At the beginning of this year, my son (24) passed his driving test, his achievement made more remarkable by the fact that, due to the covid restrictions, his test was postponed 6 times over the course of 18 months. He displayed a dogged pragmatism towards the disappointment of the cancelled tests (he was ready to take his test in July 2020) and simply carried on practicing his driving whenever he could – in my car, his own car, and with his driving instructor.

While my son was having his lessons, I was reminded of my own driving lessons, some 30-odd years ago, and how my instructor stressed the importance of “time at the wheel” – that any driving practice was useful. My son certainly appreciated this and we enjoyed lots of excursions in the car which relieved the monotony of lockdown while also giving him useful driving experience.

While we were out and about, I pointed out to my son that one of the most important aspects of having lessons is so that one learns how to pass the test. A good instructor knows what needs to be covered to ensure the candidate is well-prepared. I remember my instructor made me practice manoeuvres like parallel parking and three-point turns over and over again so that the all the processes, physical and mental, became fixed in my procedural (muscle) memory, were almost intuitive, and ensured that I was not nervous on the day of the driving test. The same was true for my son – his parking abilities impress me no end (especially as I can no longer parallel park successfully!)

What does this have to do with the piano and music practice? Well, playing an instrument, like driving, is a series of movements and processes, which utilise and train the procedural memory. Most of us know well the old adage “practice makes perfect”, but, more importantly, practice also makes permanent, so that movements, processes and gestures become intuitive – we do them without (apparently) thinking.

This permanence comes, of course, from practicing – not mechanical note-bashing, (or mindlessly driving around Tesco’s carpark) but from thoughtful, careful practicing to ensure we are well-prepared.

The great Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz apparently had a little phrase which he repeated ahead of a performance – “I know my pieces” – meaning he knew he had done his preparation. It’s a helpful mantra, and one which I have used in my own preparation for performance.

It is this preparation which gives us perhaps the most useful skill of all – confidence – which enables us to perform to the best of our abilities in an exam or concert situation, can help allay nerves, and ensures that the odd error or slip will not derail the overall performance.


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Guest post by Alexandra Westcott


An article in response to Andrew Eales’ excellent article Making Peace with your Inner Musician, which was in turn prompted by this quote from the Bhagavad Bita: “Better indeed is knowledge than mechanical practice…But better still is surrender of attachment to results, because there follows immediate peace

I’ve already written about mechanical practice versus knowledge and clarity. But I find I am developing my thoughts on this even more with regard to some of my students. In his article Andrew Eales’ discusses having less of an attachment to and more of an appreciation of results and goals; to be kinder and more accepting of ourselves and our piano playing journey; and to find ways to enjoy our playing and what it gives both to ourselves and others. I agree with this wholeheartedly.

I read this quote from the Gita and understood it slightly differently; I interpreted it to mean that in letting go of attachments to goals we let go of those goals altogether; taking away ALL judgement about our playing (even with regards to right or wrong notes) and immersing ourselves in the moment; surely it is this that this leads to immediate peace? I’m not saying that there are not times and situations when results are useful and necessary (whether extrinsic or intrinsically motivated), but that there can be another option for pianists.

As COVID struck I noticed my teaching changed; I was more interested in my students being able to play music than any amount of right notes or technical achievements (hard to do the latter online anyway), so we found ourselves focussing on the sounds, using improvising and ear games. I have already written about how this can help with improvising so I won’t reiterate all those points here, other
than to say if a student can withhold judgement about their playing then they can make music, however little they know or practice; when unable to concentrate on notes on a page, many of my students found solace through the piano and kept playing through both lockdowns.

More recently though, one of my students had an injury and couldn’t play, but got fed up with this and wanted to just get her fingers on the keys, so we have been talking about moving away from any ‘result’ at all, trying instead to focus on being in the moment, and the process of actually playing, whatever that playing is (i.e. whether improvising or learning a piece), and relinquishing all judgement about whether it is good, or right, or even sounds ‘nice’ (there is plenty of published classical music, or jazz improvising, from highly respected musicians and composers, of which I don’t like the sound, so if they can produce such music, why can’t we?!). The student is not learning for either a concert or exam, so why get upset about the notes…? Radical! We can aim at the right notes (assuming we are learning a composed piece), but judge ourselves less, or not at all, for getting them wrong, and enjoy the process in any case.

The Alexander Technique talks about ‘end gaining’; the mistake we make in focusing on the end result rather than how we get there. Understood correctly this is a huge part of how the Alexander Technique can benefit a piano (or any other) student. I think it can go further than aiding our clarity and technical grasp of the music and take us to a place where we are in the moment and finding peace, whether it is in enjoying the physical nature of playing the piano (which is one of the things I myself love about the piano, whereas I didn’t like the particular physical demands of playing the flute, for instance) or getting absorbed in the moods we can evoke. Sometimes we might enjoy the former but not like the latter we produce but does it matter; if it is ephemeral then is has gone in a whisper but we have lived the moment with peace and pleasure.

If you want a left brain reason to do this then be reassured, letting go of all our preconceptions and ‘goals’ completely can produce much more freedom; from judgement, from tightness of technique, or from musical and physical rigidity, and lead one to being more comfortable at the keyboard from whence ‘traditional’
results and goals are more easily attained.

So along with Andrew’s suggestion to be kinder of and more appreciative of where we end up, I also encourage you to be more mindful of, and kinder to yourself, in the moment. Take away an interest in the results completely, and with it any judgement of how you get there or what you are doing. As I’ve said once before and which reflects Andrew’s own words, once we get out of the way, there is only the music, whether is it ours, or Mozart’s.


Alexandra Westcott, BA, FRISM, is a piano teacher and accompanist based in north London.

Twitter @MissAMWestcott

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

The best teachers want to be made redundant – that is, their aim is to help their students become confident, independent musicians. In other words, they want to encourage autonomy in their students.

As a teacher, perhaps the simplest way to encourage autonomy in one’s students is to give them a choice in the music they play and learn. As a child in the early 1970s, I had my first piano lessons with an elderly and very traditional teacher who decided which pieces I would play and selected all my grade exam repertoire. I would have to practice pieces until I could play them perfectly and then I would move on to new pieces. I can still recall the excruciating boredom of some of those piano lessons and intervening practicing, when the same piece of music, which I disliked, confronted me on the music stand day after day. Looking back, I’m amazed that I stuck with the piano, but when I reached around Grade 5 standard, I began to realise that I had enough ability to strike out on my own and choose which music I really wanted to play. It was around this time that my mum bought me a score of Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux and I sight-read these pieces voraciously. (I loved them, without really understanding much about them at the time, and that affection for these pieces remains with me today.) This was also a great learning tool, although I may not have realised it at the time: finding my own way through the intricacies of Schubert’s writing improved my sight-reading, problem-solving abilities, confidence and musicality. When I took this music to my new piano teacher, she never said “Oh you shouldn’t be playing this, it’s far too advanced for you“, but helped me around some of the trickier corners, and encouraged me to explore more repertoire on my own. This was the start of my personal musical autonomy.

It seems obvious to say, but most students will be more motivated and progress better if they actually enjoy the music they are learning and playing. So don’t impose repertoire on them, in the mistaken notion that it will be “good for them”, but involve them in the selection of the repertoire by playing pieces to them. Even very young or beginner students will know what kind of music appeals to them – it may be something as simple as an attractive melody or rhythm. And if a student comes to a lesson with a piece they have selected and worked on without teacherly input, celebrate this as an important stage in their growing independence and musical autonomy.

Actively involving students in the direction and progress of their learning, seeking their opinions on the learning process, asking them what their musical goals are or how they plan to approach their practicing, all foster confidence and autonomy. For the teacher it needn’t require a huge change of approach; I found that by simply changing some of the vocabulary I was using in my teaching made the student feel far more involved in what they were doing – it was their music after all, not mine! For example, instead of saying “you should practice this passage like this“, I would ask “how do you think you might practice this passage?” or “what do you think would be helpful here?” – a simple shift from a didactic to a more collaborative approach.

Encouraging students to think about what they can do for themselves, based on their accrued technical and artistic skills, musical knowledge and experience, coupled with specific and applicable feedback and support from their teacher, helps foster a greater sense of investment in their own musical pursuits, which, hopefully, leads to increased motivation. Showing students what they need to improve and how to improve it, and helping them understand the reasons for doing what they are doing, can give them better insight, involvement and control over their own learning and leads to a deeper form of motivation than simply practicing for the next grade exam because you feel you should be practicing.

In addition, encouraging regular self-critique during lessons and in practicing, and equipping students with the tools to exercise self-critique – mindful practice, self-recording, reflection and adjustments – provides them with a framework for success when similar challenges come up later and encourages them to become intrinsically motivated. With these autonomous skills in place, students have the confidence and ability to become independent, self-fulfilled learners; above all, they enjoy their music.

The Pianist’s Autonomy – Part 1: Going It Alone


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Alan Rusbridger, journalist and former editor-in-chief of The Guardian newspaper, gave us some fascinating insights into the world of the amateur pianist in his 2013 book ‘Play It Again’ – a world hitherto regarded by many as the realm of eccentric hobbyists and ‘Sunday Pianists’ note-bashing their way through Chopin and Brahms, and old ABRSM exam books….

What Rusbridger’s book reveals is something quite different, and anyone who has attended a piano course or belongs to a piano club will have come across the exceptional amateur pianist, the one for whom “the distinction between the feats they can manage on the keyboard and that of an accomplished professional pianist is pretty negligible” (Alan Rusbridger).

Who are these exceptional amateurs and how have they achieved a standard of playing which, if presented in a blind audition, would be indistinguishable from a professional pianist?

Perhaps the most obvious distinction between the amateur and the professional pianist is simply mercantile: the professional gets paid for their performances. Aside from this, there is no reason why an amateur pianist cannot achieve the dizzy heights of a professional standard of playing

I’ve met a few exceptional amateurs myself, on piano courses and in my piano club. They are individuals whose playing one would happily pay to hear in concert, yet they have “day jobs”, perhaps the most famous being Condoleezza Rice, who served as US Secretary of State from 2005 to 2009, and who has played at Buckingham Palace for The Queen. Then there is British-Australian pianist Paul Wee, a barrister by day, with two acclaimed discs to his name, including one of Alkan’s notoriously challenging Symphony for Solo Piano and Concerto for Solo Piano, works which require an exceptional level of technical and artistic executive function, and certainly not the repertoire would one normally associate with an amateur player.

But here’s the thing: amateurs can and do play repertoire like this, and the fact that they do debunks the notion that amateurs are cack-handed dilettantes. We know exceptional playing when we hear it – and being “exceptional” does not necessarily mean the ability to play the most demanding, virtuosic music. What distinguishes these people from other amateur pianists, what makes them truly exceptional, is their ability to play at and maintain this level, piece after piece, performance after performance.

Aspiration is everything” says Julian, an amateur pianist friend of mine who plays at an extremely high level of both technical and artistic fluency. But surely the ability to play at such a level goes beyond mere aspiration: we can all aspire to play the Bach-Busoni Chaconne or Gaspard de la Nuit, or any of the other high Himalayan peaks of the repertoire. But only a handful of amateurs can do so convincingly and, more importantly, consistently.

Some exceptional amateurs have had a formal musical training, a training which ingrains in them good practice habits, how to practice efficiently and deeply, and an appreciation that one must ensure the foundations are in place on which to build technical and artistic assuredness. This includes selecting appropriate repertoire, and listening and studying around that repertoire to broaden one’s musical knowledge and place the music in the context in which it was written.

Commitment and time management are also crucial for the exceptional amateur (as indeed for anyone who wishes to improve their playing). Music is “always something I’ve made time for” says Paul Wee in an interview for Gramophone magazine. Other exceptional amateurs to whom I spoke when researching this article said the same thing, that making time to practice is very important to their pianistic development. For many, this means a regular daily (if possible) practice regime. Paul Wee admits that he blocks off several weeks to devote to his piano playing and that he is lucky that his job as a self-employed barrister allows him to do this. He also points out that this approach to practicing is often used by professional players who, because of concert and touring schedules, may not have the luxury of a daily practice regime.

While many exceptional amateurs have had a formal musical training, they have chosen a different career path while keeping music as a significant part of their life. I think this goes beyond merely “playing for pleasure”; as mentioned above, one must be willing to commit to the task and adopt the ethos of continuous improvement, with an openness to new ideas and a willingness to put one’s ego to one side, rather than wanting to “prove oneself”. But amateurs enjoy considerable freedom too: they are not bound by concert diaries, the demands of agents or promoters, and they can choose when to be exceptional – unlike the professional who is judged on every performance and who is under pressure to be exceptional all the time.

Is there really a difference between the exceptional amateur and the professional pianist? No – because they are both pianists and the same technique, musicianship and artistry applies.  

 

As some of my friends, readers and followers know, my son is a professional chef who has been working in fine dining in London for 6 years. He’s been living with us during the UK lockdowns and in addition to enjoying his beautiful, inventive and delicious cooking, I have learnt some useful ‘kitchen tricks’ and shortcuts from him.

Homemade pasta was something that had eluded me for years. It’s not that I couldn’t make it, it’s that I could never make it ‘right’. But with my son’s guidance, I have now learnt to make my own egg pasta – and I don’t even use a machine to roll it, just a long rolling pin and a dash of elbow grease. The other day, inspired by one of the ‘skills tests’ on Masterchef The Professionals, a TV series to which we as a family are all glued at this time of the year, I made tortellini (filled pasta) using my own pasta dough. As I was cutting out the discs of dough to be filled with a mushroom stuffing, it occurred to me that if I can make pasta dough and filled pasta, I can also make Japanese gyoza, Chinese wontons and dim sum, Indian samosas, Polish pierogi, and any number of other small stuffed dumpling.

Musical skills, just like culinary skills, once learnt and practiced, can and should be applied to different situations. No learning should ever be done in a vacuum: a single piece of music is not just that one piece, it is a path to other pieces via accrued technical proficiency and artistry. Early students and less advanced pianists often see the pieces they are learning in terms of stand alone works which have no relevance to other music they are working on, or are going to learn. This is also particularly true of scales, arpeggios and other technical exercises which may be studied in isolation instead of appreciating their relevance not just in understanding keys and key relationships, but also in actual pieces of music. This was something I was not taught when having piano lessons as a child, and it’s the fault of the teacher, not the student, if the usefulness and relevance of technical work is not highlighted.

Everything is connected. Chopin knew this: it is said that he studied Bach’s WTC every day, appreciating this music’s relevance to his own musical development, his composing and his teaching. If you can successfully manage Bach’s ornamentation, for example, you should have little difficulty with Chopin’s trills and fioriture.

If we understand how to adapt specific skills, to make them relevant to the repertoire we are currently working on, we can make the learning process less arduous and more rewarding, while also continuing to build on existing skills and develop new ones.