“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

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

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I admit it – I watched The Football. Not all of it, of course, but certainly the England matches. It has been refreshing and inspiring to watch this young, relatively inexperienced team in action 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” because unlike previous England world cup squads, this young team seems largely devoid of artifice and ego. There are no strutting peacocks here (recall David Beckham and co in their designer suits….) nor the entourage of WAGS, there for the shopping, the champers and the paparazzi. As many commentators have observed, this young England team is different – 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

But they lost the semi final match, you cry. Yes, but just look at what they have gained – and that “loss” in the semi final against Croatia should not be regarded as a “failure”. To get to the last four in the World Cup is a huge achievement in itself; add to that, the fact that Croatia fielded a team which included some of the top players in the world. What a privilege to play against such players!

The result of the match against Croatia should offer 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 Euro championships and 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 semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup, and to have played so confidently and largely 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 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

 

(image from ITV)

 

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?

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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.

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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