I’ve been watching some of the Winter Olympics coverage with interest, in particular the snowboarding and skiing. It’s easy to spot the winners – people like Chloe Kim and Redmond Gerard (both from the US team): they display effortless grace and flow in their gestures, and those who totally “own” the course seem to create a through-narrative of seamless movement from start to finish, which reminds me of watching someone like the British pianist Stephen Hough in concert. In short, they make it look easy.

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As is often the way when I watch sport, I am struck by the similarities between sportspeople and musicians: that same effortless grace of the snowboarders and skiers is something we admire in highly-skilled musicians, and these are attributes, along with expression and communication, which make their performances thrilling and memorable.

Often when watching top sportspeople or musicians in action, we marvel at their “natural talent”. that ineffable, indescribable je ne sais quoi which places these people apart from the rest of us.

Top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievement we….revere – fastest, strongest – and because they do so in a totally unambiguous way…..

Plus they’re beautiful: Jordan hanging in midair like a Chagall bride, Sampras laying down a touch volley at an angle that defies Euclid. And they’re inspiring…. Great athletes are profundity in motion

– David Foster Wallace

Like the rest of us, the BBC commentators for the Winter Olympics are clearly fascinated and impressed by these extraordinary human beings, and there is much talk of “natural talent” and a sense of hero-worship and awe in the language used to describe them and their exploits. As a society, we are obsessed with the “myth” of talent and we have a long-held a fascination with people we perceive to be “naturally talented”. From child prodigies to highly gifted performers and sports superstars, we view them as wonders of nature, imbued with enviable, raw natural talent.

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Stephen Hough in concert

What is the secret of these people’s talent? What is it that makes them so special, so different from the rest of us?

Unfortunately, for those obsessed with the myth of talent, the reality is altogether less exciting: notice how the BBC commentators rarely discuss these athletes’ training regimes. Why? Because talking about training is boring. To discuss something as pedestrian as training and practising removes the mystique surrounding these extraordinary individuals, and we would never want our sporting or musical heroes and heroines to appear “ordinary”. Would you rather watch Stephen Hough practising 70 repetitions of the same passage of Liszt at home in his studio or appearing in concert at Carnegie Hall?

***

Most of us are familiar with the “10,000 hours rule”, and while this theory has largely been debunked by more recent research, it serves to remind us that “putting the hours in” is a key factor in becoming extraordinarily proficient in a specific skill or field of study, be it playing chess, sport or musical performance. But it is not just about quantity of training; quality plays a more crucial role, for focused, intelligent and deliberate training or practise is what breeds results.

But what sparks the will to train in the first place?

Interest and the “rage to master”

If you haven’t got the interest, you won’t stick to the training regime. Sounds obvious, yet those who achieve what we call “expert status”, snowboarders and concert pianists alike, have an almost obsessive will to focus intensely on a specific subject, and will voraciously consume new information and acquire skills. Psychologists call this the “rage to master” and many top athletes and musicians can cite a specific moment, often in childhood, when the rage to master took hold, driving them to focus intently and intensely on their chosen activity.

Practice and training

To achieve a very high level of technical and artistic ability and success, regular, conscientious, and deliberate practice/training is crucial. This is not simply playing through your chosen repertoire or doing a few runs on the piste: doodling at the piano or pottering around at the snowdome does not bring success. Deliberate practice involves a hefty degree of  goal-setting (daily, weekly, monthly and yearly, plus regular reviewing and adjustment of those goals), self-evaluation, criticial feedback, reflection, analysis of minute details (such as body position, gesture, fingering schemes etc, often using video or audio recordings), in addition to support and feedback from mentors, teachers, peers, colleagues and others. We know that repetitive practice is important to train the “muscle memory” or procedural memory, which allows Redmond Garard or Stephen Hough to perfectly execute the slopestyle trick or complex passage of music, not just once but over and over again. These are not mindless repetitions, however, but repetition with reflection, evaluation and adjustment, so that each subsequent repetition improves on the previous one. In addition to all of the above, the ability to see the “bigger picture” of the slope or piece of music and the attendant ability to make decisions, large and small, about technique, gesture, expression etc

Motivation

Deliberate practice/training leads to noticeable progress and improvement which motivates one to keep practising, with enhanced satisfaction, reward and fulfilment. This creates a virtuous circle of positive feelings towards training and practising, which further motivates one to keep at the task.

Grit and determination

Grit is the disposition to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance. And I want to emphasize the stamina quality of grit. Grit is sticking with things over the long term and then working very hard at it.

– Angela Duckworth

Some of us may start a training or practising regime with the very best of intentions, but soon fall by the wayside due to lack of focus, motivation, procrastination, and a whole host of other reasons (excuses!). Those at the top of their field have the determination to stick to the task, day in day out.

Mastery and the constant pursuit

Mastery is about embracing the role of the life-long student and dedicating oneself to the pursuit of excellence. Read more about mastery here

Other factors

Nurture – the encouragement and support of family, teachers and mentors, coaches, colleagues and friends are important in fostering focus and determination in training.

***

When we consider all these factors, we truly appreciate how and why Olympic athletes and top-flight musicians are where they are professionally. We too can train and practise in the same way, using the same tools and focused mindset. We may not touch these exceptional individuals nor come close to their greatness, but we can still strive for excellence in what we do.

Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work

Chuck Close


Further reading

‘How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart’ from Consider the Lobster And Other Essays – David Foster Wallace. Little, Brown & Company, 2008

Grit and the Secret of Success

The routine of creativity

The self-help/life coaching section of the local bookshop is full of books on how to learn from the pros – think like a pro, act like a pro, be more pro. We are encouraged to draw inspiration from successful professionals – whether they are sports people, musicians, chess players or high-flying financiers whose “pro-thinking” has made them shedloads of money.

Be more amateur” – said no one ever

The word “amateur” is problematic for a start. A quick Google search throws up the following definitions:

Non-specialist, layperson, dilettante, unskillful, a hobbyist, a dabbler, inexpert, incompetent, talentless, ham-handed, unqualified……

The word “amateurish” has even worse connotations, suggesting cack-handedness and ineptitude.

To describe oneself as an “amateur pianist” is almost derogatory, calling to mind the image of someone fumbling through some Chopin on an out of tune upright piano.

But look more closely at the etymology of the word “amateur” and a quite different image is revealed. “Amateur” comes from the French word meaning “one who loves” and prior to the 1780s, when the word developed its more negative associations, it meant “one who cultivates and participates (in something) but does not pursue it professionally or with an eye to gain” [i.e. does not get paid for it]

My primary contact with other adult amateur pianists is via the London Piano Meetup Group, which I co-founded in 2013, partly because I was keen to meet other pianists like me and because being a pianist can be a lonely activity. The members of this group – to a man and woman – display the most positive trait of amateurism: they love the piano, many with a passion bordering on obsession (myself included). They love playing the piano, talking about playing the piano, getting together at our Meetups to share the experience of playing the piano (repertoire, lessons, performing), going on piano courses to meet other lovers of the piano, and hearing others (professional and amateur) playing the piano in concert.

It is this love which drives members to practise, to take lessons, and to strive to improve their playing, even if they have to snatch precious moments out of their busy lives to find time to spend at the piano. Because we don’t have to earn a living by our piano playing (though a number of members of the piano group are piano or music teachers, so can be defined as “music professionals” as opposed to “professional musicians” – again, myself included), we can gain enormous pleasure from playing the piano, yet we are under no obligation to practise if we don’t want to.

In fact, all the amateur pianists I know practise regularly and happily. We appreciate the benefits of practising and many of us cultivate good habits to ensure we practise deliberately, productively and thoughtfully, no matter how much or how little time we have. We have developed our own methods for achieving personal goals in our music making, from preparing pieces to perform successfully at one of our Meetup events to putting together a programme of advanced repertoire for a performance Diploma, or performing in charity concerts (as I do). Many of us draw inspiration and guidance from the practise habits of professional musicians, but we also appreciate that setting unachievable goals can be counter-productive and leads to dissatisfaction and lack of motivation.

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Pianists at play – on a course for adult amateur pianists at La Balie. France

 

When we are doing something we love, whether playing the piano, tennis, watercolour painting or mountain-biking (my husband’s chosen passionate pursuit), we form an MEA – a Minimal Enjoyable Action – a habit which is so easy and enjoyable we do it almost intuitively and, more importantly, consistently, because we love doing it. Through regular engagement with our personal MEA, we increase our commitment to the task, and by rewarding the brain with small successes (which causes the brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure which enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move towards them), we create a virtuous circle that can actually build greater willpower to stick to the task. (In a way, this is related to the concept of Marginal Gain Learning, a training technique used by top athletes). Once the MEA becomes a habit, it leads to more advanced behaviours – longer, more involved practising, attempting more complex repertoire, for example. Some of us reach a plateau where we are happy in the “good enough” stage; others wish to strive further, to achieve something touching expert status by engaging in deliberate, self-regulated practise with focused goals, self-evaluation, often together with critical feedback from teachers, mentors, friends and colleagues. We know we may not touch the pros, may never perform at Wigmore or Carnegie Hall, but we gain much pleasure from the process of being the lifelong student.

So why should we learn from amateurs? Because amateurs are consistent practitioners of a healthy pursuit, practising something they enjoy which brings enormous pleasure and personal satisfaction.


Further reading

A Passionate Pursuit

More than hobbyists: the world of the amateur pianist

A new museum in Helsingborg, Sweden, celebrates failure. Yes, you read that correctly – it celebrates failure. The museum displays corporate products which flopped but which paved the way for greater innovation and extraordinary commercial success (for example, Apple’s Newton device was the forerunner of the iPhone and iPad), and prove that failure, and a willingness to learn from it, is a crucial part of success.

“Innovation requires failure. Learning is the only process that turns failure into success.”

– Dr Samuel West, creator of The Museum of Failure

Meanwhile at Smith College in the US students can enroll on a “Failing well” course designed to “destigmatize failure”, foster resilience and equip them with the tools to cope with the exigencies of real life – failures, setbacks, disappointments, making wrong choices.

Despite knowing that we can learn from mistakes, and that the process is an important aspect of life experience, most of us fear failure, and fear the reactions to that failure – ridicule from family, friends, colleagues, embarrassment, personal disappointment, negative self-talk, imposter syndrome, crippling self-doubt and depression. As musicians, setbacks and failure can have a profound effect on how we approach our music making and professional career. If we perceive failure as humiliation, it can paralyse our ability to learn and develop, but if we can separate our ego from the failure or setback, we can use the experience positively as an informed learning process to shape our future approach, make us stronger and motivate us to work harder and smarter. 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 leads us to blame and criticise ourselves for our failings.

The problem for many musicians is that our music and our instrument are crucially entwined with our identity and setbacks can therefore feel like a very personal attack. But if we are able to see what we do as ‘work’, and not allow it to define us as a person, we can take a more objective approach to mistakes and setbacks. It’s fine to take time to wallow in frustration and disappointment, but better to reflect on what can be learnt from the experience to do things differently next time.

Failure is part of creativity and mastery. Without it we cannot learn, explore, experiment, expand our horizons, and progress. By removing emotion and adopting a more positive mental attitude, we can turn failures into successes and become more creative and motivated to succeed. Neuroscientists have found that the parts of our brain responsible for self-monitoring are actually switched off when we are being creative. Thus, by being creative, negative feelings connected with failure can be turned down, allowing the brain to think clearly and spark new ideas and approaches.

Don’t be discouraged by a failure. It can be a positive experience. Failure is, in a sense, the highway to success, inasmuch as every discovery of what is false leads us to seek earnestly after what is true, and every fresh experience points out some form of error which we shall afterwards carefully avoid.
― John Keats

My students don’t believe me when I tell them about a book called The Perfect Wrong Note, which celebrates mistakes and what we can learn from them. In our day-to-day practise, mistakes should always be regarded as opportunities for evaluation, reflection and refinement. Mistakes should encourage us to consider the following questions:

  • Where did the mistake happen?
  • Why did the mistake happen? Was it due to poor fingering, poor technique, misreading?
  • How can I put this right?
  • What can I do to ensure I don’t make the same mistake again (or elsewhere in the music)?

As a teacher, the student who continues to make the same mistakes should give one pause for thought, calling into question one’s teaching approach and forcing one to consider the following:

  • Why is the student making this mistake/s?
  • Does the student know why the mistake is occurring?
  • How can I help him/her put it right?
  • Is there something lacking in my teaching? Am I not explaining something clearly, has the student been using an awkward fingering or does he/she need some technical assistance?

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 empowered about our practising. A willingness to make mistakes teaches us to be self-critical, but in a positive, productive way.

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Mistakes and failures contain all the information needed for learning – if we are willing to use it – and as the Museum of Failure demonstrates, failure is a crucial part of innovation, creativity and progress.

There is no such thing as failure — failure is just life trying to move us in another direction……Learn from every mistake. Because every experience, encounter, and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more of who you are.

– Oprah Winfrey

 

 

What is ‘Mastery’?

Mastery is about fulfilling your own intrinsic potential. It is not simply the commitment to or achievement of a goal but rather a constant pursuit. “It’s about the journey not the destination” is a neat platitude that is often trotted out in the aftermath of a failed exam or missed goal, but it is relevant to the process of mastery for which the actual point of arrival may be quite elusive. Specific goals can be curiously anti-motivational: if all your effort is focused on a single goal, what else is there to work for when that goal has been reached? Mastery, in contrast, is an ongoing process – a process which can provide immense satisfaction, stimulation and surprising creativity.

We are all capable of mastery. In his book on the subject, Robert Greene explains how the attainment of mastery is hard-wired into us, the result of our evolutionary development, a dogged and persistent acquisition of skills through which our ancestors learned the necessary expertise which enabled them to survive and rise to the top of the food chain. Thus the “intensity of effort” required to achieve mastery is genetic and is driven by a powerful inclination towards a particular subject.

Those who achieve mastery are not necessarily geniuses or former child prodigies, nor highly talented individuals or those with a high IQ. Creativity and brilliance do not come from nowhere (though many believe that they do, that they are inherent, “inborn” in some people), but rather from a passion for one’s chosen subject combined with persistence and determination and an intense desire to learn.

Mastery is about embracing the role of the life-long student and dedicating oneself to the pursuit of excellence. Mastery is the antithesis of “dabbling” or “having a go”. It is the commitment to really stick with something – be it music, writing, chess, tennis – until we excel at it. The moment at which we believe we have attained excellence is ambiguous; as such, it has no fixed end point, and it is this ambiguity which drives the continual pursuit.

Masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end. They are masters because they realize that there isn’t one

– Sarah Lewis, ‘The Rise’

What Mastery is not

Mastery is not about perfectionism, which is an artificial construct, an ideal as opposed to a quantifiable reality, and as such an impossibility. No matter how hard you practice the fine motor skills involved in playing a musical instrument there is still no guarantee that you will never make a mistake. Mastery is the pursuit of excellence – and for the pianist, it is about appreciating and accepting our own fallibility, enabling us to learn from our mistakes and to draw satisfaction from incremental improvements and marginal gains, rather than large, potentially unattainable goals. This approach allows us to make long-term progress towards excellence, which is far more valuable and achievable than short-term results or instant gratification. And long-term fulfillment actually comes from the process of mastery.

The acquisition of Mastery

For the pianist (or indeed anyone else) seeking mastery, the first step on the path is identifying your lifelong passion, then undertaking an “apprenticeship” (or becoming a student) and finding a mentor or teacher to guide you. It is a simple process, accessible to us all, but only if we are willing to commit time and effort to it.

Mastery is hard won, by necessity. And so it should be, because the striving sets us on a path to self-determination and fulfillment, and 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 one’s passionate pursuit and a willingness to embrace setbacks and cul-de-sacs along the way.

The skill to mold the material into what we want must be learned and attentively cultivated

– Goethe

Mastery comes not simply 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 interpretive 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.

Such finesse or 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.

The ability to work independently, without a teacher acting like a coach running alongside us with megaphone encouraging us to let go, play more freely, play more simply, to get the notes right, is crucial in the acquisition of musical mastery. Much of this independence comes from confidence and the ability to recognise one’s own strengths and weaknesses and to act upon them. But it goes further than that: the autonomous musician does not look for approval from colleagues, the public or the media. Instead one seeks approval from the music itself, by living with it and in it. Thus we take ownership of the music by recognising the value of what we have to say, rather than imitating more senior or more advanced musicians or acclaimed recordings, or constantly referring to a teacher or mentor for approval.

As you grow older, converse more with scores than with virtuosi

Robert Schumann

The effort to achieve mastery brings with it a host of psychological difficulties, including feelings of inadequacy as a musician which may be born of a former teacher’s or parent’s criticism, unfavourable feedback from peers or critics, career setbacks including injury, negative self-talk and feelings of guilt or self-blame. To move further on the path to mastery, these difficulties must be confronted, examined, and rejected or befriended – with or without the support of mentors, friends and trusted colleagues – and only by creating a personal toolkit to deal with such exigencies can we move forward with greater self-confidence. For example, when one asks of oneself “Am I good enough?”, it is worth examining the bar by which one’s skill and talent is measured. Comparing oneself to others is not helpful: there will always be people out there whom we perceive as “better” – and good luck to them! Does it really matter if they can play ‘Gaspard de la Nuit’ and you cannot? Instead, draw confidence from positive endorsements and feedback from trusted mentors, colleagues and peers, know that one is good at what one does, and disregard the “chatter” and competitiveness (sadly, something which is rife in the piano world, both professional and amateur). To accept and appreciate one’s own abilities and be trusting of one’s musical self is an important part of our autonomous musical development and maturity.

Another significant aspect in the acquisition of mastery is shutting out the “noise” of others’ commentary or criticism, however well-intentioned it may be. The musician seeking mastery knows that intelligent advice or critique given by a trusted mentor or colleague can be valuable, but he/she also knows when to ignore or reject criticism (the didactic teacher who says there is a “right way” to play Bach, the sneering critic who dislikes your use of the pedal). Because the creative process requires an absence of interruptions to develop, we need to be free of “noise” to build a “safe space” where innovation and creation can be nurtured. The practice room thus becomes the test bed, the laboratory, where ideas are explored and examined, embraced or rejected, and where the inner critic is interrogated, challenged, accepted or dismissed. Eventually, this way of thinking and working becomes intuitive, and at that point we develop an instant instinctive realisation of our musical imagination unhindered by technical obstacles, able to react to complex or unexpected situations without becoming overwhelmed or losing a sense of the whole or the structure of the music, and much more open to possibilities. In this state of “relaxed alertness”, we are better able to connect with self, music and audience, and we become more objective, individual and resourceful in our approach to our music making

When we practise 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”.

‘Failure’ and the ongoing quest

I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work

– Thomas Edison

Often “failures” or errors occur because our focus becomes too narrow and we forget to look at the bigger picture: perhaps we are obsessing about a small section of a piece of music we are working on rather than standing back to consider the piece as a whole, its landscape, narrative and choreography. As our music becomes more “embodied” within us, so we become more adaptable.

To carry with us always the sense that our musical study is an ongoing process, that despite many performances a piece can never really be described as “finished”, encourages a growth mindset and a forward-looking, open-minded attitude – another crucial aspect of mastery. This is related to the idea that “failure” encourages further endeavour. In her book ‘The Rise’, Sarah Lewis offers another word for “failure”: she suggests “blankness”, a 19th-century alternative, which offers the possibility to clean the slate and start again from scratch after an unsuccessful attempt. Instantly this feels far more positive than recovering from a “failure”.

A person’s errors are his doorways of discovery

– James Joyce

When my students tell me they wished they had achieved a higher mark in their piano exams, or that they had “played better” on the day, I remind them that the exam is a one-off, a moment in time, which may be disrupted by any number of personal or external forces which 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 or reviving old repertoire. All that good, important work can never be taken away from us nor undermined by any examiner or adjudicator or critic, and knowing how to build on it and progress is another important facet of mastery.

As our authority and autonomy in our music making grows and our confidence and self-reliance deepens, we become more insightful, more aware of what needs to be done next, learning always from what we have already done (and not done), created and built. We reach a state where the divide between intention and realisation has been narrowed such that they become one and the same. This is far, far more valuable than any certificate or exam report, newspaper review or letters after one’s name (which are, after all, merely exterior indicators of achievement or ability).

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If you, like me, are someone who by nature thrives on purpose and “incompleteness”, the feeling that there is much more to be done, so much more to be revealed in the music, you are already on the path to mastery, motivated to try harder, to grow and to improve. From childhood, I’ve thrown myself into passionate pursuits – first dinosaurs and ancient Egypt, later writing, art and music/the piano. I believe my ability to focus, often quite obsessively, on one or two areas of study/personal fascination, have enabled me to now fully immerse myself in my music. It has become my most passionate pursuit and one for which I am more than willing to put in the required effort to progress and develop.

You may be unaware of how the necessary struggles of your own unconscious mind, if misunderstood, will bruise your heart, arrest your efforts prematurely, and prevent your staying absorbed in your errand. Yet, the same struggles, appreciated, will enable your creativity and the larger processes of mastery

– Janna Malamud Smith, ‘An Absorbing Errand’

The musician’s life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, the ability to deal with rejection; the willingness to be alone with oneself and to be kind to oneself; to be disciplined, but at the same time, take risks; to be spontaneous and playful, yet able to submit to a daily routine; to be willing to fail – not once, but again and again, over the course of a lifetime. For those willing to embrace this life, the road to mastery becomes one of discovery and continuous self-improvement leading to deep and lasting personal fulfillment.

As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world…as in being able to remake ourselves

– Mahatma Gandhi

 


Further reading

Mastery by Robert Greene (Viking Books, 2012)

The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery by Sarah Lewis (Simon & Schuster, 2015)

An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery by Janna Malamud Smith (Counterpoint LLC, 2013)

What does it take to become a master?

Overcome Nerves with Mastery Goals