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


This site is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours to research, write, and maintain. If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of this site

Make A Donation

Those of us who teach and play ourselves understand that music requires commitment in the form of consistent, focused practising. This does not mean a snatched half-hour here or there or a blitz the night before the weekly piano lesson, but regular engagement with the instrument and its literature (at least 5 days out of 7 for noticeable progress to be achieved).

As pianists, much of our “work” (practising) is done alone, for some in almost monk-like seclusion. This separateness enables us to focus fully on the task in hand, without distraction. Most of us who chose the piano as our instrument actively enjoy the solitariness (I know I do), but equally this time spent alone can trigger self-doubt and negative criticism from within. Looking at what others are doing, what repertoire they are learning, how they are progressing, is toxic too: comparing oneself to others sets up further negative thoughts and can lead to lack of confidence and motivation.

When I returned to the piano after a 20-year absence, I wanted to play EVERYTHING. Of course this was a ridiculous pipe dream, but my appetite for repertoire focused my attention and motivated me to practise diligently and enjoyably virtually every day. But when I co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group and started meeting other pianists, I encountered people whom I perceived as “better” than me – because they were playing repertoire which I believed I could not play. This depressed me and the mantra “I can’t play that” began to haunt – and limit -my practising. I grew increasingly envious of the people who knocked off Ravel’s Jeux d’eau or Grainger’s Molly on the Shore with apparent ease, not to mention countless other pieces which I aspired to play…..

But hindsight and experience have taught me the power of “yet” – that simple three-letter word which can turn a negative phrase into something more positive and affirming:

“I can’t play that – yet

“Yet” turns the task into a challenge and is the spur to set to and practise, to strive, to master.

“Yet” makes that Beethoven Sonata or Rachmaninov Étude-Tableau achievable, with practise.

“Yet” turns the seemingly impossible into the possible

“Yet” is a declaration of intent

Those of us who teach and play ourselves understand that music requires commitment in the form of consistent, focused practising. This does not mean a snatched half-hour here or there or a blitz the night before the weekly piano lesson, but regular engagement with the instrument and its literature (at least 5 days out of 7 for noticeable progress to be achieved).

As pianists, much of our “work” (practising) is done alone, for some in almost monk-like seclusion. This separateness enables us to focus fully on the task in hand, without distraction. Most of us who chose the piano as our instrument actively enjoy the solitariness (I know I do), but equally this time spent alone can trigger self-doubt and negative criticism from within. Looking at what others are doing, what repertoire they are learning, is toxic too: comparing oneself to others sets up further negative thoughts and can lead to lack of confidence and motivation.

When I returned to the piano after a 20-year absence, I wanted to play EVERYTHING. Of course this was a ridiculous pipe dream, but my appetite for repertoire focused my attention and motivated me to practise diligently and enjoyably virtually every day. But when I co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group and started meeting other pianists, I rubbed pianistic shoulders with people whom I perceived as “better” than me – because they were playing repertoire which I believed I could not play. This depressed me and the mantra “I can’t play that” began to haunt my practising and my participation in the Meetup group’s regular performance platforms. I grew increasingly envious of, and irritated by the people who knocked off Ravel’s Jeux d’eau or Grainger’s Molly on the Shore with apparent ease, not to mention countless other pieces which I aspired to play…..

But hindsight and experience have taught me the power of “yet” – that simple three-letter word which can turn a negative phrase into something positive and affirming:

“I can’t play that – yet

“Yet” turns the task into a challenge and is the spur to set to and practise, to strive, to master.

“Yet” makes that Beethoven Sonata or Rachmaninov Étude-Tableau achievable, with practise.

“Yet” turns the seemingly impossible into the possible

“Yet” is a declaration of intent

 

We are constantly being reminded of the importance of having “goals” in our lives in order to achieve certain things, from getting fit to winning a half-marathon or setting up a business. We believe that having goals motivates us to put in the training, go to the gym three times a week or practice regularly and efficiently. As musicians we are reminded of the benefits of “goal-oriented practice”, which is intended to enable us to achieve certain goals (passing a diploma, succeeding in an audition or competition).

There’s nothing wrong in having goals – they can provide a useful focus – but they can also create disappointment and unhappiness, especially if one does not always fulfil one’s goal. In addition, goals can be curiously anti-motivational. If all your endeavour is focussed on a single goal, what else is there to work for when that goal has been reached? This approach can create a “yo-yo effect” where you might go back and forth from working on a goal to not working on one, which makes it difficult to build upon your progress long-term.

If you are continually working towards a goal you are in effect saying “I am not good enough yet, but I will be when I reach the goal”. The problem with this attitude is that we tend to postpone happiness and fulfilment until we reach the goal. Thus, it puts a huge burden on us to succeed, which can create unnecessary stress. Instead, we should be kind to ourselves and enjoy the daily process: keep to a realistic daily practise schedule rather than stressing about that big, potentially life-changing goal.

In order to attain, or even aspire to a goal, we need to have a system, but how often do we actually consider the system by which we reach the goals?  For the sportsperson, for example, that system is training. Similarly, for the musician, the system is practising (and this includes not just time spent playing one’s instrument but also time spent studying the music away from it, including mental practice, memory work, reading, listening, thinking etc).

If we release ourselves from the need for immediate results, a systems-oriented approach will allow us to build progress day by day. This is similar to the “marginal gain learning” system, and it enables us to make long-term progress, which is far more valuable than short-term results.

There is nothing wrong with having goals. Goals are good for planning progress, but systems enable us to make progress. And when we know we are making noticeable progress, we feel motivated to continue.

The following systems are helpful in achieving sustained and long-term progress in one’s musical study:

  • Background research, reading, listening and study of the music away from the instrument
  • A detailed understanding of the structure and overall narrative of the piece
  • Regular critical self-evaluation and feedback
  • Really close and considered attention to the details of the score (dynamics, phrasing, articulation etc)
  • Trusting one’s own musical knowledge and judgement rather than received ideas about what the music should sound like

These are all skills which can be developed and finessed and which are not lost the moment one fails to achieve one’s goal. Rather, one continues to build on them, creating small but significant positive gains which go to create a significant whole.

6338027_84787dca81_bInspiration 

I’d love to say I was one of those people who could sit down and practise for hours on end. Sometimes simply getting behind the piano can seem like a lot of effort. Life has an amazing way of getting in the way!

So how do you keep inspired to keep practising and keep your bum on the piano stool? Here are a few tips to help you keep the music flowing.

  1. Go live! Nothing beats live music to give you the drive to practise more. A good performance is electrifying. You don’t have to spend a fortune travelling to the large concert halls all the time – why not check out what’s happening in your local area? Remember that a perfect performance is very rare, but it’s the essence of joy that you get from a live performance that you want to recreate when you play.
  2. Listen. If you’re working on the same piece for a long time (perhaps for an exam) try to find different recordings of it and see if you can spot the difference between performances. Altering the tempo, phrasing or interpretation by the smallest amount can turn a piece from a trudge into a joy.
  3. Try something new. I do have a slight music buying problem, but when I’m lacking the drive to focus on one piece I can guarantee a look through a new book will keep me glued to the piano.  Again, it doesn’t need to cost the earth, why not check your local charity shops? This is also a great sight-reading exercise that doesn’t feel like work.
  4. Play what you love. There’s no point tearing your hair out with pieces that you absolutely hate. I do give students pieces that I would describe as being ‘good for them’, and it is always great to challenge yourself, but if you can’t find something interesting or rewarding about the piece, or if you find you’re avoiding the piano completely because you hate it, then stop.
  5. Get a great teacher. No matter what level of playing you’re at, we could all do with a guiding hand from time to time. A good teacher is worth their weight in gold and a great teacher can make the world of difference. Tutors get you thinking about pieces in a different way and often offer suggestions for difficult pieces that you might not have thought about.
  6. Turn off your phone. Will something interesting happen in the next 30 minutes? Probably not. Will someone post a picture of their lunch? Probably.
  7. Go outside. A breath of fresh air is perfect for refreshing the mind and a change of scenery can be great to let your thoughts flow around any difficult music problems
  8. Put the music away. For me, inspiration to play often comes through noodling and trying out new things on the piano. Let your hands go for it and see what happens.

Rachael Forsyth

Born and raised in York, Rachael now works as a full time composer, music teacher and performer based in Hertford. Over the years she has written a broad range of pieces in a broad range of styles for ensembles of all shapes and sizes. As a tutor she loves to write works that are educational and challenging yet build up on the foundations of musical knowledge that most possess. Her works always encapsulate emotive figures and many piece contain visual elements during the performance as well.

The highlight of her career so far has been premièring a new work for solo saxophone on a tour around Italy and discussing her work as a female composer. Rachael’s style could be described as a fusion of musical genres. She brings together her musical passions for classical, jazz, ska and folk to create new music that is widely accessible as well as hauntingly beautiful.

Website: www.rachaelforsyth.co.uk

Twitter: @rachaelcomposes