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

As a pianist, do you suffer from “MUSTerbation”?

The term was coined by American psychologist Dr Albert Ellis, the father of Cognitive Behavourial Therapy. It is a cognitive trait often present in people who are maladaptive perfectionists, who strive to achieve unattainable ideals or goals, and is a classic recipe for general anxiety and unhappiness.

“Musterbators” live by a set of inflexible, highly polarised beliefs, such as

I MUST do well and be treated with respect, or it is AWFUL and I can’t bear it

Is your piano playing and music making driven by ‘must‘ and ‘should‘ and ‘ought‘? Maybe you regularly make statements to yourself and others like:

  • I must practise
  • I should be practising
  • I ought to be practising
  • I have to practise

– and feel guilty and angry with yourself when you don’t act upon them

Such statements demonstrate a very inflexible and unrealistic mindset, and leave musterbators feeling angry, frustrated and resentful (of self and others) if they fail to fulfil a “should have” activity – such as piano practise.

Known as “categorical imperatives,” these shoulds, oughts, musts and have to’s create unrealistic and over-generalised absolutes. If we don’t stop to look objectively at these inner statements, we become enslaved by them. In addition, when we think we should be acting in a certain ‘ideal’ way, we create a judgmental Inner Critic and a part of us puts pressure on ourselves to follow these rules. We then feel guilty and depressed when we don’t. This often leads to strong feelings of guilt, self-hatred, anxiety and depression, and to procrastination, withdrawal, and obsessing about what has been (“I should have practised more”).

“The tyranny of the shoulds.”

Karen Horney

Such feelings can be deeply inculcated in us and often stem from parental pressures when we were children (“You should be practising!”) or from teachers, for example. We carry these behavourial traits with us into adulthood and may not even be aware of how much they impinge on our day-to-day life.

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Most pianists – professional or amateur – know they should practise, and most know that regular, focused, and intelligent practise leads to noticeable progress and deep learning. An important part of the practise process is retaining a sense of creativity, curiosity, spontaneity and experimentation. These aspects prevent practising from turning into mindless note-bashing and encourage us to find joy and excitement in our music making. There’s not much joy or vibrancy in a mindset which is continually under the sway of the tyranny of the should, and a whole lot of dissatisfaction and resentment. Unfortunately for musicians, much of formal musical training is geared towards the pursuit of perfectionism, even though perfectionism is an artificial construct and an unattainable goal.

As a musician, such obsessive perfectionist behaviour can stifle musical growth and creativity. The musterbator sets unrealistic or unachievable goals and then feels angry or depressed when such goals are unfulfilled. Musterbators worry excessively about mistakes, they dislike uncertainty, fear negative evaluation by others (teachers, peers, colleagues), and feel frustrated by the gap between what you expect of yourself and your current level of achievement/ability. The musterbatory mindset can lead to over-practising which in turn can lead to injury or greater susceptibility to injury, as well as feelings of low self-esteem and self-loathing, and resentment towards the instrument.

Last year, when I was working towards my Fellowship performance diploma (a high level professional exam), I found myself indulging in musterbatory behaviours, though I wasn’t aware of the term at the time and did not really recognise my obsessive perfectionist attitude as being anything other than taking a “professional” approach to my practising and study. I have always enjoyed practising, I know how to practise productively, and I work best when I have a clear focus or end goal. These attributes are not negative in themselves. My self-imposed practise schedule was such that I would be at the piano by 8am and would schedule at least 3 hours practise into each day. I felt I needed to practise every day and if I missed a day, I berated myself for lack of focus. I think it is important to note at this point that I am not a professional concert pianist and I did not, and do not, need to work at such a concentrated level day in day out. There were periods of time when I felt very angry with myself for not making greater progress and several occasions when I felt I had a reached an immovable impasse with the music (Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata). On these occasions, the piano, which resides in my living room, became a negative presence looming over me, reminding me of my failings. In addition, I suffered several bouts of extremely painful tendonitis and developed a shoulder problem which has still not been fully resolved. There were many times during the process when I felt deeply dissatisfied and disappointed with myself, that I was “not good enough” and I was ready to give up. On reflection – and I took 4 months away from the music after failing to pass the diploma to do some serious re-evaluation – I can now see that my personal unhealthy perfectionism, my “musterbation” was actually harming my relationship with the piano and my enjoyment of music, in addition to causing harm to my body and my emotional well-being.

Fortunately, it is possible to reframe one’s way of thinking to escape the tyranny of the shoulds and the musterbatory mindset. Not all perfectionism is negative, and unlike the musterbator, the “adaptive” or “self-oriented” perfectionist derives “a sense of pleasure from their labors and efforts, which in turn enhances their self-esteem and motivation to succeed…….Self-oriented perfectionists may then use their pleasure in their accomplishments as encouragement to continue and even improve their work“*

Of course, you cannot achieve perfection and you kind of get paralyzed, so you have to find equilibrium between the possible—what’s realistic and what is ideal.

– Yo-Yo Ma, cellist

These “healthy” perfectionists set themselves realistic goals and high personal standards which are achievable. They enjoy the process of striving, have a strong sense of personal autonomy and self-determination (“I choose to….” instead of “I must”), and notice incremental/marginal gains as well as larger achievements, and feel good about them. This in turn encourages greater effort and further achievement. In piano practise, this attitude enables one to regard mistakes as learning tools, to be imaginative and resourceful about problem-solving (of technical issues, for example), to be positive in self-evaluation and reflection, and be open-minded about critique from others (mentors, peers). The healthy perfectionist finds joy, spontaneity and love in their music making, which leads to greater feelings of satisfaction, self-worth and motivation.

If you find yourself prone to musterbatory traits in your piano practise, it’s probably time to question where this negative way of thinking or behaving has come from and why it must be followed. Are you placing undue pressure on yourself to meet unachievable goals, or maybe the pressure – real or imagined – is coming from an external force, such as a teacher or peers? Query whether this mindset is really benefitting you and your music (does it make you happy? Probably not……) and consider how setting realistic goals may improve your musical progress, your relationship with your instrument and your overall emotional health. It may be necessary to do this in consultation with a sympathetic teacher or trusted colleague.

Only when you banish toxic musterbatory thinking and free yourself from the tyranny of shoulds can you truly rediscover the love and joy of making music.

I practice because I’ve experienced so much love that you practice out of loving a phrase, loving motivic change, loving a structure or harmony change or the way a sound can get to something – Yo-Yo Ma

 

Further reading

The Problem With Perfection

 


*(Kilbert, J.J., Langhinrichsen-Rohling, J., & Saito, M. (2005). Adaptive and maladaptive aspects of self-oriented versus socially prescribed perfectionism. Journal of College Student Development, 46

 

(picture source: de Melo Counselling)

Overthinking a piece of music can kill it – just as overpractising can. We’ve all done it – and we all continue to do it: thinking too much about the details – articulation, dynamics, voicing, pedaling. Often ‘overthink’ occurs when a piece is known well, but we don’t feel confident enough to let the music take flight or to simply allow the music to “be”. It can also create problems which aren’t really there.

Overthink is driven by the logical, self-critical left side of the brain: the hemisphere which is on the look out for errors, hyper-sensitive to any slips, however small, and always ready to send in the committee of corrections to tick us off for our mistakes. Our mind, specifically the left side of the brain, is the biggest obstacle to reaching peak performance – whether at the piano or on the tennis court. Overthinking will result in a boring, lifeless sound and, potentially, a performance riven with errors – because our left brain thinking has set us up for them in advance. The Inner Critic works for the left brain and can do a great deal of damage to our music and our self-esteem and emotional health as musicians. Unfortunately, western societal mores encourage far too much left brain thinking. From the moment a child goes to school (this is true in the UK, at least), they are encouraged to get things “right” (and be rewarded with stickers, or other signs of approval from the teacher). Mistakes are regarded as “bad” and to be discouraged. I come across this mindset time and time again with my students, who want their pieces to be note perfect. I encourage them to put aside thoughts of “perfection” and to instead strive for expression, musical colour and vibrancy in their playing, but such results are hard won and take a lot of encouragement and positive affirmation on my part.

Over the summer I had encounters with two inspiring teachers who highlighted the need to allow right brain thinking to take charge, to allow one to see the bigger picture of the music, as a whole, and to free oneself from negative self-talk and criticism. In one group lesson I found myself, before I’d even played the piece, justifying why I was going to employ a certain range of dynamics, what my intentions were for the opening phrase and a whole host of other reasons why. Instead, the teacher said, “just allow the music to be. Play with conviction and self-belief and your ideas will come through”. The resulting round of applause from the other members of the masterclass proved her point. In standing back from the details, I had allowed the true character of the music, and my response to and belief in it, to speak, and the resulting sound was convincing, vibrant and, most importantly, natural.

When we have been working on a piece or pieces for a long period of time, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees, as we become obsessed with making sure all the details of the score are correctly observed. Of course we must do this detailed work and it is important that we do it in an intelligent and methodical way as this ensures a tiny margin of error in performance and enables us to play with a confidence founded on the knowledge that “I know my pieces” (Horowitz). But if you are always thinking deeply when you are playing, you may find yourself suffering from “paralysis by analysis” (a term often used by athletes who fail to meet their potential ahead of a big game or race because of overthinking). If we have overloaded ourselves with detailed information about our music, and have drained ourselves mentally and physically by doing so, we have no resources left for the performance. Music which, in performance, is still undergoing “overthink” can sound lifeless, lacking in excitement and too safe or polite.

The best performances often come “in the moment”, where right brain thinking is allowed to take over. It banishes the inner critic and the continuous commentary of the left brain (“you missed that chord”, “you smeared that scale”), and frees us to be spontaneous, imaginative and creative as we play. Unfortunately, this is not something which happens automatically and is in fact the result of many hours spent meticulously practising and refining the music. Armed with good and proper preparation, one can walk onto the stage and know that a spontaneous “in the moment” performance is possible. In this instance, the final moments before the first notes are sounded can become the most important of the entire performance.

Psychologists and performance coaches talk about “centering”, the act of entering a state where the mind is focused yet relaxed. Observe a top tennis pro such as Roger Federer preparing to serve and notice how he allows himself time to prepare, rather than rushing into his serve. In the moments before we perform, whether in public or at home for friends, family or just the pets, take time to centre yourself. I call this “thinking myself into the music” and this process begins before I arrive at the piano. I imagine myself walking across the stage, sitting down at the piano and preparing to play. At the piano, I hear the opening phrase in my head, imagine the kind of sound I want to create, visualise my fingers moving across the keys. I also try to put myself in a “safe zone”, in my imagination at least, by pretending I am playing at home, on my beautiful Bechstein grand, to my family, or to myself. Or I recall a good public performance and try to take myself back to there, to recreate the emotions, and the sounds.

I have of course experienced left brain interference during a performance, the inner voice interrupting the flow of the music with comments such as “you always play that chord incorrectly and you’re going to do it again now”. But with good preparation during practising I have learnt to banish this voice, usually by using deep breathing techniques. Employing habits learned from mindfulness, allowing myself to perform “in the moment” and banishing damaging post-concert analysis all help to create a performance which is, I hope, convincing, committed, expressive and exciting.

Further reading:

Can Musicians Overthink Their Practice and Performance?

The Bulletproof Musician – a wealth of articles on performance anxiety and how to perform at your best on stage

Charlotte Tomlinson – performance coaching for musicians and creator of Beyond Stage Fright, a series of interviews with well-known musicians on dealing with performance anxiety

The Musician’s Journey with Christine Croshaw – resources on dealing with obstacles and learning how to see the bigger picture in our music

It may appear counter-intuitive to say that social networking, that most distracting and potentially time-wasting of modern-day preoccupations, could possibly assist in one’s piano practise. Allow me to illustrate this with an anecdote. A while ago, a renowned British concert pianist posted on Facebook that he was having trouble with a tricky passage in a work by Schumann and asked if anyone could suggest a more intelligent/efficient/comfortable fingering scheme. There followed a stream of replies, many of which offered alternative fingering schemes, while others took the conversation off on interesting by-ways and tangents. A few days later, the same pianist posted that, thanks to the comments, he had found a better fingering for the passage. This is an excellent example of “the wisdom of crowds in action” (to quote from another FB colleague of mine) and demonstrates how social media can, truly, assist in your practising.

When I first started this blog five years ago, I wasn’t very active on social media networks: in fact, the blog was the only “social media platform” I regularly engaged with. I started the blog as a way of recording my thoughts about the music I was listening to, enjoying in concerts and studying. I found it helpful to write down ideas about what I was practising – to think about it away from the piano allowed my thoughts to crystallise. As the blog became more well known, interesting discussions developed out of these posts, as people left comments or contacted me for advice about music or technical issues they were struggling with. When I took the decision to study for my first performance diploma, I charted my progress in a series of blog posts. After the diploma was completed and passed, a colleague wrote that I had been “brave” to have been “so public” in my attempt, and that  my efforts were inspiring and “liberating for so many people” (i.e. other adult amateur piansists). I was flattered that someone thought my writing and musical activities could offer support to others who were considering or actively engaged in a similar musical path to mine. In fact, in addition to writing my own blog posts about my diploma progress, I read and followed many other blogs on music and pianism which provided crucial support, especially in the final months leading up to the diploma recitals. Interacting, via comments and on Twitter, with the authors of these blogs made me feel supported and encouraged. Playing the piano is a lonely occupation (though I enjoy the loneliness) and I didn’t see my teacher that frequently for lessons. When we did meet, there was far too much work to be done on the actual music to spend time musing over more esoteric issues of, for example, interpretation, the psychology of performance and managing performance anxiety, stagecraft and presentation, and all the other myriad aspects which go into producing a slick, well-prepared and engaging musical performance. In short, my interactions with people on social networks made me feel less alone in my task.

A few days ago, I tweeted a picture of the final bars of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A, D959, which I am working on at present. This is a long-term project, but my tweet was to celebrate the fact that I had, finally, after 7 months work, learnt the entire sonata. (By which I mean, it is “in the fingers”, but is by no means finessed – that hard work begins now, and for the next half year, or more.) A number of people responded to the picture with words of congratulation and encouragement, while others expressed their liking for this sonata or offered links to their favourite performers and performances of the work. As is often the way with social media, an interesting discussion ensued, all of which, for me, feeds into my continuous circle of practise, study, discussion, interaction, teaching, listening, concert-going, and more.

Across the social networks, by which I mean the most widely-used platforms of Facebook and Twitter, there is a plethora of musicians, music teachers and musically-inclined people who regularly post about the music they are enjoying as a listener/concert-goer or studying and practising as a performer and/or teacher or enthusiastic amateur. In addition to people’s personal timelines, there are groups and forums where like-minded people can get together to bounce ideas around, often providing invaluable support, advice and solidarity for those of us who might be “stuck” in a musical impasse. Sometimes someone might flag up difficulties they are having with a particular section of a piece, or ask for suggestions for new repertoire for themselves or their students, or post a recording they have made for others to critique. Sometimes we just have a collective grumble about how difficult it all is! And often Facebook and Twitter simply provide a pleasant antidote to the enjoyable hardship of trying to refine Schubert’s “heavenly length” or get to grips with a knotty section of a Bach fugue.

On a more practical level, Twitter in particular is the place where you will daily find a wealth of links to blogs, articles, videos and other material which can assist in your piano practise – from the simplest “how to do it” videos to academic writing offering detailed critical analysis and commentary on specific works. Sifting through this material can be daunting, but both Twitter and Facebook have functions which allow you to “favourite” or save links to read later.

Here are some comments from people with whom I am connected on social networks about the usefulness of these platforms to the musician and music teacher:

I have learned FAR more useful teaching ideas and techniques from Facebook groups than I did by studying for a teaching diploma!

it really helps me as practising can be lonely and it’s nice to have piano chat during breaks

Facebook has helped me considerably (and less so Twitter) both to research piano-related information and has helped me hugely with practice through the support of specialised Groups, and of pianist friends on my News flux. Even my face-to-face teacher (not a lover of the social network society) has noticed!

For me it’s solidarity!!! Knowing that I’m not the only one having problems.

We can find solutions to more than just fingering issues. Plus lots of varying opinions. Without it we’d be at risk of only teaching in the way we were taught!

I think one of the most important aspects of social media is solidarity – it’s so good to be able to share problems, find that others are experiencing the same etc. I think that has a huge influence on our own well-being as musicians.

I think there is an almost unlimited amount we can learn from each other, and social networking helps build those connections both online and (hopefully) in the real world too

Selected resources

Practising the Piano (Twitter @PractisingPiano)

The Musician’s Way (Twitter @klickstein)

Piano Addict blog (Twitter @pianoaddictblog)

Stephen Hough’s blog (Twitter @houghough)

Pianist magazine (Twitter @pianistmagazine)

Musical Orbit (Twitter @musicalrbiter)

Piano Network UK (Facebook group)

Professionalism in Piano Teaching UK (Facebook group)

London Piano Events (formerly the London Piano Meetup Group)

The Bulletproof Musician

An interesting programme broadcast on BBC Radio Three in which concert pianist Stephen Hough talks about the activity of practising, memory, how to balance perfection in practise with a sense of “letting go” in performance, and much more. With contributions from Nicola Benedetti, Joyce Di Donato, and Julian Bream. Many interesting insights from top international artists which have relevance to musicians of all levels.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03lzrsk