Do you ever think you might be practising the piano in your sleep? Yesterday I went to practise Debussy’s prelude La cathédrale engloutie, which I’m preparing for a performance later in the year. The second section, when the waves start to roll and the sunken cathedral begins to emerge from the deep, it bells tolling and organ playing distantly, has previously been problematic for me, in part because of the position of the right hand chords and the necessity for the right arm to cross the body to the bass. I find this difficult because of a left shoulder impingement which is painful and limits my movement. In previous practise sessions this section has tended to sound chunky and lacking in fluidity, but yesterday the chords, with their flowing bass accompaniment, rose gracefully from the piano, growing in drama as the section approaches its climax and the full resonance of the cathedral’s organ is heard through those big, deliciously hand-filling chords. I was also able to play without pain, which is quite an achievement for me these days. I later tweeted that perhaps I had been “practising in my sleep” and that this had led to the improvement in the Debussy!
It’s not such a fanciful idea, “sleep practising”. We can do a huge amount of useful, productive practising away from the instrument, both detailed work studying the score, analysing the music and memory work, but also seeing the wider picture of the music, its narrative, character and context. Listening is also useful practising – not to imitate other people’s versions of our repertoire, but to get ideas and pique the imagination to create our own personal vision for the music.
I may not practise in my sleep per se, but as someone who tends not to sleep very well, I often replay the music I’m working on in my head in the middle of the night, hearing the sound in my “mind’s ear” and imagining the music as it would be heard by a listener. When I was working on Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata for my final Diploma I was, through this kind of practising away from the piano, able to create a vivid, perfect interior model of the sonata, and could replay huge parts of it in my head, such was my familiarity with it (though I never memorised the entire work).
Returning to Debussy’s drowned cathedral, I wonder if the improvement also had something to do with the fact that I’d been away in France for a long weekend break. On our return journey from Nantes to Cherbourg, I glimpsed le Mont St Michel emerging from a mist of rain and immediately thought of Debussy’s Cathédrale engloutie. Later, lying in my bunk on the overnight ferry crossing, I felt the boat pitch and roll and heard the strange deep bass groan and yawn of the sea (which Debussy imaginatively includes in his prelude). Perhaps the sounds and motion of the ocean infused my practising…
Who knows, but I do believe that imagination and visualisation play a huge part in shaping our music, far beyond mere technical assuredness (and technique should always serve the music). Cues such as the view of Mont St Michel spark the imagination, help us bring our music to life, and communicate stories and images to the audience with expression, vibrancy and musical colour.
The first of a series of short films made in collaboration with Casio UK and Pianist magazine. In this film, Frances Wilson AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist offers suggestions on how to make the most of limited practice time, and making practising productive and most of all enjoyable.
Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, writer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. She holds Licentiate and Associate Diplomas (both with Distinction) in Piano Performance, and for 12 years ran a successful piano teaching practice in SW London. She is now based in West Dorset where she teaches from her home in Portland. Further information
It’s an average practice day and I’m at the piano—just me and the score—and I’m staring into the unforgiving mirror that is making art. I say unforgiving because every musical wart, every lazy line, every single inadequacy is reflected right back to me in the way I play or don’t play each phrase. I once had a trained psychologist as a piano student. After three months of lessons, she told me playing the piano is harder than being in therapy.
Practicing is hard work. Performing is hard work. Creating art is hard work. I know of very few professions where you’re required to search your soul every single time you do your job. And then there are the outside critics—the former teachers who’s voices still sound in our heads, the critics, the Classical “high temple” or “museum” that fills performers with “should” and “have-to” and “only-one-right-way” judgments that further complicate the process of making music. It’s a wonder so many of us bother to go to work every day.
And yet, along with thousands of fellow musicians, I keep returning to the piano and to the music that challenges every part of my intellect, instinct, training, and skill. I do it because it’s oxygen for me. I do it because it’s something that I can never conquer because at this stage of my life, conquering the piano means conquering myself. I do it because the music has so much to say to me and I humbly believe that I may have something of my own to say through the music I’m privileged to play.
Don’t expect applause. It’s what I’ve learned from years of trying to please all of the people all of the time. I’ve never been able to please everyone and I never will. One of the gifts of being a “musician-of-a-certain-age” is that I no longer expect that I can please everyone. Of course, that’s what I think on my more enlightened days. The not-so-fun days are the ones where every negative review, every criticism, every botched performance comes back and settles on the piano bench next to me, howling my failures in my ear like a bunch of harpies. Those are the days I have to remind myself: don’t expect applause.
Not expecting applause is a gift you give yourself. For me, it’s given me the freedom to survive failure. Surviving failure gave me the freedom and strength to simply disregard the judgment of naysayers because I know failure won’t break me. Knowing this gave me permission to trust my musical instincts and my own voice.
Not expecting applause has made me a more confident performer because I’m not thinking “please like me, please like me” every time I step on stage. I play. I do my best to communicate the music. I play some parts well. I smudge some bits here or there. Maybe I have one of those magical nights when the audience is breathing every note of the piece with me. Maybe it’s the “gig from Hell” where anything and everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Either way, when I don’t expect applause, I’m less tossed around emotionally by the highs of a great performance or the lows of a bad.
Don’t expect applause. When I take my own advice, I’m free to disregard the ill-fitting interpretations of others and find my own custom-made sense of the music. I’m open to playing with the music—and maybe even messing it up a bit—as a way to get beyond the stiffness of the notes to the warm, living core of the composition. Most importantly, it allows me to move beyond soul-killing, rigid perfectionism and embrace the wild, vibrant, unpredictable dance of co-creating a work of art.
Rhonda (Ringering) Rizzo is the author of The Waco Variations. She has crafted a career as a performing and recording pianist and a writer. A specialist in music that borrows from both classical and jazz traditions, Rizzo has released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It. As both a soloist and a collaborative artist, her performances include several allclassical.org live international radio broadcasts, Water Music Festival, Central Oregon Symphony, Oregon Chamber Players, Aladdin Theatre, Coaster Theatre, Ernst Bloch Music Festival, Bloedel Reserve, Newport Performing Arts Center, Skamania Performing Arts Series. In addition to her work as half of the Rizzo/Wheeler Duo, with pianist Molly Wheeler (www.rizzowheelerduo.com), Rizzo records and writes about the music of living composers on her blog, www.nodeadguys.com.
Her numerous articles have appeared in national and international music magazines, including American Music Teacher, Clavier, Piano & Keyboard, and Flute Talk. Her novel, The Waco Variations, was released in the summer of 2018 and can be found on www.amazon.com.
(Image: Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864 – 1916) Interior with Woman at Piano)
The ability to self-critique, evaluate and reflect on one’s playing during practising and in lessons is a crucial skill for musicians, and is a component of the skillset of “deliberate practise” and self-regulation, which enables us to practise productively and deeply.
Around 95% of my teaching involves showing students, young people and adults, how to practise. Many students are “surface practisers”: that is, they play the assigned repertoire from start to finish, but do not take time to reflect on or evaluate their playing – the sounds they are making and hope to make, why a certain passage is causing difficulties etc. Students who practise like this often feel that having got to the end of the piece they have “done” their practising. As a consequence, lessons and subsequent practising sessions may feel frustrating because progress/improvement is slow.
I admit that I probably practised like this for quite a lot of the time when I was having lessons as a child and teenager, and it was only when I returned to the piano seriously as an adult, after a break of nearly 20 years, and started taking lessons with a master teacher, that I learnt and understood the benefits of deep, reflective practising. It quickly became apparent that this kind of practising was far more productive: the most noticeable benefit was that I was able to learn repertoire much more quickly and, more importantly, retain it once learnt. It also made me far less reliant on guidance from my teacher, enabling me to work independently for long stretches of time (4 to 6 weeks) between lessons, which in turn motivated me to keep going.
During lessons, my students are now very used to being asked simple questions to encourage self-reflection and self-critique: “What did you like about your playing?” “Which areas do you feel need more attention?” “How do you think you should practise that section?” When I first instituted this practice of self-critique within lessons, most students focused on the negative aspects of their playing, highlighting mistakes or telling me that they “played it better at home”, and were reluctant to indicate areas which they felt were good or successful. Now they are used to finding positives first, giving themselves a virtual “pat on the back” for playing well. This approach is empowering for the student because it builds confidence, which then makes analysing those aspects within the music which need more detailed attention a far more positive experience, rather than an exercise in flagging up errors, which can be dismotivating. When this activity becomes routine in lessons, so it should also be habitual when practising between lessons from simple statements like “I really liked that passage” or “I’m pleased with the expression I brought to that section” to more detailed analysis of how to make significant improvements in the music. By working in this way, students become less reliant on a teacher’s guidance and develop independence in learning processes and confidence in their own abilities.
Schumann’s quote at the beginning of this article is particularly pertinent: there is no point in “surface” or repetitive practising without concentration, but there is every point in practising attentively and mindfully, as if your teacher (“master”) were listening. When practising alone, be your own “master” and question everything you do. Why repeat that passage? What was wrong with it and what are you trying to improve? Going through a piece and working on the most problematic or tricky areas slowly and deliberately is an effective strategy, one which is used by professional and highly advanced musicians. Accomplished performers at every level also tend to have a clear auditory “vision” of the piece in their mind as they work on it and continually assess their progress against this vision. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of working like this is that one does not need to spend hours and hours at the piano: because it’s about quality rather than quantity of practise.
As one grows more adept at self-evaluation, reflection and self-critique, one is able to set clear, achievable and appropriate goals for each practise session (some people like to keep a record of these in a notebook, referring back to them and updating them as daily practising progresses) and build incrementally upon each small improvement (“marginal gain learning”).
Recording and filming practice and performance is another key tool in evaluating progress. Our music sounds different when heard away from the piano. Never listen to a recording as soon as you’ve made it: wait a few days and then listen. Be positively critical and assess what you like and dislike about your performance. And don’t just listen once: use repeated listenings to evaluate aspects such as rhythm, intonation, tone quality, expression, dynamic range. Video is helpful too, for checking posture (in particular stiff or raised shoulders), gestures and mannerisms, grimacing/smiling, and stage presence.
Most of us engage in music because we care passionately about it and love what we do. However, when evaluating our work, it is important to retain a degree of detachment, to stand back from the music and view it dispassionately, as if reviewing someone else’s performance. Thus we are able to separate ourselves, emotionally, from our music making and take errors less personally, which allows us to maintain a positive mindset and keep the habit of practising enjoyable and stimulating.
…the real pleasure of practice lies in engaging in a creative dialogue with the music, and thus getting closer to it.
– Steven Isserlis, cellist
My own teacher, Graham Fitch, advocates the use of a “feedback loop” which encourages self-evaluation and reflection in practising. More on the Feedback Loop
I’ve been watching some of the Winter Olympics coverage with interest, in particular the snowboarding and skiing. It’s easy to spot the winners – people like Chloe Kim and Redmond Gerard (both from the US team): they display effortless grace and flow in their gestures, and those who totally “own” the course seem to create a through-narrative of seamless movement from start to finish, which reminds me of watching someone like the British pianist Stephen Hough in concert. In short, they make it look easy.
As is often the way when I watch sport, I am struck by the similarities between sportspeople and musicians: that same effortless grace of the snowboarders and skiers is something we admire in highly-skilled musicians, and these are attributes, along with expression and communication, which make their performances thrilling and memorable.
Often when watching top sportspeople or musicians in action, we marvel at their “natural talent”. that ineffable, indescribable je ne sais quoi which places these people apart from the rest of us.
Top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievement we….revere – fastest, strongest – and because they do so in a totally unambiguous way…..
Plus they’re beautiful: Jordan hanging in midair like a Chagall bride, Sampras laying down a touch volley at an angle that defies Euclid. And they’re inspiring…. Great athletes are profundity in motion
– David Foster Wallace
Like the rest of us, the BBC commentators for the Winter Olympics are clearly fascinated and impressed by these extraordinary human beings, and there is much talk of “natural talent” and a sense of hero-worship and awe in the language used to describe them and their exploits. As a society, we are obsessed with the “myth” of talent and we have a long-held a fascination with people we perceive to be “naturally talented”. From child prodigies to highly gifted performers and sports superstars, we view them as wonders of nature, imbued with enviable, raw natural talent.
What is the secret of these people’s talent? What is it that makes them so special, so different from the rest of us?
Unfortunately, for those obsessed with the myth of talent, the reality is altogether less exciting: notice how the BBC commentators rarely discuss these athletes’ training regimes. Why? Because talking about training is boring. To discuss something as pedestrian as training and practising removes the mystique surrounding these extraordinary individuals, and we would never want our sporting or musical heroes and heroines to appear “ordinary”. Would you rather watch Stephen Hough practising 70 repetitions of the same passage of Liszt at home in his studio or appearing in concert at Carnegie Hall?
Most of us are familiar with the “10,000 hours rule”, and while this theory has largely been debunked by more recent research, it serves to remind us that “putting the hours in” is a key factor in becoming extraordinarily proficient in a specific skill or field of study, be it playing chess, sport or musical performance. But it is not just about quantity of training; quality plays a more crucial role, for focused, intelligent and deliberate training or practise is what breeds results.
But what sparks the will to train in the first place?
Interest and the “rage to master”
If you haven’t got the interest, you won’t stick to the training regime. Sounds obvious, yet those who achieve what we call “expert status”, snowboarders and concert pianists alike, have an almost obsessive will to focus intensely on a specific subject, and will voraciously consume new information and acquire skills. Psychologists call this the “rage to master” and many top athletes and musicians can cite a specific moment, often in childhood, when the rage to master took hold, driving them to focus intently and intensely on their chosen activity.
Practice and training
To achieve a very high level of technical and artistic ability and success, regular, conscientious, and deliberate practice/training is crucial. This is not simply playing through your chosen repertoire or doing a few runs on the piste: doodling at the piano or pottering around at the snowdome does not bring success. Deliberate practice involves a hefty degree of goal-setting (daily, weekly, monthly and yearly, plus regular reviewing and adjustment of those goals), self-evaluation, criticial feedback, reflection, analysis of minute details (such as body position, gesture, fingering schemes etc, often using video or audio recordings), in addition to support and feedback from mentors, teachers, peers, colleagues and others. We know that repetitive practice is important to train the “muscle memory” or procedural memory, which allows Redmond Garard or Stephen Hough to perfectly execute the slopestyle trick or complex passage of music, not just once but over and over again. These are not mindless repetitions, however, but repetition with reflection, evaluation and adjustment, so that each subsequent repetition improves on the previous one. In addition to all of the above, the ability to see the “bigger picture” of the slope or piece of music and the attendant ability to make decisions, large and small, about technique, gesture, expression etc
Deliberate practice/training leads to noticeable progress and improvement which motivates one to keep practising, with enhanced satisfaction, reward and fulfilment. This creates a virtuous circle of positive feelings towards training and practising, which further motivates one to keep at the task.
Grit and determination
Grit is the disposition to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance. And I want to emphasize the stamina quality of grit. Grit is sticking with things over the long term and then working very hard at it.
– Angela Duckworth
Some of us may start a training or practising regime with the very best of intentions, but soon fall by the wayside due to lack of focus, motivation, procrastination, and a whole host of other reasons (excuses!). Those at the top of their field have the determination to stick to the task, day in day out.
Mastery and the constant pursuit
Mastery is about embracing the role of the life-long student and dedicating oneself to the pursuit of excellence. Read more about mastery here
Nurture – the encouragement and support of family, teachers and mentors, coaches, colleagues and friends are important in fostering focus and determination in training.
When we consider all these factors, we truly appreciate how and why Olympic athletes and top-flight musicians are where they are professionally. We too can train and practise in the same way, using the same tools and focused mindset. We may not touch these exceptional individuals nor come close to their greatness, but we can still strive for excellence in what we do.
Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work
– Chuck Close
‘How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart’ from Consider the Lobster And Other Essays – David Foster Wallace. Little, Brown & Company, 2008
Where does inspiration come from, the spark to create, to make?
….even fairly mundane activities can feed in to the discovery of new insight, new knowledge and new means of expressing ideas in all sorts of ways
– Professor John Rink
It may surprise you to learn that creativity tends to spring from routine, from the mundane. “Light-bulb” moments are rare, and sitting around waiting for the fickle muse to strike is largely wasted time. The personal routines of creative people may be wildly eccentric or incredibly precise, but the common thread is the routine, and the dedication to commit to practising your craft or art on a regular basis.
Forget the idea that inspiration will come to you like a flash of lightning. It’s much more about hard graft……Routine is really important. However late you went to bed the night before, or however much you had to drink, get up at the same time each day and get on with it.
– Mark-Anthony Turnage, composer
A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood
People often ask me how I manage to get so much done – writing and updating this blog regularly, editing Meet the Artist interviews, practising the piano, teaching, attending and reviewing concerts, in addition to my commitments to my family. The answer is quite simple: my days and weeks roll by with what might appear to be rather dull regularity. I rise at the same time each day and follow a generally unchanging routine of piano practise (usually first thing in the morning when my brain is most alert), writing and teaching. The boundaries of my daily routine give my mind the chance to wander freely, to the extent that ideas for blog articles may come during the middle of my piano practise, and vice versa. By rendering aspects of daily life automatic and routine we “free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action” (William James, psychologist). The self-discipline of a daily routine brings comfort and a kind of personal meditation which allows creativity to flourish. Routine also lets us to plan our work schedule and any deadlines which need to be met, which means we can be more realistic in estimating how much time we have to complete a writing project or learn a piece of music ready for a concert, for example. If this all sounds far too regimented, it’s worth noting that a well-organised schedule means one actually has the time to “go with the flow”, to fit in unexpected, spontaneous or last-minute events and activities, and it can help avoid procrastination. (Consider for a moment why disorganised people might complain that they have “no time” to get things done……)
Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.
– Gustave Flaubert
Creativity is important for musicians. Paradoxically, it is the very discipline and routine of regular practising which can spawn new ideas and bring freedom and spontaneity in performance. Our regular encounters with our music, and its composers, set by the parameters of daily practising, open the mind to new ideas, experimentation, reflection and reworkings. But don’t begin each day with the assertion “today I will practise for X hours or minutes” and then worry about finding the time for it; resolve to practise and then just go and do it!
Sportspeople understand this too. Look at the hours of regular, routine training they undertake to hone their skills, to enable them to run faster or jump higher, to reach their goals. We may describe the top tennis pros or highly-acclaimed concert pianists as uniquely “talented”, but no one, not even the greatest pianist in the world or the winner of the US Open, 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 concentrated work on one’s craft.
Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.
– Pablo Picasso
For musicians, regular practising brings freedom, flexibility, and a sense of being and playing “in the moment”. This in turn brings creativity and originality to one’s playing and performance, enabling one to forge a personal and more deeply internalised interpretation and vision of the music, which does not rely on external validation from, for example, teachers, peers or critics. At this point, one can be said to have fully “taken ownership” of the music and in performance this can lead to even greater freedom, risk-taking, excitement and spontaneity – all aspects of performance which are palpable to audiences.
Don’t begrudge the time spent routinely practising. Not only are you training the procedural (“muscle”) memory, building security into your playing, and advancing your musical abilities, you are also allowing the mind to open, ready to explore and experiment, reflect and re-evaluate.
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