Tag Archives: practising

The Perfectionism Trap

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“Practise makes perfect” – that oft-quoted phrase beloved of instrumental teachers the world over…. It’s a neat little mantra, but one that can have serious and potentially long-lasting negative effects if taken too literally.

Musicians have to practise. Repetitive, committed and quality practise trains the procedural memory (what musicians and sportspeople call “muscle memory”) and leads to a deeper knowledge and understanding of the motor and aural components of the music. Practising in this way leads to mastery and enables us to go deeper into our music so that we become intimate with its myriad details, large and small. Meanwhile, setting ourselves high standards is fundamental to our improvement and continued growth as musicians.

But perfectionism is a human construct, an ideal as opposed to a quantifiable reality, and as such it is an impossibility. No matter how hard you practise the fine motor skills involved in playing a musical instrument there is still no guarantee that you will never make a mistake. Go to a concert by the greatest virtuosos in the world and you will hear errors, if you listen carefully. As human beings we are all fallible, and despite our best efforts, we are subject to things outside our control, no matter how long we spend in the practise room.

Unfortunately, the desire for perfection surrounds us in modern society, and the need to achieve perfectionism is inculcated in us from a very young age. “Getting it right” is drilled into children from the moment they enter the formal education system, where they are continually assessed and tested, where correct answers are rewarded with stickers and other symbols of approval and mistakes are regarded as “wrong”.

As musicians, if we carry the unrealistic ideal of perfectionism into our practise rooms we can easily grow frustrated with our playing if it is not note-perfect. This can lead to perpetual feelings of dissatisfaction, resentment and anxiety about practising and performing. It can put undue pressure on the musician, leading to issues with self-esteem, performance anxiety, and even chronic injury, such as RSI and tendonitis. And the striving for this unrealistic goal can destroy our love of the music we play 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.
Perfection is not very communicative

Yo-Yo Ma, cellist 
The “practise makes perfect“, and alongside it the “practise until you never make a mistake” mantras encourage unhealthy working habits which lead to mindless, mechanical practising, which in turn can cause us to overlook crucial details in the music. Perfectionism filters into the subconscious and creates a pervasive, hard-to-break personality style, with an unhealthily negative outlook. It prevents us from engaging in challenging experiences and reduces playfulness, creativity, innovation and the assimilation of knowledge – all crucial activities for a musician. If you’re always focused on your own “perfect” performance, you can’t focus on learning a task. Because by making mistakes we learn.

A mistake can and should lead us to evaluate what we are doing: a misplaced chord or run of notes may indicate an awkward or incorrect fingering scheme – something which can be easily rectified. All errors and slips should be seen as opportunities for self-analysis and critique, resulting in self-correction, adjustment, improvement and progress. Repetitive practising should be more sensibly reassigned the mantra “practise makes permanent” – and it is the permanence, an intimate in-depth knowledge of the music, that comes from intelligent practising which ensures that in performance we won’t be derailed by slips or errors, and that we can continue to perform “in the moment” with creativity, freedom and vibrant expression.

People frequently – and wrongly – equate perfection with excellence. While perfectionism is negative and damaging, excellence, on the other hand, is realistic, achievable and positive. Excellence involves enjoying what you are doing, feeling good about what you’ve learned and achieved, it 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.

The Systematic Pianist

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Split personality 

On practising and performing

As I prepare for a rather important concert, I’m struck yet again how as performing musicians we have to develop a split personality. This somewhat schizophrenic state (or states) of being has to do with our need to understand and appreciate the difference between practising and performing.

The most visible way in which we differentiate between practiser and performer is how we dress. We wear special clothes for concerts, often quite glamorous clothes that we would never wear in our everyday lives. These clothes do several things: they identify us and singly us out for the audience; and they serve to remind us that we have a special role to fulfill. In effect, our concert clothes become our “uniform”. In previous eras of concerts, it was very easy to identify the performer: men wore the traditional concert uniform of white tie and tails while women wore evening gowns, but today the concert dress code has become far more relaxed, to the extent that some musicians prefer to wear jeans and sneakers, perhaps thinking that this makes them more accessible to their audience by dressing in similar clothes. In fact, I am not sure audiences want performers to look like them: audiences want performers to look like performers as this enhances the sense of wonder and “other-worldness” of a live performance.

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The Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter in the traditional male concert attire of white tie and tails

When I put on one of my concert outfits (I do not perform that frequently so I have only a couple of concert dresses, but these are worn only for concerts), I know I am stepping into a special role and with that comes a special mindset unique to the performer.

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Yuja Wang (photo: The Telegraph)

The British pianist Stephen Hough in a radio broadcast about the practice of practising points out that we “can’t wear both costumes at once” and emphasises the need to clearly differentiate between the work we do in the practise room and what we do on stage. In practise, we must be perfectionist – precise, focussed, thoughtful – while on stage we become “the bohemian artist” (Hough), living in the moment and creating music with spontaneity and imagination. To get to that point we have to put in many hours, days and months of meticulous work: it is the detailed perfectionist work that enables us to perform with freedom, and knowing we are well-prepared can result in a performance that is expressive, imaginative, emotional, and passionate. But if we take too many of the neuroses of the practise room into our performance, we may end up with a performance which can feel stilted, controlled and lacking in artistry, even if technically assured.

Of course, it is also important to practise being a performer. For those musicians who perform regularly, either solo or in ensemble, the process of preparation and act of performing becomes almost second-nature, and a busy diary ensures that programmes are stress-tested in a variety of venues before the most important concert (at, say, London’s Wigmore Hall, or Carnegie Hall in New York). For students, and for those of us who perform less frequently, we can practise engaging and utilising a performer’s mindset from the comfort of our music studios and practise rooms, or by giving house concerts or recitals in places which feel “safe” or non-threatening. We learn to play  “in the moment” and to skim over errors or slips (while making a mental note to fix these things at the next practise session). Sadly, I find many of my students obsess about “getting it right”, a habit which I suspect is encouraged by their schools and/or parents, and while I encourage them to be perfectionist and careful in their practising, when preparing for performance (whether an exam, audition or concert), an overly pedantic approach, whereby the student constantly stops to correct errors, can lead to playing which lacks fluency and interrupts the flow of the music. Learning to let go is also an important aspect of the art and craft of practising and a habit which, ultimately, should make us confident, creative performers.

Further reading

Stephen Hough on the fear of performance

Mind games

The other week I gave a concert in a church in a small town in Cheshire. I felt well-prepared and confident, my anxiety was under control and I was looking forward to performing the programme to a friendly audience. The opening sentence of the Sonata passed off without incident: I felt it had the requisite majesty to contrast with the falling arpeggios which followed. I was just silently congratulating myself on having played the arpeggios with just the right amount of wit and playfulness when the left hand flopped onto the keyboard and produced a chord sequence of utter rubbish. And at that point, a voice piped up in my head warning me of the perils of pianistic hubris, that “pride comes before a fall”, and that I should probably focus fully on the task in hand.

The mind can play strange games with us when we are performing and also when practising. At that moment when we should be concentrating hardest, the head has a tendency to wander off on other pathways and cul-de-sacs of thought. Most of us are well aware of the “inner critic”, that poisonous, heckling little voice within that reminds us of our fallibility and our weaknesses, that we haven’t prepared this or that section properly, that we are going to make a mistake, or repeats negative comments from teachers. This voice can seriously get in the way of our concentration and, if allowed, can sabotage a successful performance with its judgemental tone which can rob us of confidence and self-esteem.

A number of adult piano students have talked to me about their difficulties with concentration when practising and particularly when performing to others such as teachers, other pianists or in exams.

Concentration can be learnt, and trained, and I have successfully used some simple strategies to improve my concentration when practising and performing:

  • Do not practise for long periods of time. The idea that one should do hours and hours of practising is a fallacy. Successful practising is about quality rather than quantity: set aside small segments of time (up to 45 minutes in one session) and achievable targets for practising. After 45 minutes take a break, make a cup of tea, do some arm- and shoulder-loosening exercises, take a walk round the garden.
  • Banish your phone and tablet, either to a drawer away from your piano or better still turn it off and put it in another room. The urge to check in with your social media networks, “just to see what’s happening”, can be quite potent. These quick check-ins distract the mind away from the task in hand (practising) and can seriously affect concentration.
  • Practise with extraneous background noise – the radio playing in another room, for example (this is my normal practising state as my husband works from home and listens to Radio 4 all day), someone mowing the lawn outside or vaccuming in the house (the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould would practise while his mother vacuumed). Rather than attempt to completely shut out the noise and grow frustrated because it is distracting, accept that the noise is present and then switch your attention back to the music. I find practising when I cannot always hear every single sound I make encourages me to really focus on other aspects, such as touch, flexibility and fluency in passage work.
  • Get someone to come in and try to distract you. In the preparation for some recent concerts, I asked my husband to randomly stroll through the piano room, go in the garden, crash around a bit, come back in etc. On one occasion he did his Pilates routine right next to the piano. I’m glad to say I was able to carry on playing while accepting that he was there.
  • Accept that the Inner Critic exists – when we do this we take away his/hers/its power and regain control ourselves. Then show him/her/it the door – literally by imagining you are ushering the nasty creature through a doorway and out of your brain.
  • Use techniques drawn from Neuro-Linguistic Programming and mindfulness
  • Often something as simple as taking a deep breath in and exhaling slowly can pull your focus  back to the task in hand.
  • Aim for excellence in your music (which is achievable) rather than perfection (which is impossible)
  • Take confidence from knowing you are well-prepared and use positive affirmation such as “I can do it” and “I know my pieces”.
  • Don’t worry about what other people are doing – just because your friend from piano club practises Hanon exercises every day, it doesn’t mean you should be too. Find a practise regime that works for you.
  • Take confidence from positive comments and endorsements from trusted friends, colleagues, teachers and mentors. Carry these positive comments with you into the performance situation.
  • Take time after the performance to reflect on what happened and why, and then find positive ways to avoid such things happening again. Most errors can be identified and put right very easily.

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

~William Shakespeare

 

Further reading:

The Inner Game of Music – Barry Green

The Musician’s Way – Gerald Klickstein

Music From the Inside Out – Charlotte Tomlinson

The piano and Neuro-Linguistic Programming

Mindfulness and piano playing

 

Note-bashing

I never thought I’d write an article on “note bashing”. In general it’s not something I advocate – mindless repetitive practise, thoughtlessly hammering away at the same phrase or group of notes. However, during my work on one of Schubert’s late piano sonatas I discovered that note bashing really does have a purpose in practising.

Every piece we learn will have its tricky or hard-to-master sections – that finger-twisting little passage, that scalic run which never feels comfortable under the hand, those hand-filling chords which are just a little bit too hard to reach accurately. For me it was arpeggios, a weakness in my technique which was making it more difficult for me to play the (many) arpeggios in the Schubert sonata precisely and fluently. My teacher worked with me on both good fingering schemes and some useful wrist rotation technique but what I knew I needed to do was to be able to play the passages automatically without the need to think about what was going on in the fingers and hands.

Musicians endlessly talk about training the “muscle memory”. Of course our muscles don’t really have memory, and the correct term for this is in fact “procedural memory”. This is part of our long-term memory that is responsible for knowing how to do things (also known as “motor skills”). Procedural memory retains information on how to perform certain procedures, such as walking, talking and riding a bike – and playing the piano. Procedural memory is created through “procedural learning” – repeating a complex activity over and over again until all of the relevant neural systems work together to automatically produce the activity. This is why as musicians we should be engaging in a hefty amount of repetitive practise, for it is these repetitions which fix the music in head and hands. Forget “practise makes perfect” – the real reasons why we do repetitive practise is because practise makes PERMANENT.

I was away from my own piano at the time when the arpeggios in the Schubert needed the most work, but as luck would have it, I had access to a digital piano which belonged to my husband’s niece. No matter that the keys were covered in a rather unpleasant sticky residue due to repeated use by small children: for three days I worked solely on arpeggios, focusing only on learning the correct sequence of notes and fingering. I did not consider the tone or quality of sound, or any of the more esoteric/artistic aspects of playing these sections; I simply concentrated on repeating the passages over and over and over again…… Back home to my piano and the exercise continued for a further week, by which time my husband, who also works from home, was beginning to develop a deep aversion to those particular sections of the Schubert sonata. “When are you going to practise something else?” he asked me. “When I’ve learnt this bit” I replied.

The “note-bashing” exercise served its purpose: at the end of 10 days the sections were well-learnt and my attitude to them virtually intuitive. I no longer approached them with a feeling of unease, concerned that I was going to fumble the arpeggios, and I have subsequently used this approach to memorise and/or make secure other sections of the Sonata – and indeed other pieces of music. With such security comes confidence and the ability to play without physical tension or anxiety.

Of course my practising wasn’t really note-bashing because all the time I was playing I was taking notice of what I was doing to ensure that notes and fingering were correct, that I was employing the right amount of rotation to move smoothly up and down the arpeggios, that the tempo and pulse were accurate and so forth.

There are stories of pianists doing repetitive exercises or 100 repetitions of the same passage while reading a newspaper or reading aloud from a book. In these cases, one is training the procedural memory while testing one’s ability to divide one’s attention between several different tasks. I do this exercise with students, getting them to repeat a section and once the repetitions begin to feel comfortable and well-known, I might ask them what they are having for dinner or what they are doing at the weekend. Given the amount of multi-tasking that is required in piano playing, this can be a very useful exercise.

If you are simply note-bashing for the sake of it, it is perhaps time to stand back a little from your playing, consider the sound you are making and return to your practising with thought and care.

 

(photo by James Eppy)

 

Through Discipline Comes Freedom

The world of classical music is riven with conventions from the way we dress to the manner in which music is presented in public and when it is acceptable to applaud. Many of these customs developed in the second half of the nineteenth century when concertising became far more formalised. These conventions can seem restrictive and limiting, to both players and audience, but they exist and therefore we are largely obliged to work within them. The profession has its mavericks and colourful characters who kick against The System, but in general most of us abide by the “rules” to a greater or lesser extent – and there are good reasons for this. Our behaviour, from the way we market ourselves and interact with others in the profession to what we wear at concerts and how we deport ourselves on stage, in addition to how we play, is constantly under scrutiny by peers, audience members, promoters, agents, teachers, mentors and critics.

We are all being judged, whether we like it or not, when we work with others and when we perform. That is not to say that everyone should knuckle down and follow the directives of the conductor, nor engage in discussion with conductor and colleagues – and good colleagues and conductors will be open-minded and keen to discuss points which arise in rehearsal. But an ensemble or orchestra is a “team” and respecting the team dynamic and working with it rather than against it will lead to a happier working environment, good performances, and future work. In reality, while some may want to strike out and do something original and creative, such behaviour does not pay the bills, and freelance musicians have to be pragmatic as well as disciplined.

One may argue that soloists have greater freedom to buck the system and to play with spontaneity and originality, and while this is true up to a point, we are still bound by conventions. There are, for example, established ways of playing Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin et al, conventions which develop and change over time, reflecting historical precedents, new scholarship, differing attitudes to interpretation and teaching, and the influence of recordings. If anything, the way the big warhorses of the solo repertoire are presented in concert today is more standardised than ever as soloists, particularly younger ones, believe that they must play these works in a certain way to satisfy audiences, critics and promoters, not to mention the influence of high-quality recordings. With so much music being performed and so many concerts of largely the same repertoire, it can be hard to find an individual voice, and if you are playing the same programme across three continents for six months, it can begin to feel like a chore rather than a joy.

So how do we bring spontaneity, originality and individuality to our performances? Paradoxically, it is the very discipline of practising which brings freedom in performance. When we perform, we want our performance to be engaging and memorable (ideally, for the right reasons) for our listeners. The work we do in private, in the practise room, is crucial in enabling us to pull off a performance which is accurate, faithful to the score, imaginative, colourful, expressive and personal. No one, not even the greatest pianist in the world, gets by on talent alone. That talent has to be nurtured, honed and finessed, and the only way to do this is through regular and consistent work on one’s craft. Discipline turns ability into achievement.

Knowing we are well-prepared means we can step back from the music in performance, not over-think it, play “in the moment”, and produce a performance which is special, memorable and unique. In effect, one needs two personalities in order to be a convincing  performer: a perfectionist in the practise room and a “bohemian” (Stephen Hough) on stage. This sprezzatura, the result of many hours of careful, deep practising, allows the bohemian in us to be set free on stage. Audiences can sense this confidence too – just as they can tell when the performer is under-prepared, or is trying out something new which has not been road-tested in advance.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I attend many concerts and hear a wide variety of performers and repertoire, from well-established international artists such as Stephen Hough, Murray Perahia and Steven Osborne to lesser-known and young musicians. I can usually tell if a performer is not wholly convinced about his or her approach to particular repertoire, has not spent enough time with it or has been told to play in a certain way by a teacher or promoter. The playing lacks conviction and depth and sounds contrived or artificial. Occasionally someone comes along and does something new or unexpected with a Beethoven Sonata or Chopin’s Etudes, and if it is done with conviction, one has the sense of a performer who is well-prepared and who has spent many hours living with and thinking about the music. Such “wow!” moments are quite rare, but when they happen they are truly magical. Equally, a musician who has spent many years living with and performing the same repertoire can bring new and wonderful things to the music every time he or she performs it. A long association with certain repertoire also enables one to step back from it and set it – and one’s imagination – free.

 

The title of this post is a quote from Aristotle

Further reading

You Can’t Win a Performance….

Cavaliers and Roundheads

 

 

 

 

Live life: it’s good for you and your music

I recently visited Vienna, a city which I fell in love with on my first visit in 2015. At the risk of sounding incredibly bossy, if you are a musician you have to visit Vienna. It is the city of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg and more. It boasts two fine concert halls with world-class resident orchestras, two opera houses, and beautiful churches where music is performed regularly. The place positively oozes culture from every pore: its galleries and museums contain some of the finest collections of art I have ever seen, and its imperial buildings (from the time of the Hapsburgs) are beautifully maintained. You can visit the homes of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schoenberg….. and pay your personal homage to the great composers at the main cemetery.

Schubert’s glasses

During my visit I overdosed on Secessionist art, walked the elegant boulevards in glorious and unexpectedly warm early spring sunshine, ate wurst from a stand behind the opera house, drank beer in a bierkeller, visited the (alleged) birthplace of Schubert (a tiny two-room museum with a touching display of mementos including his little round glasses), rode round the Ringstrasse on a retro tram, drank more beer, ate more wurst, attended a Sunday morning concert at the Konzerthaus, saw Dürer’s exquisite drawing of the hare, drank coffee with a colleague from HelloStage at a proper Viennese coffee house, toured Mozart’s house in the old city, and vowed I would return in the winter.

When I returned to London, replete with Weissbier, Mozartkugeln and kasekrainer, I felt that for the five days of my stay in Vienna I had steeped myself in its culture. When I practised music by Schubert I recalled the trip to his birthplace, a short tram ride from Schottenring to an area which was probably countryside in his day. My practising was coloured by recollections of the sounds and sights of Vienna – the noise of people (most obviously around St Stephen’s cathedral), the steady clop of horses’ hooves (you can take a horse-drawn carriage tour of the old city), the rattle and chime of the trams, the timbre and rhythm of conversations in cafes and bars. I’m a romantic at heart and it meant a lot to me to be able to walk the streets that Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert may have walked before me. When I returned to my piano and my practising, I felt I had a better handle on the music of these great Austrian composers, my understanding of their cultural background and their music deepened by my visit to their city.

Cutting oneself off from normal life by spending hours and hours in the practise room is not healthy. Aside from the law of diminishing returns (after about 3 hours you stop taking in information and are simply “typing” the music), it is important to remember that the composers whose music we love and revere were normal people too – and we can connect better to them and their music if we go out and live life, just as they did. As as student of mine remarked recently on the prospect of attending a specialist music school, “I’m not sure I could hack it, with all that practising. I’d want a social life too!”. And she’s right, because having a social life, meeting friends, going out together, eating and drinking, going to the theatre, the cinema, art exhibitions, reading trashy novels, falling in love, falling out of love, all feeds into our cultural and creative landscape to nourish and inform our music-making.

By the same token, placing the composers on high pedestals and turning them into demi-gods sets up expectations which we can never hope to fulfil, because we will never feel we can “do justice” to their music. Instead, treat them as ordinary people – they too had love affairs, went out drinking with mates, and enjoyed a good meal with friends and colleagues – but respect what they give us in their scores and show fidelity to the wonderful literature they have left us.

Peaks and Plateaus

 

Sometimes – often! – learning a new piece of music can feel like ascending a steep mountain.

The first few weeks, when the piece is still very new, can be an uphill slog as you cope with note-reading and learning, understanding the structure and harmony, and trying to get a handle on the character and expressive elements of the piece. Then one day you go to practise it and suddenly it seems a whole lot easier: you’ve scaled that initial steep ascent and have arrived on a pleasant plateau where playing becomes enjoyable again. At this point your progress may suddenly become quite rapid as you feel more at ease with the music.

But then – and I’m sure you know the feeling – you reach a certain point where you feel stuck on a ledge, the summit in sight, but seemingly unattainable. You need a push, a burst of energy to get you up there.

When I am reach this point in my learning, it is usually a sign that I need to see my teacher to assess my progress and to give me a shot of inspiration and encouragement to push me to the next level.

Sometimes reaching a seemingly inescapable plateau indicates that we are over-thinking our practising, or fretting over small or imaginary issues which we have turned into bigger problems. In this instance, try shifting the focus of your practising: if you have been practising the same piece in the same way for the past few weeks, try a different approach.

Maybe it’s a sign that it’s the time to put the music away for a few weeks and look at something else. “Oh but I might forget everything I’ve learnt!” I hear you cry. Not true – if you’ve done the careful learning in the first place, revisiting the music after a break should be fairly straightforward and it will take a matter of days to reacquaint yourself with the score. Taking a break also revives our interest in our music and gives us pause for reflection. Returning to the music after a break often throws up interesting new insights and ideas about the music, enabling us to work with renewed energy and excitement.

Conversations with friends, colleagues, teachers can often shine a light on a seemingly intractable issues with a piece. Asking a trusted friend or colleague to hear you play and give feedback can be helpful too. Meanwhile listening to recordings or going to concerts can lead to moments of revelation and inspiration.

Playing the piano is hard – as my teacher regularly says, “If it was easy, everyone would do it!” – and some pieces remain difficult, despite the many hours of work and thought we put into them. Thus, it is important to celebrate the Eureka! moments, while also allowing ourselves time to evaluate and reflect on what we are doing.

If you’ve reached a plateau in your learning, don’t despair. See your teacher, if you have one, or learn something new, something easier, or return to a piece you know you play well (this can be a tremendous confidence booster). Go to a concert with friends and enjoy talking about the music afterwards, join a piano group where you can meet other pianists and discover that we all share the same afflictions, hopes and fears. We don’t have to be chained to the piano every day to gain useful support for our practising and musical thinking.

Above all – don’t give up! And enjoy your music.

Further reading

The Bulletproof Musician

Practising the Piano

On icebergs and creativity

Musicians will be familiar with this image of an iceberg. The tip, the visible part, represents our public persona and the music we perform and share with others, while the mass which is hidden below the surface of the water represents the many hours of practise, study and preparation which enable us to perform. Anyone who believes that music flows effortlessly from the musician’s body or who thinks it is “easy” should consider this illustration below and its metaphor.

But what if we allowed others a glimpse into our practise rooms, to watch us practising, working, refining and finessing our music, to sit in on rehearsals with colleagues, and to observe the long and detailed process that goes into making a concert which may only last for 90 minutes?

In a college of art and design in the US, students are being encouraged to do just that – to offer up their work-in-progress, their rough drafts and preliminary designs, even their mistakes, for scrutiny by others in a new exhibition called ‘Permission to Fail’. We are used in exhibitions, books and concerts to seeing and hearing the finished article and I think this often makes viewers and listeners rather complacent, or even ignorant, about the long and involved creative processes which go into producing a work of art or preparing a piece of music for performance. It is all the working out, the sketching, redrawing, practising and pondering which enables us to unleash our creativity, and by learning from our mistakes and our “workings out”, we reach a finished product wrought from a special mixture of curiosity, exploration, trial and error, hard graft, and imagination.

Music practise is usually undertaken alone and in private, except when colleagues come together to rehearse ahead of a concert. Do we really want others to see us sweating over a knotty section, swearing at that passage which always trips us up, hear 50 repetitions of the same section, practising to make the music permanent and perfect? There is however a great curiosity about how musicians, and other creative people, work: I find this often manifests itself in (sometimes daft) questions about “finding the time” and much exclaiming about the amount of time one spends doing it. Then there is the ongoing “not a proper job” aspect of being a musician (or writer or artist) whereby because one loves what one is doing it can’t possibly be serious or commercial, and that practising, or drafting a synopsis or sketching out a painting, is somehow self-indulgent and without value. The pianist Valentina Lisitsa filmed her practise sessions and it was the huge popularity of these video clips that enabled her to relaunch her career. In a way, these films proved that she was a fallible human being, and offered a glimpse into her world as a working musician, which made it more comprehensible to those outside the profession.

Many art exhibitions these days will include the artist’s ephemera, including notebooks, sketchbooks and scrapbooks. Of course for most artists, these books were private, not for public consumption and were the artist’s way of recording ideas to be worked up later in the studio: they were never intended to be shown to the public, yet they offer fascinating insights into the working practices, processes and mindset of a creative person. They also reinforce the fact that creativity is not just about the finished product, it is also about the journey to get there. I think it’s important that we as practitioners of a creative activity appreciate the the joys and frustrations, the mistakes and the eureka moments which we must go through, and to regard all of these as important staging points on the journey. The “10,000 hours rule” has largely been debunked, with an emphasis now placed more firmly on quality rather than quantity of practise. That said, one does need to put in the hours and practising should be habitual, concentrated and thoughtful.

I’ve never regarded my practising as some mystic art, to be kept secret and hidden. I’d much rather people better understand the process involved in learning and finessing music instead of saying daft things to me like “it’s amazing how it just comes out of your fingers” and “How do you do it?”. This is why I share my practise habits with my students, so that they understand that while we might undertake the practising alone, we are in fact engaged in a shared activity – creating music.

Further reading:

How Creativity is Helped by Failure

Accountability in Practice – article by pianist and teacher Graham Fitch

Loving your mistakes

A guest post by Nora Krohn

One night after a concert I was having a drink with a colleague who told me a bizarre story about a graduate school audition he’d taken. While entering the subway en route to the audition, weighed down by his violin case and a large suitcase, he walked through the service gate behind someone else rather than swiping his card at the turnstile. Since he had an unlimited monthly pass, he had essentially pre-paid his fare and assumed there was nothing unlawful about walking through the gate. So he was stunned when a police officer stopped him, arrested him for fare evasion, and took him to jail.

With his violin case sitting on the other side of the bars enclosing his cell, he called the audition committee to explain the situation, and then waited anxiously, not knowing when he would be released. A few hours later, the officer finally let him go with a summons to appear in court a few weeks later. He grabbed his violin, rushed to the hall, made it there 20 minutes before his audition, played beautifully, and was accepted.

When he got to the end of his story, I was astounded. “How could you possibly stay focused with so much stress and distraction? Weren’t you furious?” I asked. “ I would have been a mess.”

“I wasn’t nervous or angry, I was totally relaxed actually,” he replied with a smile. “You see, the situation was so over the top I’d already let go of the outcome. Whatever happened I knew it wouldn’t be my fault.”

My colleague could relax and allow his great talent and preparation to shine through in spite of these acutely stressful events because he knew whatever flaws that resulted from them were clearly not his responsibility. The absurdity of the whole thing disarmed him, and he let go.

For many of us it’s not so easy to hold the things that go wrong with lightness—to regard them as vicissitudes of fortune rather than as tactical errors, character flaws, or divine punishment. But as I pondered my friend’s story, I began to see that letting go of the impulse to assign blame for our past and future mistakes—whether to others or to ourselves—is crucial for our growth. Instead of defining ourselves by our missteps, we can learn to see them as vital steps toward greater wisdom.

Here is an example from my own experience.

Trying to Be Right

This past spring I arranged a play-through of my recital program for a colleague in preparation for an upcoming concert. In starting to collaborate more with piano, I’d discovered that my knee-jerk habit, honed from years of orchestral playing, is to blend with and defer to what’s going on around me, instead of taking charge. After that realization I’d worked hard to learn what it meant to fully occupy, or request, if necessary, the musical space I needed to play with the command that performing as a soloist requires.

As the pianist and I played through our program for my colleague, I started to feel that the music was tumbling by too quickly and I that didn’t have space to execute things the way I wanted to. In my frustration, I tried to slow down, but the pianist and I weren’t aligning, and my frustration persisted through the end of the play-through.

After we finished, my colleague offered us warm praise, and then gently suggested that in my efforts to play everything as exquisitely as I’d set out to, I was blocking the flow of the music. I countered that I had been trying to slow things down to give myself space and strength. But she replied that while my intention was good, it couldn’t work in performance, when the music of the moment required me to join up with a gesture or tempo that was already in motion. Her words and voice were kind, but I felt chastened and confused. I’d been trying so hard to be “right.” Now I felt I was back to being “wrong.”

But as I thought about it, I saw the wisdom in my colleague’s advice. In rehearsal, it was important to lead by communicating how I thought the music should flow. But in the moment of performance, I had to let go of all of that effort and be flexible in working with the particular demands of the situation instead of fighting them, no matter how “right” or “wrong” they might feel.

“Just Relax”

A few weeks ago I encountered another situation where my desire to be “right on” was inhibiting I was playing with a pianist in a master class at Madeline Bruser’s Art of Practicing Institute summer program, and we were trying to get the ensemble of a particular cadence just right. From my previous experiences, of first trying to follow the pianist, and then trying too hard to lead, I instinctively knew that for us to be together, the main thing I needed was to be solidly connected to myself—that if I could stand clearly in my own feelings and convictions, I could naturally connect with the pianist and she would know exactly where to place her notes. But I also knew that making a big effort to connect to myself would tie me up in knots. It had to just happen, but I didn’t know how.

When I explained this predicament to Madeline she said, “It sounds like you just need to let your mind relax.” Luckily we had been meditating for two hours a day for the previous five days, so after closing my eyes for a few moments I was able to let go and merge my mind with the sounds I was hearing and with the feeling in my body. We played the passage again, and the cadence flowed effortlessly. Buoyed with confidence, we tried the same idea at another cadence and were again completely in sync. But at the last second the pianist was so relaxed she played a glaring wrong note, and everyone in the room burst out laughing. It was a really great mistake, because it loosened us up, and brought everyone closer together for a moment.

When “Wrong” is Just Right

While I was at the summer program, another friend told me he was in the process of writing a piece for a student orchestra. The previous day he’d gone on a walk and felt very inspired, and sat down to write several minutes of music. But he went on to confess that after listening to it the next day he found it mawkishly sentimental and embarrassing. He dubbed it “The Happy Bunny Farm,” and played it for me, and we laughed about it. But the day after we talked he felt fresh and full of good ideas, and ended up finding the thread that became the piece he did write. He just had to get the Happy Bunny Farm out of his system first. One songwriter I know recently told me he asks his students to do what he calls the “Bad Songs Challenge.” They write one complete “bad” song per day for a week, and in the process they accumulate valuable insights about what works, what doesn’t, and why. And presumably they share a few good laughs.

I’ve spent the last few years trying to get more comfortable with the idea of screwing up, but the truth is it’s still hard to deal with. I’d always heard the phrases “mistakes are inevitable,” or “you learn from your mistakes,” but it’s taken a long time to start acquainting myself with the palpable meaning of those words. In reflecting on the missteps I’ve made as a performer, I’ve begun to see them not as pitfalls I could have avoided by being better or smarter, but as necessary steps on the path toward true confidence, a confidence based not on protecting myself from being wrong, but on becoming big and bold enough to welcome any experience that comes my way, wrong or right.

The word “forgive” comes from the Old English forgiefan. Another translation of that word is “to give up.” In my case, forgiving myself for my mistakes means giving up feeling any certainty about whether I’m on the right track. I often feel lost, uncertain whether my next step will take me closer to or further from what I desire, which is to communicate truth and beauty. But the alternative is to remain paralyzed by the fear of being wrong, which makes it impossible to take even one step forward into the vast and beautiful wilderness that is ours to know. Getting lost is not only inevitable, but vitally important. When we can hold our missteps with gentleness and humor, we are exactly where we need to be. The path is in the walking of it.

A versatile performer and recording artist in the New York area, Nora Krohn has performed on three continents in a diverse range of venues and styles. She is the Assistant Principal violist of the Ridgefield Symphony, section violist in the Binghamton Philharmonic, and she performs frequently with a dozen other orchestral ensembles throughout the Northeast. Her numerous recording credits include collaborations with Phil Dizack and Declan O’Rourke, and commercial projects for Budweiser and Tiffany and Co. She can also be seen in several episodes of Amazon’s web series “Mozart in the Jungle.”  

Founding member of pioneering viola duo Folie à Deux, Nora is also an avid chamber musician. As a recitalist, she has performed on the St. John’s Noontime Concert Series in Williamstown, MA, on the Turtle Bay Music School Artist Series, the Project 142 Series at The Concert Space at Beethoven Pianos, and for the inaugural Art of Practicing Institute fundraising concert. In October 2011 she was featured as a soloist in Paul Hindemith’s Trauermusik with the Chelsea Symphony. 

Nora graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Brown University, where she earned a BA in Music and Spanish Literature and was the recipient of the Buxtehude and Muriel Hassenfeld Mann Premiums in Music. She received her MM in Viola Performance from SUNY Purchase College, where she studied with Ira Weller.

www.norakrohn.com