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
The boundaries of a daily routine give the mind the chance to wander freely and by rendering aspects of daily life automatic, 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.
“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.
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