autonomy: the ability to make your own decisions without being controlled by anyone else – Cambridge Dictionary definition

Olympic gold medallist, the cyclist Anna Kiesenhofer is entirely self-coached. She manages everything herself, from her training regime to nutrition, tactics to equipment. Rejecting the norms of professional cycling, she doesn’t always do things the way the coaches say she should. “Don’t trust authority too much” she replies, when asked in interviews what advice she would give to aspiring cyclists. For me, she represents someone who has attained autonomy and proved that it can bring achievement and success.

Her fiercely self-reliant, “go it alone” approach appeals to me because five years ago, after failing to score a hat trick in my performance diplomas (I failed to achieve the final, Fellowship diploma), I decided to cease having regular piano lessons and to instead “self-coach” myself. 

Failing to secure that final diploma, after I had recovered from the initial disappointment, made me appreciate that I had in fact achieved something far more significant than additional credentials and letters after my name – and something that is imperative for the musician, whether professional or amateur: autonomy.

In the early and intermediate stages of our learning, and even later on, it may be necessary to have a coach encouraging us to play more accurately, with more expression, greater freedom, artistry and confidence, but ultimately it is important that we recognise the value of what we have to say and to measure this against the score, rather than seek external critique or endorsement or mark our progress against that of others.

As you grow older, converse more with scores than with virtuosi – Robert Schumann

Of course, it takes a degree of courage and a leap of faith to step away from a teacher, especially one with whom you have enjoyed a longstanding, trusted and productive relationship. We may become reliant (sometimes overly reliant) on a teacher’s support, advice and encouragement, to the point where it can become very difficult to part company. But good teachers know that there will come a time when a student needs to move on, and the best teachers aim to make themselves redundant by equipping their students with the necessary tools to be confident, independent learners, able to make their own decisions about their learning and progress, interpretation and artistry. (Bad teachers, on the other hand, are possessive of their students, can be autocratic and dogmatic in their approach (“it’s my way or the high way“) and are less concerned with helping their students succeed than with bolstering their own egos.)

I am fortunate in having received many hours of expert tuition, coaching and mentoring from a number of leading pianist-teachers, who helped me lay the foundations of efficient, intelligent practice habits, secure technique, musicianship and artistry. Their support was invaluable, and without it, I doubt I would have had the confidence to pursue my own path to autonomy.

From observing other teachers and students, in masterclasses and on courses, conversations with pianist-teachers, concert pianists and other musicians, my own reading and research, and indeed a growing scepticism about mainstream methods and didacticism in music teaching, led me to form my own ideas about how I wanted to approach my music making and my ongoing musical development.

I’m fascinated with what happens to the creative output when you isolate yourself from the approval and disapproval of the people around you. – Glenn Gould

There is no doubt that the necessary confidence to pursue this path was imbued in me, in part, by the support of highly-skilled master teachers and mentors, and my achieving Distinctions in two performance diplomas, taken in my late 40s, having returned to the piano seriously after an absence of nearly 25 years. For me, the diplomas were less about external credentialisation, and more about improving my pianistic techniques, along with personal development and self-fulfillment – the best reasons, as I see it, for pursuing qualifications such as these. 

Autonomy can be hard won – it took me eight years and two diplomas to step back from regular piano lessons and attending piano courses, quite a few conversations with myself and self-reflection – but one can gradually work towards greater independence, self-determination and self-reliance, for example, by reducing the frequency one’s piano lessons and becoming less dependent on the guidance and feedback from a teacher, and instead relying on one’s own musical knowledge.

The ability to make one’s own decisions about one’s music making and progress – important aspects of autonomy – comes from growing confidence, including the confidence to accept or reject advice, retaining what one will find most helpful and discarding the rest. Be wary of a teacher or mentor who claims to have all the answers and exercise a degree of healthy scepticism when taking advice from others, even the most highly respected teachers. Be open to suggestions, but also questioning and curious.

Alongside this, the autonomous musician will create their own validation methods and accountable tools – technical, interpretative, psychological and artistic – and use such methods and tools in every day practicing and performance. These may include:

  • Trial and error, exploration and experimentation, reflection and adjustment
  • Really close attention to all the details of the score
  • A willingness to learn from mistakes and to see failure as part of the learning process
  • Acknowledgement and acceptance of one’s strengths and weaknesses and an ability to play to those strengths
  • Remaining curious and open-minded at all times, alert to new possibilities or alternative ways of doing things (remember, there is no “right” way).
  • Feeding back to oneself through self-monitoring, recordings/videos, reflection, adjustment – and rinse and repeat
  • Setting realistic, achievable goals which encourage motivation and ongoing development
  • Regular study away from the instrument – listening (including going to concerts), reading
  • Try out performances in less stressful settings (at home to friends, for example), and self-critiquing and reflecting on one’s performance
  • Trusting one’s own musical knowledge and judgement rather than following received ideas about what the music should sound like/how it should be played
  • Guarding all the time against routine (which leads to boredom and counter-productivity) and a lack of mindfulness
  • An acknowledgement that there are no short-cuts or miracles, nor that there is a “right way” to play the music, and that the authority of one’s own interpretative decisions should be borne out in convincing performances
  • Seeking advice/critique from trusted colleagues, mentors and friends with whom one can have an honest and mutually respectful exchange of ideas. Such discussions may be regular or occasional, but they will have value, offering stimulating food for thought, and often allowing one to see the bigger picture of the music, rather than always focusing on the minutiae, as one surely does – and must – in daily practice sessions.

These points may appear rather exhaustive, but they are habits and skills which can be gradually incorporated into one’s regular practice regime, and developed and finessed to the point where they become intuitive. And then one continues to build on them, making small but significant positive gains which go to create a greater whole.

In achieving autonomy, I have felt liberated, enjoying greater physical and psychological freedom in my playing, less bodily tension and much more pleasure and personal fulfilment in the music which I choose to play. 

The point is not to take the world’s opinion as a guiding star but to go one’s way in life and working unerringly, neither depressed by failure nor seduced by applause – Gustav Mahler


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The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) has received a barrage of criticism in response to a recent ill-judged tweet in which it stated that “Musical achievement is about how well you can do, how good you can get. That sense of attainment is tested by assessment which gives us intrinsic motivation to make us want to get better. That’s the virtuous circle of motivation.” (via Twitter, 24 September 2021)

The first and most glaring problem with this, amidst a host of other issues, is that the word “intrinsic” is used incorrectly here. “Intrinsic motivation” comes from within. Exams, testing and assessment of the kind ABRSM promotes are “extrinsic” or external motivators.

With regard to learning music, in addition to taking a music exam, extrinsic motivators include participating in a festival or competition, receiving a favourable written report, receiving praise from others for a performance (teachers, friends, parents), receiving a certificate, trophy or reward.

We all have intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in our lives – we are all a mixture of both. If you play the piano for no other reason than because it gives you pleasure and a sense of personal fulfilment, that is an intrinsic motivation. If your parents and/or teacher are pressuring you to play the piano and pass grade exams, or you have to make a living from your playing, that’s extrinsic motivation.

The trouble with extrinsic motivation is the more we are driven by extrinsic values, the more we starve our intrinsic motivation, which can lead to lack of motivation, feelings of failure, anxiety and even depression. Unfortunately, outward displays of achievements or material gain are all too common in our Insta-driven world – signals which say “look at me, look at my achievements, envy me” (just think for a moment about how Instagram really makes you feel…).

The graded music exam system is primarily built upon extrinsic motivation. Marks and certificates (“rewards”) are awarded to successful candidates, and this reward system makes the prospect of progressing to the next grade and the next smart certificate very appealing to students, and their parents and teachers. But it’s actually a superficial form of learning, based on “if/then” rewards (“if you do this, then you’ll get that“), which simply reinforces extrinsic motivation and is only effective in the short-term. We’ve all had students who rarely or never practice and then all of a sudden do the work for an exam, only to revert to not practicing once the exam is over. And putting students on an “exam treadmill” is unlikely to encourage a real love of music. Thus, exam success is not the “virtuous circle of motivation” as the ABRSM tweet suggests, but rather a vicious circle of superficial values founded on a desire for external endorsement.

Exams are a great short term motivator, but they generally don’t encourage students in finding sustained motivation, success and joy. Sadly, for some – students, teachers, parents – certification of musical achievement is regarded as the ultimate goal of instrumental learning and confirmation of musical competence, an attitude which I find profoundly unmusical.

Exams are also a form of “credentialisation” (that Grade 5 with Merit, a Grade 8 with Distinction), the popularly-held belief that credentials will open the door to further success, advancement, recognition and enhanced status. In their tweet, the ABRSM are, in my opinion, guilty of credentialising music – it’s all about being judged (by others), gaining status, “how well you can do, how good you can get”. Unfortunately, it’s an attitude that pervades musical childhood and adolescence, and beyond, reinforced by grade exams, diplomas, end of year assessments, festivals and competitions, which risks turning music performance into some kind of competitive points-based activity, and which amplifies the fear of doing something wrong and being marked down for it – again, profoundly unmusical. Credentialisation also encourages feelings of superiority and inferiority or envy (think again how Instagram really makes you feel…..). In practice, it doesn’t really encourage students to become motivated, self-determined, and, above all, happy, self-fulfilled learners.

I accept that graded music exams and assessments can be useful in benchmarking progress, or to show that the student has reached a certain level of competency, and the preparation for an exam (and the prospect of a good mark) can foster commitment, motivation to practice, and focus. When I taught privately in south-west London many of my students (and their parents) were keen to take exams (this may have had something to do with the affluent, aspirational demographic where I lived). Grade exams also help non-musical parents understand where their children are in their progress – but they can also impact directly on the attitudes and behaviour of students, teachers and parents for the reasons outlined above. The implication in the ABRSM’s tweet is that music exams demonstrate competence as a musician; most musicians, music teachers or those who play an instrument for personal fulfilment and pleasure would disagree with that assertion.

Instead, we should be encouraging intrinsic motivation – motivations and values without external rewards, which come from within, and which encourage self-determination, task persistence, self-evaluation, autonomy, purpose/intent. These values are associated with the kind of in-depth learning which emphasises achievable goals and mastery, and they can set students on a path to both long-term success and personal fulfilment. Learning music is a life-long endeavour and therefore it’s important to consider how the learning environment and the way in which students are taught and supported can help promote long-term intrinsic motivation.

Thus, instead of reminding students that they must practice in order to pass the next grade exam, we should help them understand the reasons for doing what they’re doing. That it’s not about the next grade and certificate, but rather cultivating a deeper understanding, enjoyment and appreciation of the music. When my students told me they wished they “played better” on the day on the day of the exam, or achieved a higher mark in their piano exams, I would remind them that the exam is a one-off, a fleeting moment in time, which may be disrupted by any number of personal or external forces which can tip the balance one way or another. Far better to reflect on and appreciate the huge amount of learning and accumulated knowledge which come from regular thoughtful practising and knowing how to apply that knowledge to learning new repertoire and improving one’s technique, musicality and artistry. All that good, important work can never be taken away nor undermined by any examiner, adjudicator or critic. Knowing this can give students better insight, control and investment in their learning, rather than tempting them with transitory “if/when” rewards, and fosters a better type of motivation than simply practicing for the next exam, festival or competition. At the most basic level, this is about encouraging students to enjoy playing the piano, to find greater personal satisfaction and creativity through the joy of music and a sense of accomplishment from having played a piece or even a section of a piece well, regardless of the level at which the student plays. By fully engaging students in the learning process, giving them the opportunity to play the kind of music they want to play, and encouraging their confidence and self-reliance, we can help them become independent, self-motivated learners – skills which they will carry forward not just in their musical development but also as important life skills.

Further reading

A Passionate Pursuit: the pianist’s mastery


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Those of us who teach and play ourselves understand that music requires commitment in the form of consistent, focused practising. This does not mean a snatched half-hour here or there or a blitz the night before the weekly piano lesson, but regular engagement with the instrument and its literature (at least 5 days out of 7 for noticeable progress to be achieved).

As pianists, much of our “work” (practising) is done alone, for some in almost monk-like seclusion. This separateness enables us to focus fully on the task in hand, without distraction. Most of us who chose the piano as our instrument actively enjoy the solitariness (I know I do), but equally this time spent alone can trigger self-doubt and negative criticism from within. Looking at what others are doing, what repertoire they are learning, how they are progressing, is toxic too: comparing oneself to others sets up further negative thoughts and can lead to lack of confidence and motivation.

When I returned to the piano after a 20-year absence, I wanted to play EVERYTHING. Of course this was a ridiculous pipe dream, but my appetite for repertoire focused my attention and motivated me to practise diligently and enjoyably virtually every day. But when I co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group and started meeting other pianists, I encountered people whom I perceived as “better” than me – because they were playing repertoire which I believed I could not play. This depressed me and the mantra “I can’t play that” began to haunt – and limit -my practising. I grew increasingly envious of the people who knocked off Ravel’s Jeux d’eau or Grainger’s Molly on the Shore with apparent ease, not to mention countless other pieces which I aspired to play…..

But hindsight and experience have taught me the power of “yet” – that simple three-letter word which can turn a negative phrase into something more positive and affirming:

“I can’t play that – yet

“Yet” turns the task into a challenge and is the spur to set to and practise, to strive, to master.

“Yet” makes that Beethoven Sonata or Rachmaninov Étude-Tableau achievable, with practise.

“Yet” turns the seemingly impossible into the possible

“Yet” is a declaration of intent

Those of us who teach and play ourselves understand that music requires commitment in the form of consistent, focused practising. This does not mean a snatched half-hour here or there or a blitz the night before the weekly piano lesson, but regular engagement with the instrument and its literature (at least 5 days out of 7 for noticeable progress to be achieved).

As pianists, much of our “work” (practising) is done alone, for some in almost monk-like seclusion. This separateness enables us to focus fully on the task in hand, without distraction. Most of us who chose the piano as our instrument actively enjoy the solitariness (I know I do), but equally this time spent alone can trigger self-doubt and negative criticism from within. Looking at what others are doing, what repertoire they are learning, is toxic too: comparing oneself to others sets up further negative thoughts and can lead to lack of confidence and motivation.

When I returned to the piano after a 20-year absence, I wanted to play EVERYTHING. Of course this was a ridiculous pipe dream, but my appetite for repertoire focused my attention and motivated me to practise diligently and enjoyably virtually every day. But when I co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group and started meeting other pianists, I rubbed pianistic shoulders with people whom I perceived as “better” than me – because they were playing repertoire which I believed I could not play. This depressed me and the mantra “I can’t play that” began to haunt my practising and my participation in the Meetup group’s regular performance platforms. I grew increasingly envious of, and irritated by the people who knocked off Ravel’s Jeux d’eau or Grainger’s Molly on the Shore with apparent ease, not to mention countless other pieces which I aspired to play…..

But hindsight and experience have taught me the power of “yet” – that simple three-letter word which can turn a negative phrase into something positive and affirming:

“I can’t play that – yet

“Yet” turns the task into a challenge and is the spur to set to and practise, to strive, to master.

“Yet” makes that Beethoven Sonata or Rachmaninov Étude-Tableau achievable, with practise.

“Yet” turns the seemingly impossible into the possible

“Yet” is a declaration of intent