all-consuming passion.

Eddy Merckx competing in the gruelling Paris-Roubaix race

Just as Merckx recognised the value of time spent on the bike, so we should recognise that any time spent at the piano is useful.

So stop procrastinating and go play! Stop analysing why you’re not progressing with that Bach Prelude & Fugue – and go play! Stop telling others that you “really should be practicing” – and go and play!

Play for two hours, or five, or for just 10 minutes – but play! Practice the pieces your teacher assigned to you, or play the music you love; but play! Reject the tyranny of “should” – just play! Don’t even think about it – just play!

“You train to ride”

This is a mantra from my husband, a keen amateur cyclist (and great admirer of Eddy Merckx). It seems obvious that training, or practicing the piano, leads to improved skill and greater executive function, yet too much time can be spent theorising and analysing methods of training or practising, without actually doing it. Is it not better to simply “play lots”?

I appreciate that this flies in the face of what most of us are taught – that intelligent, focused, “quality not quantity” practicing leads to noticeable improvement – but I also believe that the intent has to be driven by an overwhelming desire to simply spend time the with instrument. If you prefer to loll on the sofa watching Netflix, while saying “I really should be practicing”, you’re not displaying real intent or commitment. Instead, be driven by that all-consuming passion to play – and play lots

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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How many times were you told as a child or teenager during your piano lessons that “practice makes perfect”? It’s a well-worn cliché and like most clichés it contains more than a grain of truth.

Not only does regular practice make our musical more secure, deliberate, focussed practice makes the music permanent. So “practice makes permanent” might be a better mantra.

By “permanent”, I mean not only note accuracy (and the ability to reproduce that accuracy on numerous occasions), but also a secure knowledge of the music as a whole and its individual components, an understanding and interpretation of markings in the score, and myriad other details of the music as well as the context of its creation.

This security gives the musician another advantage beyond the ability to play the music accurately, technically and artistically; it also fosters creativity. The act of practicing in a very disciplined manner transforms ability into skill, and that skill can then be applied to create. Thus, musicians who have persisted on this path are able to bring greater expression and artistry to their playing, and are able to create exciting and enthralling performances, not once but time and time again. These skills are the result of many hours of hard graft combined with a real passion for the task in hand, the cultivation of which is called “grit”, a term coined by psychologist Angela Duckworth, who received a MacArthur Genius Grant for her research into the subject.

“Grit is the disposition to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance……Grit is sticking with things over the long term and then working very hard at it”.

– Angela Duckworth

Grit is connected to mastery – the willingness to set to a task with a passion, acknowledging both triumphs and setbacks along the path as opportunities to learn and grow. It is also about accepting that a task – be it learning a musical instrument or sports training – is a long-term project, a marathon not a sprint.

Grit is also allied to the “growth mindset” (an idea developed by Dr Carol Dweck), which is the acceptance that one’s ability to learn and improve is not fixed, that the brain grows and changes in response to a challenge, and that setbacks and failure can in fact be the spur to greater endeavour and perseverance. People with a growth mindset appreciate that failure is not a permanent condition, but rather an opportunity to learn.

Both of these definitions apply perfectly to the study of music, and most professional musicians – and quite a few serious amateurs too – would understand and practice the concept of grit, even if they don’t know or use that word to describe their activities. For many amateur musicians in particular, it is “the journey not the destination” which is what makes learning and studying their chosen instrument so compelling. They willingly submit to the task with a genuine passion and actively relish the commitment required to improve their capabilities.

Talent doesn’t make one “gritty” – and natural talent can in fact be a hindrance to one’s development as there is a tendency to become complacent. Talented people may not follow through on their commitments, while their more gritty counterparts are willing to persist in the task.

Grit enables musicians who are serious about the craft and art of music making to continue on the path to mastery with passion and commitment.


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The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) has received a barrage of criticism in response to a recent ill-judged tweet in which it stated that “Musical achievement is about how well you can do, how good you can get. That sense of attainment is tested by assessment which gives us intrinsic motivation to make us want to get better. That’s the virtuous circle of motivation.” (via Twitter, 24 September 2021)

The first and most glaring problem with this, amidst a host of other issues, is that the word “intrinsic” is used incorrectly here. “Intrinsic motivation” comes from within. Exams, testing and assessment of the kind ABRSM promotes are “extrinsic” or external motivators.

With regard to learning music, in addition to taking a music exam, extrinsic motivators include participating in a festival or competition, receiving a favourable written report, receiving praise from others for a performance (teachers, friends, parents), receiving a certificate, trophy or reward.

We all have intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in our lives – we are all a mixture of both. If you play the piano for no other reason than because it gives you pleasure and a sense of personal fulfilment, that is an intrinsic motivation. If your parents and/or teacher are pressuring you to play the piano and pass grade exams, or you have to make a living from your playing, that’s extrinsic motivation.

The trouble with extrinsic motivation is the more we are driven by extrinsic values, the more we starve our intrinsic motivation, which can lead to lack of motivation, feelings of failure, anxiety and even depression. Unfortunately, outward displays of achievements or material gain are all too common in our Insta-driven world – signals which say “look at me, look at my achievements, envy me” (just think for a moment about how Instagram really makes you feel…).

The graded music exam system is primarily built upon extrinsic motivation. Marks and certificates (“rewards”) are awarded to successful candidates, and this reward system makes the prospect of progressing to the next grade and the next smart certificate very appealing to students, and their parents and teachers. But it’s actually a superficial form of learning, based on “if/then” rewards (“if you do this, then you’ll get that“), which simply reinforces extrinsic motivation and is only effective in the short-term. We’ve all had students who rarely or never practice and then all of a sudden do the work for an exam, only to revert to not practicing once the exam is over. And putting students on an “exam treadmill” is unlikely to encourage a real love of music. Thus, exam success is not the “virtuous circle of motivation” as the ABRSM tweet suggests, but rather a vicious circle of superficial values founded on a desire for external endorsement.

Exams are a great short term motivator, but they generally don’t encourage students in finding sustained motivation, success and joy. Sadly, for some – students, teachers, parents – certification of musical achievement is regarded as the ultimate goal of instrumental learning and confirmation of musical competence, an attitude which I find profoundly unmusical.

Exams are also a form of “credentialisation” (that Grade 5 with Merit, a Grade 8 with Distinction), the popularly-held belief that credentials will open the door to further success, advancement, recognition and enhanced status. In their tweet, the ABRSM are, in my opinion, guilty of credentialising music – it’s all about being judged (by others), gaining status, “how well you can do, how good you can get”. Unfortunately, it’s an attitude that pervades musical childhood and adolescence, and beyond, reinforced by grade exams, diplomas, end of year assessments, festivals and competitions, which risks turning music performance into some kind of competitive points-based activity, and which amplifies the fear of doing something wrong and being marked down for it – again, profoundly unmusical. Credentialisation also encourages feelings of superiority and inferiority or envy (think again how Instagram really makes you feel…..). In practice, it doesn’t really encourage students to become motivated, self-determined, and, above all, happy, self-fulfilled learners.

I accept that graded music exams and assessments can be useful in benchmarking progress, or to show that the student has reached a certain level of competency, and the preparation for an exam (and the prospect of a good mark) can foster commitment, motivation to practice, and focus. When I taught privately in south-west London many of my students (and their parents) were keen to take exams (this may have had something to do with the affluent, aspirational demographic where I lived). Grade exams also help non-musical parents understand where their children are in their progress – but they can also impact directly on the attitudes and behaviour of students, teachers and parents for the reasons outlined above. The implication in the ABRSM’s tweet is that music exams demonstrate competence as a musician; most musicians, music teachers or those who play an instrument for personal fulfilment and pleasure would disagree with that assertion.

Instead, we should be encouraging intrinsic motivation – motivations and values without external rewards, which come from within, and which encourage self-determination, task persistence, self-evaluation, autonomy, purpose/intent. These values are associated with the kind of in-depth learning which emphasises achievable goals and mastery, and they can set students on a path to both long-term success and personal fulfilment. Learning music is a life-long endeavour and therefore it’s important to consider how the learning environment and the way in which students are taught and supported can help promote long-term intrinsic motivation.

Thus, instead of reminding students that they must practice in order to pass the next grade exam, we should help them understand the reasons for doing what they’re doing. That it’s not about the next grade and certificate, but rather cultivating a deeper understanding, enjoyment and appreciation of the music. When my students told me they wished they “played better” on the day on the day of the exam, or achieved a higher mark in their piano exams, I would remind them that the exam is a one-off, a fleeting moment in time, which may be disrupted by any number of personal or external forces which can tip the balance one way or another. Far better to reflect on and appreciate the huge amount of learning and accumulated knowledge which come from regular thoughtful practising and knowing how to apply that knowledge to learning new repertoire and improving one’s technique, musicality and artistry. All that good, important work can never be taken away nor undermined by any examiner, adjudicator or critic. Knowing this can give students better insight, control and investment in their learning, rather than tempting them with transitory “if/when” rewards, and fosters a better type of motivation than simply practicing for the next exam, festival or competition. At the most basic level, this is about encouraging students to enjoy playing the piano, to find greater personal satisfaction and creativity through the joy of music and a sense of accomplishment from having played a piece or even a section of a piece well, regardless of the level at which the student plays. By fully engaging students in the learning process, giving them the opportunity to play the kind of music they want to play, and encouraging their confidence and self-reliance, we can help them become independent, self-motivated learners – skills which they will carry forward not just in their musical development but also as important life skills.

Further reading

A Passionate Pursuit: the pianist’s mastery


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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.