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.

Stephen Hough in concert

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

Other factors

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

Further reading

‘How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart’ from Consider the Lobster And Other Essays – David Foster Wallace. Little, Brown & Company, 2008

Grit and the Secret of Success

The routine of creativity

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

– Tchaikovsky

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.


Further reading

Musicians may be most creative ‘when not actually playing instrument’

Daily Routines – how writers, artists and other interesting people organize their days


“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.


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.

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.

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.

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

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