Part 2 – The problem with perfectionism, and releasing expectations
In my first article, I discussed how musicians can judge when it’s time to ‘let go’ of a piece of music and decide it is ready for performance or should be put aside for awhile.
In this second article on ‘letting go’ as a musician, I will explore how criticism and negative feelings can hold us back as musicians, and how ‘letting go’ allows us to cultivate a greater sense of acceptance, self-reliance and confidence.
Musicians are by nature highly self-critical, a habit which is often inculcated at a fairly early point in one’s musical study, by teachers, peers and one’s self. Self-criticism is important: the ability to self-critique is a significant aspect of productive, intelligent practising. It also encourages musicians to become independent learners who are able to make informed judgements about their progress, technical facility, artistry in performance, and career development.
Alongside this, there is also the need to seek feedback and endorsement from others – teachers, mentors, peers and critics – which also help support one’s musical development.
Music is a world where there is much judgement and criticism (both positive and negative); it is also highly competitive, and such competitiveness can lead to questions such as “am I good enough?” and toxic feelings of inadequacy and failure, which can impede one’s musical progress and even seep into one’s daily life, affecting self-esteem and confidence.
Letting go of such feelings, the need to seek approval or endorsement from others, stepping away from competitiveness, is not always easy, but the ability to recognise, confront and manage them can make us better musicians – more confident, resilient, centred and motivated.
Letting go of perfectionism
The notion that one must play every single note perfectly is, in my opinion, one of the most significant contributors to feelings of failure and inadequacy as a musician. Unfortunately, the musician’s training still places an undue emphasis on perfectionism, which can lead to anxiety, stress and injury, and encourages unhealthy working habits. Perfectionism can destroy our love of music and rob us of joy, spontaneity, expression, communication and freedom in our music-making. In short, it can lead us to forget why we make music. Perfectionism filters into the subconscious and creates a pervasive, hard-to-break personality style, with an unhealthily negative outlook.
Instead, it is far more healthy and productive to let go out perfection and strive instead for excellence in everything one does. Excellence is realistic, quantifiable and attainable. Excellence develops confidence and responsiveness and offers continued inspiration. And by striving for excellence we can stay connected with our artistic muse, our desire to make music, and the overall meaning of that music.
Letting go of the fear of failure
Hand-in-hand with perfectionism goes the fear of failure – failure to play the music “correctly”, failure to achieve that grade, diploma, competition result, failure to secure that job. We fear that we will appear foolish, weak or inadequate, or that we will be embarrassed, or an embarrassment to others, if we fail.
Fear of failure may also lead one to take a “what if…?” attitude to one’s music-making. “What if I make a mistake in a performance?”. Will my teacher/peers/colleagues think I’m a lesser musician because of it?
Let go of the fear of failure by recognising that “to err is human”, and that mistakes and failure are a crucial aspect of learning. A mistake can and should lead us to evaluate what we are doing, and all errors and setbacks should be seen as opportunities for self-analysis and critique, resulting in self-correction, adjustment, improvement and, importantly, progress.
In a performance situation, letting go of the fear of failure allows us to play our music “in the moment”, creating a concert experience that is spontaneous, communicative and enjoyable – for performer and audience.
Fear of failure is also related to ego, and letting go of ego makes us better musicians, and human beings.
Letting go of external validation
Throughout one’s musical study, as a child, teenager and adult, one seeks and receives approval, endorsements and validation. While such feedback can be extremely helpful – and outward signifiers of achievement such as good exam results or positive critique from, for example, a respected musician, teacher or critic can encourage greater motivation – it can be all too easy to place too much emphasis on negative feedback or to “read between the lines” of critical commentary.
We may also measure our progress against that of others, but comparing oneself to others is negative and counter-productive. Just because so-and-so can play Gaspard de la Nuit, it does not necessarily make them a ‘better’ musician. Stop trying to compete or compare: accept that we are all different as musicians, and instead focus on our own strengths and talents. Alongside this, release the notion that there is certain repertoire that we should play (for too long I felt trapped by this pressure, but when I let go of it, I found far greater fulfilment and enjoyment in my music making).
We develop and flourish as musicians if, instead of looking for approval from teachers, colleagues, reviewers or the audience, we self-critique and recognise the value of what we have to say. We should measure our personal success against the challenges set by the music, not by extrinsic aspects – the endorsements of others (except perhaps a few respected or trusted mentors and colleagues). As Schumann said, “As you grow older, converse more with scores than with virtuosi.”
Remember why we make music
Above all, it is important to remember why we make music – because we love it and want to share our passion with others. Music is also a shared cultural gift, and one which gives pleasure to many, many people. This knowledge should infuse our playing and sustain us over the long term.
We live in a crazy world. Some would say a world out of control. Fake news from politicians themselves instead of fake news about them. Conspiracy theories pushed by populist (read authoritarian) leaders – or as the case may be, soon to be ex-leaders. “End of timers.” “Anti-vaxxers.” “Science deniers.” Unchecked corruption, without the slightest regard for what was once called the rule of law. And, as if that weren’t enough, the world faces the prospect of a never-ending pandemic, a virus simmering among us, killing the elderly and young alike, while people refuse to wear masks just to make a “political statement.” How then, amidst all of this, and more, can music, the simple act of studying the piano, help us resist this real world onslaught? How does studying piano help us improve the quality of our everyday lives?
I suspect there are some of you who are musicians and are simply curious about what I am going to say. Others who are professionals with non-professional artistic interests, interests which you work hard to pursue. Others among you who are parents and wondering how in the dickens you are going to convince your kids to stop surfing Instagram or Snapchat and instead practice the piano for at least 15 consecutive minutes..
Around 10 years ago, my daughter, who was 9 at the time, had taken the delightful habit of dancing while listening to me play a Chopin Etude or a Brahms Intermezzo. One day, while I was practicing, she turned to me and asked: “Papa, who taught you to play like that?” Her question got me thinking. Who was it in fact who taught me to play? And what did I really learn from them, not only about the piano, but about the important lessons of life? Or about myself? And why am I even doing this ‘piano thing’ anyway, sitting at a keyboard while my back gets stiff – what’s the point?
Unbeknownst to my daughter – and, thankfully I did not drop these weighty questions on her then as she would have no doubt run from the room, hands in the air, screaming – I started to put pen to paper and write down my thoughts.
Learn what it means to accept challenges
I realize now what my father, a surgeon but also a pianist and organist equally talented in both instruments, meant when he said: “sitting down at the piano can be the hardest part of playing the piano.” There is a moment when you decide to learn a piece. Something tells you there is no alternative. No more playing around with a melody here or a passage there. It is like thinking of that client or project, mulling it over, but never actually signing the contract.
So you accept the challenge before you. You realize it is time. Sometimes it can take years – like finally saying hello to a neighbour. You meant to do it earlier, thought about what to say, but you never started the conversation. It was too much effort at the time or something else came up. There was always an excuse. But now you are going to learn this piece because you want to yourself, not because someone else wants you to. So you start that long difficult job or project. You say hello to that neighbour. You finally greet the music before you.
When I start a new piece, I invariably think of my beloved childhood piano professor, Mae Gilbert Reese, a student of Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory near Paris. I see her standing next to me. She is saying: “this is the beginning of a journey. I helped get you to this point but you brought yourself here alone. The journey will be difficult. You will stop at points as you travel, stumble over notes, get stuck in a phrase and think you cannot move forward, that there are too many obstacles. Your back will ache. Your fingers will ache. But you know what the piece must sound like. You can hear it. You can see where your destination is, so you go on. You return to the piano and get on with it.”
Then when I start the piece, my reflexes turn on. I am an athlete again. A pianist approaches the entire act just as an athlete does, investing oneself fully in the moment, through a process of constant self-preparation.
Respect your body
There are exercises Mrs. Reese taught me – how to relax your arms, your hands, your wrist, your fingers. Lean over and let your lower back muscles stretch out naturally. Your upper body slowly drops the ground as gravity takes over. Let your hands drop flat on the ground, watch them drop. Soak your hands in hot water for a minute. Do this first. Then sit down at the piano.
Prepare yourself physically first for what is ahead. Always do this, no matter what you do.
Take your time.
When you start a piece, you sight read. It’s the same as looking over a job and preparing an action plan for the project first. Your reflex is to go fast. Resist this reflex. Start at quarter tempo, no more. Simply listen more closely to the harmonies and the structure of the piece as you play it slowly for the first time. You are outlining the job ahead. Think of the composer writing the piece out with his pen, the time he or she took to write each note. So slow down, watch your hands and examine each note. The notes enter your fingers correctly from the start this way. You are starting what could be a difficult task, trying to solve a problem. It is like a relationship which can be difficult. There are emotions to sort out. You have to decide what to do.
Start slowly and later, you can speed up. When you learn to drive you don’t drive on the highway first, especially with a brand new license. You start on the surface streets. There will be time for the highway later.
Think of what are looking at while you are looking at it
When I was a kid, I needed to remind myself this early on. The reason was I did not see well sometimes, even with my glasses, perhaps why I am not as a good a sight reader as I would like to be. It really is a question of eyesight. You need to see what is in front of you on the page. It’s like seeing what’s in front of you in life and focusing on it. If you do this, you are fortunate – seeing something for precisely what it is, and not thinking you see something when in fact you don’t.
Sometimes it is easier to see what you want, in certain instances. All of us do this. It is a human frailty, perhaps linked to our capacity to dream, a gift which distinguishes us from animals, as far as we know. One’s dreams do not have to be an entirely new world or creation either. They can be the slightest of differences from reality.
I can remember taking off my glasses just to see how long I could get around my day without them. So what if things are a little blurry, right? I would leave them off. Unfortunately, my glasses had an annoying way of disappearing that way! So I kept my glasses on. To see things as they are in life – the sharp details of responsibilities. Don’t worry about taking the time it takes to see something and to understand it. Resist the temptation not to look at the hard edges. It may be perfectly human to do so, but you can’t afford to do it, especially in today’s world.
Learn how to listen – really listen!
Most people have no idea what listening means.
My sister and I used to play a game, before I started the piano. My sister would sing a note. I would go to the piano, look at the keyboard, and play the note. Then she would sing a melody. I would listen and sing it back. Then I would play it on the piano. My sister would then turn me around and tap a chord on the piano while I faced the wall and ask me what chord it was. I would go back to the keyboard and play the chord. To end the game, she would finally lift both hands and – in a surprisingly energetic gesture – bring both hands down, randomly, on the keyboard! I would return to the piano, find the notes and play them. I had perfect pitch but more importantly, I learned early on to listen.
Sometimes when I practice a piece, I play the right hand quietly or not at all, moving my fingers like phantoms floating lightly over the keys. Then, as the fingers of my right hand move silently, I play the left hand full voice. I listen closely to what the left hand is saying. I hear new voices that were previously neglected.
Walk in the streets, close your eyes and listen to what you hear. Listen to bits and pieces of conversations as people pass by. A couple are talking about each other’s workday — “this girl in my class is very shy” a woman, a schoolteacher, says to her husband. “I can’t stand my job anymore,” the husband says to his wife. You hear a mother encouraging a child riding her bicycle for the first time. “Very good – keep going,” she says. “Very good.” Then other people approach. You can hear them greeting each other. You listen to their steps as they pass. You listen to the wind moving through the trees. Concentrate on listening to the moment itself. You will be surprised how much better you listen afterwards.
Beware of the pedal
No pedal at first. The pedal has a way of making you think you play better than you do. The pedal is like a hoax that you perpetrate on yourself. It is similar to a good bottle of wine: you wake up at some point, probably with a hangover, and realize that without that pedal, without that bottle of wine, you are not quite as beautiful as you thought you were! Be honest with yourself – no pedal to start.
Always. When you work through a piece, remember that you are going somewhere – that the music has to go somewhere. Think of the notes you are playing but also the next note, the next phrase. Prepare yourself. Position your hand. Construct your fingering for where you are going next.
Get yourself into position first, no matter what you do in life. Otherwise you may have to improvise a passage to survive (this happens to everyone these days!). Think where you are going first, anticipate. Plan on how you are getting there, then act accordingly. Think of where you are going as you go.
Remember to rest
Close your eyes for 5 minutes. Drop your arms by your side — no movement, just like that stretching exercise. I remember how Mrs. Reese would stop me abruptly after a long session on a piece: “I think we’ll stop for a while here, go on to another piece. We will come back later,’’ she would say. She knew that the intensity of music fills you completely. You become saturated. Music, particularly great music, is that way, particularly when you perform it. Stop to rest no matter how large the problem may appear to be. Then start again.
Be conscious of your environment
Always remember the key you are in as you play. You are A minor, or F minor, or E-flat major. Think of the flats or the sharps. It is like your surroundings on a journey. Are you in the city? In the country? Are you surrounded by people? Are you alone? Think for a moment and then play the scale on the piano, just to clear your mind. Stop and think of the place you are in and then return to the problem. You will have a better idea where you are going if you do.
Watch your time
Watch your time when you practice. Keep moving through the piece, otherwise you will become tired. Or hungry. You will call it quits! Your body simply becomes weak. Later on in life, you become conscious of the limited time you have left. It will weigh on you and can even become your greatest suffering. We all must guard against wasting time in life on things we can’t control, no matter how crazy they may seem. Keep track of your time on this earth.
Don’t fool yourself with the easy parts
Whatever you do, don’t play the easy parts first! They are like the downhill slopes on a cross country race. Instead, go straight to the difficult passages. My teacher, Mrs. Reese, would call these the “technical” passages, sections of a piece that seem impossible to start. The ones that scare you and are terrifying to look at, even on the page. The technical passages are the challenges which you will face in life. Go straight at them. Do not flinch or look for the easy way out. You will delude yourself and end up going nowhere.
Keep a pencil ready with you to mark your thoughts as you go. Mark comments on your performance but above on the performances of others. As you are play the passages, mark the score and write down your thoughts. Note the dynamics, the crescendos and diminuendos in your life as you live it.
My father was a champion note taker – he had to be, writing histories and physicals on his patients or surgical reports. My father wrote me letters over the years, no matter what continent I happened to be on at the time. They were just short notes, to say he was thinking of me or to let me know how things are. The letters were never long. Nor were they ever in the least way self-aggrandizing. In fact, I never recall a single time in his letters when he mentioned an honour conferred on him in the course of his work, although there were many. I read these letters again sometimes as they have given me comfort through the years. It wasn’t until later however that I realized I had been reading his notes to me, in my piano, every day. “Don’t hurry,” he tells me in the margins of my Cortot edition of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade, marked in pencil at the recapitulation. “Steady,” he says, at the beginning of the coda at the end of the piece. I see my father’s handwriting next to Mrs. Reese’s in the margins of the same score. They are invariably clear, concise written words – “hold,” “softly,” “slow down.” Clear and concise. Sometimes they are simple translations from Italian or French for example —‘Spianato’ –Italian ‘spanare,’ to smooth over, simple, plain” …. ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ : The maid with the flaxen hair. My father never spoke French, or Italian for that matter. He understood however the importance of language, of precise meaning, and certainly for the purposes of his piano.
Classical music is a precise business, and a precise business merits note taking. Every note and phrase, the sense of a phrase and what each phrase means, counts. The composer intended each phrase to mean something. So take the time mark even as you are playing. Sometimes I will lift my left hand and mark as I play while my right hand continues playing, circling a note to accent, marking “piano” here, “pianissimo” or “forte ” there. It is like writing a journal. You jot down the relationships which count for you, whether you made the right decision to go somewhere or meet someone. Perhaps you see something beautiful which delights you. Or something else which repels you. Write down your thoughts as you go through life wherever you are. You will come to think differently of the journey.
These “lessons from the piano” will resonate more with some perhaps, and less with others. On the whole however, they are lessons that have served me well, keeping me strong, particularly in difficult times such as those we are living through today. I hope they will do the same for you.
Walter Witt is a classical pianist, composer and educator based in Paris. A lifelong student of the works of Chopin, Walter captivates audiences with his innate musicianship and dynamic presence at the piano. Together with his advocacy for classical music and its educational importance, these talents make him one of the most compelling figure in classical music today.
Writers, artists and musicians all understand this dilemma – when do we “let go” of that article or book manuscript, painting or piece of music? Given half the chance, most of us would happily continue tinkering and refining ad infinitum, but there has to come a time when we must let go.
Amateur pianists are lucky, in many ways, because they can, if they so desire, continue to tinker with a piece or pieces of music for as long as they like. Professionals, on the other hand, know that there must come a point when the music is deemed “concert ready” – the time when it is put before an audience, or recording equipment, and held up for public scrutiny.
The processes involved in arriving at this point are not only the learning and upkeep of thousands of notes, but also a mixture of intelligent, highly focussed practicing and many hours of reflection and refinement. Many professionals (and serious amateurs too) use recording and video to self-critique, as well as working away from the piano using a variety of practices to really ‘get inside’ the music, know it intimately, and appreciate its myriad details and nuances.
Professionals and more experienced amateur pianists are able to judge when their music is “ready” – and I prefer to use the word “ready” rather than “finished”, for how can we ever say a piece is truly “finished”?
Art is never finished only abandoned. – Leonardo da Vinci
When we set aside music after a period of intense learning, returning to it at a later date can be like reacquainting oneself with an old friend, but it is also an opportunity to discover new things and reveal new details, if we approach that return with curiosity. We also bring experience, gained from learning other music – for every piece we learn and play will give us something which can be applied to another piece or pieces – listening, and from our life experiences too.
As a performer, I love the process of a piece always revealing something fresh if I’m open to it. – Eleonor Bindman, pianist
But before we have reached that moment of return, when do we know when to “let go” in the first place?
It would be easy – and facile – to say that you know when to let go when you feel you can play the piece confidently, that it is technically and artistically secure. But for less advanced pianists, recognising this point in their progress may not be so easy. A teacher or mentor can help by offering honest feedback.
Many of us have a goal in mind when we’re practising – be it a concert or other performance (perhaps at piano club), an exam, competition, or an audition. When I was working towards my performance diplomas, and especially the second and third diplomas when I had a much clearer understanding of the processes and timescales involved in bringing the repertoire up to performance-ready standard, I almost worked backwards from the performance date, knowing how long it would take to reach certain stages of refinement and readiness. This meant I could manage my practising efficiently, set and achieve realistic goals along the way, and, hopefully, prevent the music from “going stale” from too much practising, thus keeping something back for the day of the performance.
And this, for many amateur pianists in particular, is the real issue. At what point does your music reach the fine line between readiness and staleness, and how do you know this?
I think the danger points are when silly mistakes start to creep in during practice. Familiarity with the music can make us sloppy and complacent; we may overlook details, because we know the music too well, and we may be less assiduous about correcting errors, saying to ourselves during practice, “Oh it’s ok, I can fix that tomorrow!“. In fact, at this point, it is important to be super-vigilant in our practicing; it may also be a signal to set the music aside, if only for a few days, or perhaps weeks or even months.
Boredom is another sign that it might be time to let go. If each time you go to practice you inwardly sigh at having the same piece of music confront you on the music desk, and practicing it feels like a chore (even if it is music that you enjoy playing), it is time to let it go. Put the music away for awhile and turn your attention to other repertoire.
There is another aspect, which applies particularly to repertoire which is being made ready for performance, and that is the need to hold something back (or indeed let go of it!) for the concert.
I often repeat British pianist Stephen Hough’s assertion that one needs to be “a perfectionist in the practice room” in order to be “a bohemian on stage“. Disciplined, meticulous, deep practice gives us the technical and artistic security, and, importantly, the confidence to let go in performance. And it is in those moments of letting go that the real magic of performance happens – for audience and performer.
Don’t be afraid to let go of your music when you feel you have done all you can up to that point. The fingers and brain do not forget easily, and if you have done the right kind of practicing, returning to the music at a later date will not be too arduous. Remain open-minded and curious about your music and on each return to previously-learnt repertoire, you will discover different details and find pleasure and excitement anew.
In the second part of this essay, I will look at more extrinsic and psychological aspects including the problem with perfectionism, and learning to let go of criticism and self-critque, and how to release expectations, of ourselves as musicians, and of others.
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Brooklyn-based pianist Beth Levin is celebrated as a bold interpreter of challenging works, from the Romantic canon to leading modernist composers. The New York Times praised her “fire and originality,” while The New Yorker called her playing “revelatory.” Fanfare described Levin’s artistry as “fierce in its power,” with “a huge range of colors.”
One of my best friends is a published author. With two popular and successful books under her belt, she gave up her day job to write full time. When we meet, she and I often end up discussing creativity, for the life of the writer and the musician are not dissimilar. We share similar processes – for example, the need to keep to a regular routine, as this fosters more consistent creativity and output – and we both appreciate the need to feed the muse: as my friend would say “what comes out must be put back”, and when our creative forces are depleted, we must stoke up further reserves of inspiration. She and I both also see value in accumulating experience and wisdom as we progress through our daily lives.
Just as writers have days when the creative juices seem to dry up, so too do musicians. We may rail against an unproductive practice session, frustrated that nothing seems to go right, the brain willing but the fingers sluggish and unresponsive – or vice versa. This can be seen as “wasted time”, pointless because you achieved nothing but, apparently, a slew of errors. It can be disheartening and demoralising to walk away from the instrument with the feeling that you have achieved very little.
In fact, nothing is wasted, and if we treat each practice session with curiosity and an open mind, it is possible to find useful nuggets in everything we do. Reflection is a significant aspect of deep practising, and it is important to consider why a practice session didn’t go as planned and to explore ways in which it could go better the next time. All errors should be regarded as learning opportunities (I used to tell my students “there’s no such thing as a wrong note”) and should be examined carefully: maybe that slip was due to a poor or improperly-learnt fingering scheme.
Students in particular also believe that they should only be practising the music they have been assigned to practice by their teacher. Wrong. Any time spent at the piano is useful, even if you’re just noodling, messing around with some chords, improvising, or simply playing through some pieces which you enjoy playing. One of my students actually apologised to me for having learnt the first section of Debussy’s Clair de Lune during the Christmas break. “Why are you apologising?” I asked her. She said she thought I would be “angry” that she had practised something I hadn’t assigned to her. What she hadn’t realised was that by taking the initiative to learn some music without me, she had taken a first step towards a goal which is imperative for a musician: autonomy.
Time spent away from the instrument is also beneficial. Our daily lives feed the musical temperament and contribute to our music making, and it is simply unhealthy, and often unproductive, to spend hours locked away in the practice room. We draw on life experience to inform our artistry and activities which may seem divorced from our musical lives can actually inspire and inform. Don’t feel guilty about spending time reading a book or watching a movie: this is not “wasted time” for the musician, and nor is “down time”, for body and mind need time to rest and unwind to be ready for the next practice session or performance.
As musicians we should cultivate curiosity, not only in practicing and performance, but in our daily lives, and just as the writer may squirrel thoughts away in a notebook, so we too should store ideas. This way we ensure that nothing is wasted, and everything contributes to the richness and variety of our musical lives.
I’ve always really enjoyed playing the piano. However, I’ve always avoided doing my piano practice. This spring I decided to put an end to that. I was particularly motivated by the start of the annual 100 Day Project, in which people commit to doing something creative for 100 days. I determined that my project would be to teach myself how to play Chopin’s Nocturne op. 27 no. 2, a piece I’ve always loved but lacked the impetus and dedication to learn. To do this, I committed myself to practising for at least 30 minutes every day. What’s more, I decided to make myself publicly accountable by streaming my practice sessions on my Twitch channel.
In case you’re not aware, Twitch is a streaming platform usually used by gamers to broadcast themselves playing videogames. However, it’s also used by artists and other creatives to stream their ongoing work. At any one time you can usually find several pianists playing live in the ‘Music & Performing Arts’ category. These players are often watched by hundreds of viewers as they perform arrangements of popular songs and other tunes, improvisations and more.
If these pianists are giving online concerts, they are less like modern concerts than they are nineteenth-century salon performances. Twitch allows real time interaction through a chat window which means that these pianist-streamers can engage with their audiences in real time between and even during pieces, and are therefore able to perform requests, respond to suggestions and otherwise chat with viewers.
My own Twitch streams are a little different. Firstly, my standard of playing is generally lower: I am an intermediate level amateur at best with limited repertoire (largely the result of my limited practice!). Secondly, I’m not attempting to give salon style performances. Instead, I’m ‘just’ broadcasting my daily piano practice.
Practice is normally private not public. It’s what precedes a performance; it’s not the performance itself. And yet, the simple act of streaming it on a public media platform means that my private practice does take on a performative aspect. Even if no one is watching – and that’s often the case on my channel – people could be watching. And that makes all the difference.
The performative aspect of my streams has necessarily altered my relationship to my practice. It has introduced an implied need to make it enjoyable to watch. This means, in the first place, choosing to work on a piece that will appeal quickly to viewers surfing between channels. The Chopin nocturne I’ve chosen is a beautiful work with relatively immediate appeal. However, it simply doesn’t have the mass recognition or popularity that a cover of a hit song would have. Secondly, the need to make my streams an enjoyable watch potentially risks altering how I practice. It feels as though I should play the work through coherently ‘in flow’ rather than working in a more deliberate, detailed fashion. It’s just not that much fun to watch someone play one bar over and over, or play a phrase slowed down to the point of unrecognizability. And yet, that is the kind of effort that is often required when practising.
On the plus side, Twitch’s interactivity means that it’s possible to get immediate positive reinforcement during practice. I was genuinely thrilled when a viewer typed in chat that my playing sounded good. The comment led me to think about the broader possibilities of learning on stream. I can imagine a practice session becoming something like an informal masterclass with knowledgeable viewers offering encouragement and advice.
Given my chosen piece, I can’t help thinking about all these issues in relation to the Romantic virtuosos. Chopin himself, of course, was a brilliant performer but famously averse to giving large concerts. Perhaps he would have enjoyed playing in the privacy of his own home to an invisible public audience on Twitch. I’m not sure how he would have felt about making the private work of practice public though. I certainly know how the older Liszt would have felt. It’s probably true that during his years as a touring virtuoso the younger Liszt did much of his practice in public on the concert platform itself. However, in later life as the stern master of Weimar he was famously dismissive of pupils who displayed poor technique during his masterclasses, berating them with the declaration: “Wash your dirty linen at home!” I am literally counting ledger lines during my streams so am certainly, musically speaking, washing my dirty linen in public.
I’m only a short way into #the100dayproject. Despite the complications it has introduced, the decision to stream has already had several positive effects. Firstly, it has given me the necessary commitment to keep practising. My advertised stream schedule makes me publicly accountable for my practice in a way I’ve never been before, not even when I had lessons as a kid. I have, as a result, stuck to the task far more than I would have done otherwise, and my playing has genuinely improved as a result. I’ve certainly made solid progress with the nocturne. Whilst it’s true that I’m still stumbling over the more challenging passages and continue to play wrong notes, I at least play them better than I did before. It turns out that regular practice really does make a difference!
A second consequence of my decision to stream my practice is that I now have a video archive of my progress. I can compare the video of my day 1 stream with, say, that of my day 21 stream and quickly see the progress. This is a source of positive reinforcement that offers continued motivation when things seem challenging. More immediately, the fact that Twitch makes streams available as VODs means that I can watch myself back straight after I finish my practice. I can listen to my playing divorced from the act of playing itself, which means I can hear things much more clearly. The critical reflection for which this allows feeds back into my following practice sessions.
Thirdly, I have become somewhat used to the idea of others watching me play (if not perform exactly) – which was a rare occurrence before. In particular, I’m more accustomed now to the idea of people seeing me struggle with a piece and play wrong notes. I’ve had to get over any embarrassment about my lack of technical ability or competence, and my playing is probably becoming freer as a result. I think, overall, that streaming is making me more forgiving of my mistakes.
I’m excited about where my 100 Day Project is heading. I’m certainly looking forward to hearing the improvements I’m sure to make in the days and weeks ahead, and to exploring new pieces alongside my current choice of nocturne.
I’ll be streaming my practice on my Twitch channel at 6pm UK time for about 30 minutes every evening until I reach day 100. It’d be great if you could tune in, say hi in the chat and give me some encouragement. Please do give the channel a follow whilst you’re there too. Can’t make it at 6pm? Don’t worry, you can always find videos of all of my previous practice sessions, so do stop by.
James Holden is an independent writer and academic. He is a Lisztian, a Proustian and a Nerd. He is currently streaming his piano practice every day at 6pm on his Twitch channel. Find out more about his work and publications on his website. You can also follow his progress on Twitter and Instagram.
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