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Guest post by Rhonda Rizzo

It’s an average practice day and I’m at the piano—just me and the score—and I’m staring into the unforgiving mirror that is making art. I say unforgiving because every musical wart, every lazy line, every single inadequacy is reflected right back to me in the way I play or don’t play each phrase. I once had a trained psychologist as a piano student. After three months of lessons, she told me playing the piano is harder than being in therapy.

Practicing is hard work. Performing is hard work. Creating art is hard work. I know of very few professions where you’re required to search your soul every single time you do your job. And then there are the outside critics—the former teachers who’s voices still sound in our heads, the critics, the Classical “high temple” or “museum” that fills performers with “should” and “have-to” and “only-one-right-way” judgments that further complicate the process of making music. It’s a wonder so many of us bother to go to work every day.

And yet, along with thousands of fellow musicians, I keep returning to the piano and to the music that challenges every part of my intellect, instinct, training, and skill. I do it because it’s oxygen for me. I do it because it’s something that I can never conquer because at this stage of my life, conquering the piano means conquering myself. I do it because the music has so much to say to me and I humbly believe that I may have something of my own to say through the music I’m privileged to play.

Don’t expect applause. It’s what I’ve learned from years of trying to please all of the people all of the time. I’ve never been able to please everyone and I never will. One of the gifts of being a “musician-of-a-certain-age” is that I no longer expect that I can please everyone. Of course, that’s what I think on my more enlightened days. The not-so-fun days are the ones where every negative review, every criticism, every botched performance comes back and settles on the piano bench next to me, howling my failures in my ear like a bunch of harpies. Those are the days I have to remind myself: don’t expect applause.

Not expecting applause is a gift you give yourself. For me, it’s given me the freedom to survive failure. Surviving failure gave me the freedom and strength to simply disregard the judgment of naysayers because I know failure won’t break me. Knowing this gave me permission to trust my musical instincts and my own voice.

Not expecting applause has made me a more confident performer because I’m not thinking “please like me, please like me” every time I step on stage. I play. I do my best to communicate the music. I play some parts well. I smudge some bits here or there. Maybe I have one of those magical nights when the audience is breathing every note of the piece with me. Maybe it’s the “gig from Hell” where anything and everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Either way, when I don’t expect applause, I’m less tossed around emotionally by the highs of a great performance or the lows of a bad.

Don’t expect applause. When I take my own advice, I’m free to disregard the ill-fitting interpretations of others and find my own custom-made sense of the music. I’m open to playing with the music—and maybe even messing it up a bit—as a way to get beyond the stiffness of the notes to the warm, living core of the composition. Most importantly, it allows me to move beyond soul-killing, rigid perfectionism and embrace the wild, vibrant, unpredictable dance of co-creating a work of art.


Rhonda (Ringering) Rizzo is the author of The Waco Variations. She has crafted a career as a performing and recording pianist and a writer. A specialist in music that borrows from both classical and jazz traditions, Rizzo has released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It.  As both a soloist and a collaborative artist, her performances include several allclassical.org live international radio broadcasts, Water Music Festival, Central Oregon Symphony, Oregon Chamber Players, Aladdin Theatre, Coaster Theatre, Ernst Bloch Music Festival, Bloedel Reserve, Newport Performing Arts Center, Skamania Performing Arts Series. In addition to her work as half of the Rizzo/Wheeler Duo, with pianist Molly Wheeler (www.rizzowheelerduo.com), Rizzo records and writes about the music of living composers on her blog, www.nodeadguys.com

Her numerous articles have appeared in national and international music magazines, including American Music Teacher, Clavier, Piano & Keyboard, and Flute Talk. Her novel, The Waco Variations, was released in the summer of 2018 and can be found on www.amazon.com.  

 

(Image: Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864 – 1916) Interior with Woman at Piano)

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

A “bias” is a mental inclination which is irrational, preconceived and/or unreasoned. Biases are inherent in human nature and we all have them, to a greater or lesser extent. Whatever your upbringing, intelligence and education, it’s impossible to completely eliminate biases from your thinking. An ever-evolving list of cognitive biases has been compiled by psychologists and behavioural scientists, identifying the many biases which describe specific traits of thinking and behaviour, from confirmation bias to the Ikea Effect, to name but two.

Biases distort objective consideration of an issue or problem by introducing influences drawn from our own social reality into the decision-making process that are separate from the decision itself. Usually we are unaware of the biases that affect our judgment because cognitive bias is all about the thinking patterns in our brain – literally the neural connections and pathways which are created and activated unconsciously. If we tend to a certain way of thinking, the plasticity of the brain carves neural pathways which reflect this (see my article on neuroplasticity) which means we invariably think in the same way, regardless of how open-minded we may think we are, because we just don’t have the connections to see something else. We also tend towards certain cognitive biases to avoid irreversible decisions or making mistakes

A musicians, cognitive bias can affect the way we practise and approach our music, yet we are probably not even aware that it does because we naturally tend towards that which is immediate, relatable, simple, quick and the least risky, which preserves the status quo and reinforces our current mindset and scope of experience. Some of these cognitive biases may have been created, unconsciously, by the influence of certain teachers or our professional training. In terms of practising, this may lead us to practise in the same way every day, because this way is the most familiar and the least risky. Thus, you may always start your practising with scales and arpeggios, or exercises like Hanon, because that is how you’ve always done it and it is familiar, safe and simple. We’d rather do the quick, simple thing than the important complicated thing, even if the important complicated thing is ultimately a better/more productive use of our time and energy. The “Anchoring” bias, for example – an over-reliance on an initial single piece of information or experience to make subsequent judgments – can limit our ability to interpret new, or potentially relevant information.

Unfortunately, this kind of mindset, continually reinforced by our cognitive bias, can make us less open-minded or receptive to new ideas or different ways of approaching our practising. If we practise in the same way every day, we may tend to practise on “autopilot” which can kill our enjoyment and productivity at the piano. Practice can become strained or monotonous because it’s too often primarily directed by an unchanging or unchallenged preconceived idea or goal. You may feel you’re doing a lot of practising, a lot of hard work, without noticeable or quantifiable progression. Unfortunately, many people practise like this because it is familiar, comfortable and relatively easy, but it can lead to an impasse or cul-de-sac in one’s music making which in turn breeds feelings of dissatisfaction or lack of motivation.

It can be tough but it is possible to beat your cognitive bias and adjust your mindset to find new, more creative ways to practise. Here are a few suggestions:

  • If you always begin your practising with scales and arpeggios and/or technical exercises such as Hanon, maybe try some exercises away from the piano to warm up hands, arms and shoulders. Warming up away from the piano also allows you to mentally focus on what needs to be done at one remove from the instrument. Penelope Roskell’s warm up sequence
  • If you really can’t drag yourself away from your beloved technical exercises, add more creativity and artistry to them by removing mindless, mechanical playing and instead aiming for musical playing which focuses on quality of sound, control, tone production, dynamic contrast, articulation etc.
  • Try not to get bogged down in the minutiae of your pieces and instead look at the bigger picture/narrative of the music. What do you think the music is about and how do you want to convey this meaning to your audience?
  • Practise in a mindful, self-aware way: be alert to nuances of dynamics, articulation, tempo etc. and how the music feels under the hands and fingers and indeed the whole body. Listen for details, self-evaluate, reflect, adjust, play
  • Seek inspiration from listening around the music you are working on, reading about it, discussing it with others, going to concerts

There are many online resources which encourage creativity, imagination and new thinking in practising, such as

Practising the Piano

The Bulletproof Musician

The Musician’s Way

Piano Playing Questions and Answers

Piano Portals

Those fortunate enough to have studied with acclaimed pianist, teacher and writer Graham Fitch will be very familiar with his intelligent, insightful, inspiring and highly accessible approach to piano playing. The internet allowed Graham to share his expertise and knowledge initially via his very popular and readable blog ‘Practising the Piano‘. This was followed by the hugely successful eBook series. Now Graham’s tried and tested methodologies are taken to the next level with the Practising the Piano Online Academy, a comprehensive library of lessons, video masterclasses, articles, and other material combined with insights from other leading experts. Aimed at piano teachers and pianists, these materials are presented in an intuitive, interactive and accessible manner, and provide a comprehensive range of resources to support pianists of all levels, and piano teachers too. The result of many years of experience teaching at the highest level in specialist music schools, conservatoires and universities around the world, and privately, Graham draws on his own practice tools, strategies and techniques, which he has tested and refined in his work with students of varying ages and levels of ability, to offer a significant new online learning resource.

For those unable to see Graham personally for one-to-one lessons, the Practising the Piano Online Academy offers an extensive and regularly updated library of lessons, articles and resources which:

  • Illustrate Graham’s methodologies and approach in more depth with multimedia contentinteractive features and resources such as musical examplesworksheets and annotated scores which can be downloaded and printed.
  • Expand on practice tools and strategies with masterclasses and tutorials applying them to popular pieces in the repertoire, exam syllabuses and specific technical challenges.
  • Share the expertise of guest experts on subjects including applied theoryimprovisation and healthy piano playing.
  • Be regularly updatedeasily searchable and allow for personalisation with bookmarking and notes.
  • Be shaped by your input, responding to your questions and suggestions for new content to meet your needs.

Here are a couple of features which I feel are really valuable, especially to those pianists who are studying alone without the support of a regular teacher:

Learning Pieces section – collections of popular or favourite piano repertoire (for example, Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, Schubert’s Opus 90 Impromptus, Ravel’s Sonatine and Bach’s WTC, Book 1). Each work is presented as a mini-masterclass or lesson (called a “walk through”) with detailed guidance on specific technical issues, productive practising and some contextual and historical background. There are excerpts from scores and video clips to demonstrate and clarify the instructions. An additional feature for this section will eventually be links to annotated study editions, which will offer comprehensive information on how to approach the music, technically and artistically.

Technique – exercises – jail-breaking Hanon. For devotees of piano exercises, and those who are unsure about using them, this section explains and adapts Hanon’s exercises contained in The Virtuoso Pianist to make them relevant for today’s pianist and teacher. As with the “walk throughs” of pieces, these exercises are accompanied by explanatory video clips and score excerpts.

Practising. Here specific aspects of practising – slow practise, mastering polyrhythms, skeleton practise – are explained and demonstrated, with accompanying video clips and worksheets which can be downloaded to print out or saved to a tablet for use at the piano. In the Mastering Polyrhythms section, for example, the reader is not overloaded with information: instead, the subject is introduced and then explored through separate articles, allowing one to build one’s expertise gradually through intelligent, incremental practise.

Overall, the information is presented in an attractive and easy-to-read format, both on desktop computer and tablet, and the site is easy to navigate with clear menus, search functions and links, plus the ability to bookmark and save material to your personal library. The Practising the Piano Online Academy is an impressive addition to online piano study and piano teaching materials. The site is intended as a growing resource and also integrates with Graham’s blog, ebook series and forthcoming Annotated Study Editions. For more information and to sign up, visit https://informance.biz/products/practising-piano-online-academy/

Highly recommended.

At the Piano with Graham Fitch (interview with The Cross-Eyed Pianist)

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Fans of acclaimed teacher and performer Graham Fitch’s insightful, instructive and highly readable blog Practising the Piano and eBook series, his regular contributions to ‘Pianist’ magazine, his YouTube videos on piano technique, and his inspiring and supportive workshops and courses will be excited to learn of his latest initiative for pianists, the Practising the Piano Online Academy.

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The Ultimate Online Resource for Pianists and Teachers 

The aim of the project is create the ultimate online resource for mastering the piano. Building on Graham’s hugely successful eBook series and blog, this will take his tried and tested methodologies to the next level with a comprehensive library of lessons, masterclasses and resources combined with insights from other leading experts. Aimed at piano teachers and pianists, these materials will be presented in an intuitive, interactive manner and will transform the way you approach teaching and playing the piano. The crowdfunding goal is £10,000 and funds raised will be used directly for creating additional content and resources.

Graham tells us more about the project:

I’m passionate about teaching and playing the piano. The art of practising is a special area of interest to me and is rarely taught specifically enough. Our practice time at the piano is just as significant to the end product as the hours of training undertaken by professional athletes, but this time can so easily be wasted unless we have the know-how.  Effective practice is essential to mastering the piano and it’s for this reason that I have spent decades researching and experimenting in the art of practising to find the optimal approaches.

I’ve developed a methodology comprising practice tools, strategies and techniques which I’ve tested and refined in my work with students of varying ages and levels of ability. I would love to see as many people as possible benefit from my work but obviously not everyone can get to me for one-to-one lessons. Therefore I’ve embarked upon a number of initiatives to make my work more widely accessible including my blog and eBook series. These provide a conceptual introduction to my approach and I am now planning to build on this foundation with the Practising the Piano Online Academy.

  • My blog (www.practisingthepiano.com) which is regularly updated and contains hundreds of articles on subjects relating to piano playing

  • Multimedia eBook series which combines text, video, audio and numerous musical examples to introduce my methodology and approach

  • A print version of my eBook series which is currently being developed due to popular demand

 The Practising the Piano Online Academy will build on these solid, tried and tested foundations and will take Graham’s work to the next level.

The Practising the Piano Online Academy is an extensive, searchable, and regularly updated library of lessons, articles and resources which will:

  • Illustrate my methodologies and approach in more depth with multimedia content, interactive features and resources including musical examples, worksheets and annotated scores which can be downloaded and printed.

  • Expand on practice tools and strategies with masterclasses and tutorials applying them to popular pieces in the repertoire, exam syllabuses and specific technical challenges.

  • Share the expertise of guest experts on subjects including applied theory, improvisation and healthy piano playing.

  • Be regularly updated, easily searchable and allow for personalisation with bookmarking and notes.

  • Be shaped by your input, responding to your questions and suggestions for new content to meet your needs.

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What will it do for you?

Whether you are a budding student, keen amateur, passionate piano teacher or a professional musician, the Practising the Piano Online Academy will provide you with the knowledge and resources at your finger-tips to:

  • Get the best possible results from your time spent practising the piano.
  • Avoid injury and overcome technical difficulties with panache.
  • Learn new pieces quickly and master trouble spots or challenging areas within the repertoire.
  • Deliver performances or achieve examination results which reflect your full potential.
  • Inspire your students and enhance their enjoyment of the piano.

How can you be involved?

We’ve already started creating content for this project and are now seeking the further support of pianists and teachers via our crowdfunding campaign to help us make this resource as good as it can possibly be. A number of great rewards ranging from discounted subscriptions through to opportunities to sponsor lessons and obtain a one-to-one consultations with me are on offer. Supporters will also have an opportunity to shape the Online Academy by suggesting and voting for topics and content they would like to see featured.

To show your support for the project and to read about it in more detail, please visit https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-practising-the-piano-online-academy#/

https://www.indiegogo.com/project/the-practising-the-piano-online-academy/embedded

Development of the Practising the Piano Online Academy is already underway with Informance (see below), with an expected launch in July 2016.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 

8481e4cf3afe7f10c19eGraham Fitch has earned a global reputation as an outstanding teacher of piano for all ages and levels.  He is a popular adjudicator, a tutor for the EPTA Piano Teachers’ Course, and a regular writer for Pianist Magazine with several video demonstrations on YouTube.  His blog www.practisingthepiano.com features hundreds of articles on piano playing and together with his multimedia eBook series is read by thousands of musicians all over the world.

 

ABOUT INFORMANCE

Informance ™ is a publishing imprint which creates rich, interactive digital publications aimed at musicians.  By combining state of the art technology with expert insight, Informance enables musicians to reach their full potential in the most effective and enjoyable manner.  It offers a modern way to engage with the timeless art of music making.

Informance is published by Erudition (www.eruditiondigital.co.uk), a next generation digital publishing company which partners with publishers and content owners to create purposebuilt digital publications from new or existing content.

This excellent initiative was started by Australian piano teacher and composer Elissa Milne. The purpose was to promote and implement the concept of students learning a huge quantity of piano pieces in one year to allow students to learn, experience and perform far more pieces than our exam-focussed culture tends to allow. Known learning outcomes from the exercise include improved sight-reading skills, greater independence in learning, and enhanced musicianship and music appreciation.

Another similar initiative is the Go-Play Project, in which US pianist and teacher Catherine Shefski set herself the task of learning (or relearning) a piece of piano music each week over the course of a year (she recorded the pieces and uploaded them to SoundCloud). Like many piano teachers, Catherine felt she was not spending enough time at the piano for herself amidst all the teaching and admin that goes with running a piano teaching studio. I followed Cathy’s project with interest and told myself that one day I would do something similar.

A new year, and a number of pianist friends and colleagues have embarked on their own 40-Piece Challenge. Despite, or because of, the fact that I have set myself a vast learning challenge in Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata (D959 in A), I decided it was time to try my own 40-Piece Challenge. My motives for doing so are slightly different from the original purpose of the project:

What kind of repertoire?

The Schubert sonata is a big work in four movements, which takes c.40 minutes to play, and the learning process is by necessity long and detailed. It would be foolish to add other very advanced works to my musical diet, so the premise is to learn shorter and “easier” works for the challenge. And the pieces selected do not necessarily have to be “new”: as part of the exercise, I am revisiting some pieces I learnt a few years ago. There is much to be gained from reviving previous repertoire, as new insights and ideas about the music are revealed.

To guard against boredom and retain variety in my practising

I would be crazy to devote all my practise time to the Schubert alone. Adding a variety of shorter works is a supplement to my main learning and a way of ensuring I retain interest and excitement in the piano.

To extend my repertoire

When one is working for exams or diplomas, there is a terrible tendency to focus only on the set pieces. This is not healthy, as too much focus on a narrow repertoire can lead to familiar pieces growing stale. One often finds that even the most disparate repertoire will inform other works. I also wanted to have a “bank” of pieces I could call on for the occasional concerts I give.

Each piece will be recorded and uploaded to my Soundcloud

Recording is an excellent way of evaluating one’s playing and an opportunity to listen in a different way, allowing us to make judgements about which areas need revision or improvement. By insisting on recording each piece, I am forcing myself to prepare each work carefully. This in itself is a useful exercise: just because the repertoire is “easier”, it should still be prepared to a high (concert-ready) level.

Update 1 – September 2015

With 27 pieces recorded and uploaded to Soundcloud, I am nearly three-quarters of the way through the project. There was a slight hiatus during the summer break when I was devoting much of my practise time to the Schubert Sonata in order to meet a personal deadline to have the entire sonata in the fingers by the end of June. Also, the piano was in need of a tune and I didn’t want to make any further recordings until it had been tuned.

Learning outcomes so far:

  • The project has encouraged me to learn “fast and smart”
  • I have become slightly less hyper-critical than usual about my playing, resulting in, I think, fresher and more imaginative recordings.
  • It has given me a focus in that each week I consider which works should be prepared for the challenge and add them to my practising diet.
  • It has made my work on the Schubert more enjoyable because there is variety in my practising regime

Update 2 – December 2015

I completed the project in early December – ahead of my deadline – and 40 pieces are now uploaded to my SoundCloud. I enjoyed the project very much, in particular the discipline of learning shorter pieces quickly and carefully. I am now considering a new 40 Piece Challenge for 2016 during which I will learn and record 40 new pieces of music (rather than a mixture of new and revived works).

The pieces:

For those considering a similar challenge, I offer some repertoire suggestions (intermediate to advanced level):

J S Bach – Kleine Preludes, Two- and Three-Part Inventions

Chopin – Preludes, Waltzes, Mazurkas, Nocturnes

Beethoven – Bagatelles

Schubert – Moments Musicaux, Ländler, Waltzes

Heller – Etudes

Rachmaninoff – Preludes, Moments Musicaux, 6 Morceaux Op 11, Etudes-Tableaux

Scriabin – Preludes, Etudes and other shorter piano works

Prokofiev – Visions Fugitives

Bartok – Mikrokosmos (later volumes)

Ligeti – Musica Ricercata

Debussy – Preludes, Children’s Corner

Scarlatti – Sonatas

Single movements from sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, etc.