Tag Archives: practising

The Perfectionism Trap

DSC_2926

“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.

img_0502
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.

wang_2812135b
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