Confidence Commitment Concentration

Sometimes, and more frequently that you might imagine, my husband’s world (mountain-biking) and mine (music) intersect, with interesting results. At first sight, our respective passions could not be more different: he likes to hurl himself and his bike down the side of mountains, riding rough-shod (literally) over rocks and gnarly tree roots while I get my share of excitement out of playing the piano or hearing others play it in concert. How could there possibly be any connection between those two activities?

But a chance conversation between my husband, myself and two pianist/piano teaching friends over dinner recently revealed some noteworthy parallels between the world of the downhill mountain-biker and the performing pianist. In fact, there are many parallels between sportspeople and musicians, from the way we prepare for a race or a performance to the importance of listening to and taking care of our bodies (see The Musician as Sportsperson).

“Confidence Commitment Concentration” is a mantra my husband regularly repeats in relation to his cycling. In his world – and that of other sportspeople – Confidence is a key factor in propelling one down that vertiginous mountain track or round the running circuit. While negotiating a rocky descent there’s no time for self-doubt because a moment’s hesitation can lead to one to misjudge the line and ride into a tree, or worse. Confidence, and the ability to handle one’s bicycle or instrument adroitly, comes from practising and honing one’s technical skills. Assured technique then provides the firm foundation on which to build creativity and artistry. It also gives us the freedom and confidence to make snap decisions during performance and to prevent small slips or errors from distracting us or pulling us off course.

 

Commitment – so you’re barrelling down that alpine track and there’s a jump ahead. You can’t apply the brakes because you need the right speed to propel you over the jump. Now is the time to commit – don’t hold back and don’t be tentative. In a musical performance, we commit from the moment we start playing. At that point there is no going back – the first notes have sounded and we must play with commitment to offer our audience a convincing performance. Commitment also means playing fluently and not allowing errors or slips to distract us. And just as a moment’s hesitation on the mountain track could lead to an accident, tentative playing may hint at lack of confidence which might make our audience uneasy for the rest of the performance. Of course piano playing is not nearly as hazardous as downhill mountainbiking (I know this because my husband is a fairly frequent visitor to the A&E department at our local hospital), but a metaphoric accident during a performance can do serious damage to our confidence and self-esteem which may harm future performances.

 

Concentration – sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Of course you need to concentrate, but our concentration can easily be disturbed which can then disrupt or sabotage a performance. My husband cites things like “your mates standing at the side of the track taking photos or yelling at you“. In a musical performance, external factors such as a member of the audience coughing or rustling their programme can interrupt our concentration, in addition to internal issues such as the negative voice of the inner critic. Concentration can be trained to such a degree that we can accept external interruptions without affecting our performance – see my earlier post Mind Games for more on concentration.

Taken all together, The Three C’s can lead to a performance – musical or sporting – that is fluent, convincing and successful.

If you get one of The Three Cs wrong you can probably still pull it off, but if you get two of them wrong you’ll probably crash. 

synergy syn·er·gy (sĭn’ər-jē)
n.
The interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects.

“those three minutes of perfection – when time stands still and the music just washes over you….”

This was Bruce ‘The Boss’ Springsteen, talking on Radio 4 on Saturday morning about playing and performing, in an interview broadcast to coincide with the release of his book and a new album ‘Promise’, and the re-release of his album ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’.

Those of who play and listen to music regularly known what The Boss is talking about: that moment when one is ‘transported’, taken out of oneself; where the experience transcends the norm and seems to take one to another plane of consciousness. I felt it on Monday evening at the Wigmore, while listening to Messiaen’s transcendental ‘Quartet for the End of Time’.  Such moments can be rare, and so they must be cherished because they can be fleeting and soon forgotten.

When one is playing music, it is even harder. In order to achieve such a state, one must work hard, for one must know the music intimately – and such intimacy only comes from repetitive work and thoroughly immersing oneself in the music. One must also possess purpose and focus, trust in one’s musical self, have a highly-developed ability to concentrate, blanking out all other distractions, and be able to stand back from oneself and the music.

I used to find it hard to concentrate on my practising; my piano is in the conservatory and I was regularly disturbed by birdsong (the famous Bushy Park parakeets usually start their daily squawking at about 4pm), a dog barking, a road drill, my neighbour mowing his lawn. Gradually, I trained myself to ignore these sounds; they merged into the background, becoming a foil for the music instead of competing with it. Sometimes the sounds of nature are helpful: working on Debussy’s ‘Voiles’ in the summer, with the French windows flung open, I listened to the wind in the bamboos in my garden, and drew inspiration from that sound.

Some days, when I’m practising something for technique alone, a passage of Chopin, for example, which is just fingerwork, purely mechanical playing, before the shaping and finessing begin, I can let me mind wander, but not too far because there needs to be a degree of engagement to ensure the fingers land in the right place each time. This kind of practising acts as an exercise, to strengthen the fingers and to train the muscular memory to achieve accuracy. As Vladimir Horowitz said “From the moment one feels that the finger must sing, it becomes strong”: it is at this point that one stops playing mechnically and starts to play musically. Pianists, who draw so much information from the tips of the fingers, transmitting it to the brain and back to the fingertips again – almost as if one has “eyes in the fingertips” as my teacher put it once – can feel when that moment is achieved. Rather like a runner or cyclist being “in the zone”, reaching that point of perfect synergy between body and mind, when all limbs, lungs and heart seem to be working properly and the action becomes fluid, comfortable, beautiful.

When one plays in this state, it seems as if everything has fallen into place. Sometimes, it even feels easy! I have the sensation of observing myself, standing back from the music, and myself, watching myself playing. There is a sense of having “let go” – and yet, it is at this point that one is concentrating most furiously. One has also done all the groundwork: learnt all those notes, assimilated and acted upon those dynamic, articulation, tempo or stylistic markings, understood the composer’s intentions. At this point, one feels one has created exactly the right balance between spontaneity and structure, technique and inspiration

In his excellent book ‘The Inner Game of Music’, Barry Green (a professional double-bassist) talks about us having two Selfs: Self 1 is critical, cautious, doubting, sensible, interfering. It gets in the way, telling us what we should and should not be doing; it predicts successes and failures, and talks of “if only”. Self 1 can also be extremely distracting. Self 2 is intuitive, tapping into the vast resource of our nervous system and drawing information from non-verbal cues, and our vast memory-bank of past musical experiences: everything we have heard, learned from others, or experienced ourselves. Self 2 is more creative, and is connected to an earlier, childhood state – that wide-open, receptiveness that exists in children until they are about eight years old, ready to absorb whatever comes before us. As we grow up, subtle changes occur as we begin to collect information, ideas, attitudes, and form our own conclusions. We also become more cautious, more risk-averse, more fearful of the consequences of our actions, and the gap between our “critical” self (Self 1) and our “creative” self (Self 2) widens. The ability to spontaneously tap into our intuitive resources of Self 2 disappears, as Self 1 takes over. It is possible to train oneself to let Self 2 back in, to master what Barry Green calls “the inner game” (a technique borrowed from tennis coaching), and to reduce mental interference which can inhibit the full expression of one’s musical (or sporting) capabilities.

Choosing to ignore Self 1’s commands, its “what ifs” and “if onlys” is an important process in learning good concentration skills and teaching us to trust our musical selves. It is also crucial in helping to overcome performance anxiety: as I say to my adult students (who are currently in a collective paroxysm of fear about performing in my forthcoming Christmas concert), “What’s the worse thing that can happen?”. I assure them that no one will boo, nor slow hand-clap, nor heckle. Indeed, most people in the audience are full of admiration of anyone who can get up on a stage and perform. It is no surprise that most of the children I teach, especially the younger ones (8 – 10 year olds), are eager to perform and love showing off what they can do. They don’t worry about making mistakes or stopping mid-performance; they just get on with it, demonstrating that their Self 2 is more powerful than Self 1 at this point in their lives.

So, those “three minutes of perfection”, which Bruce Springsteen talked about, that moment of perfect synergy, are a true product of one allowing Self 2 to take over, driving out the doubts and fears of Self 1, letting one’s true musical self play, and permitting one’s fingers, hands and body to make the decisions.

 

Resources:

Green, Barry: The Inner Game of Music. Pan Books. London, 1987

—————- The Mastery of Music. Macmillan. London, 2003

Rink, John: Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding. Cambridge University Press, 2002

Westney, William: The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self. Amadeus Press, 2006

Bernstein, Seymour: With Your Own Two Hands: Self-Discovery Through Music. 1981

“Practise a tricky section five times. If you make a mistake, go back and start again. Play it perfectly five times, and you can consider it “done” and then move onto the next thing….”

This is a mantra oft-repeated to my students, most of whom greet such useful, teacherly advice with much shrugging of shoulders and rolling of eyes. One or two remember it, and so when I ask them how they intend to practise a problem area, they will repeat my mantra back to me. I assure them that I also use the same dictum when I am practising, but they don’t always look convinced!

In reality, I probably practise a tricky section many more than five times at one sitting, but the “five times rule” is helpful in keeping me focussed when a problematic passage is beginning to frustrate. “One more go and you can move on…” I mutter to myself as I repeat that same passage for the nth time and wonder if I will ever permit myself to move on to another section. Sometimes, when I’ve been practising the nasty bits of the Chopin Op 10 no 3 Etude over and over again for nearly an hour, I treat myself – and my neighbours who are probably forced to listen to the tedious repetitions – to a complete play-through of the piece. This is not just self-indulgent wish-fulfilment, where I hope that everything will fall into the right place at the right time; it also serves a practical purpose – to check that what I have been practising really has been taken in by head and hands.

Repetitive practise breeds familiarity, not just with the music open on the rack in front of you, annotated with all sorts of very personal markings, fingerings, reminders and hints which become crucial signposts on the map (pink dots to highlight to remind me to pedal carefully, the words “WATCH IT!!” in bold, gestural strokes, exhorting me to keep focussed in a passage where my attention is liable to wander to check what my hands are doing, causing me to lose my place in the score), but also with the landscape of the keyboard and the physical sensation of the notes under the fingers. Repetition informs muscular memory, enabling the fingers to fall in the right place more often than not, and, eventually, one hopes, every time. Learning the patterns, the feel of a particular passage as well as the sound, all contribute to the overall process. In time, all these ‘learning components” come together, and one can enjoy that special moment when everything seems to slot into place and you play as if standing back from the music momentarily, playing at arm’s length, as it were. I love this sense of disengagement, of watching myself play. I feel it sometimes when I’m swimming, or running – a rare, special synergy. Yet, as my teacher pointed out when we were discussing it once, it is at this point that the mind and body are fully engaged, concentrating fiercely.

Even though I tend to employ the same strategies for learning new work, it never fails to amaze me how an hour of going over the same passage again and again can result in noticeable progress along the sometimes steep learning curve. There are times too, though, when a passage repeated again and again just fails to “go in”. I remember feeling this with a short piece by Delius I tried to learn last winter. It was a gorgeous piece, but full of bear traps to trip up the unwary, and it always felt awkward under my hands. However hard I tried with it, it never felt comfortable, and in the end, I reluctantly had to admit defeat and set it aside. It is rare, these days, for me to give up on a piece of music, but sometimes even the “five times rule” fails to achieve the desired outcome.

My forays into the periphery of jazz repertoire have made me reconsider and adapt some techniques to suit the mood, nature and simple ability to play the pieces by Gershwin I am learning at present. This issue came up on the piano course in March, when one of the students, who presented the first two Gershwin Preludes for the masterclass, was urged by teacher to put aside all her classical training and thought processes, and to start thinking and playing like a jazz pianist. Thus, in the opening measures of the first Prelude, she was urged to “slap” the keys, literally throwing the hand at the keyboard, to allow the weight of the arm to create tenuto, and to employ heavy, lazy staccato. The difference in the sound of the piece was instant. It was immediately more “cool”. unforced, lazy almost. This kind of playing is very difficult to achieve – and this brief lesson in jazz piano technique proved that even the most improvisatory playing is based on very solid foundations of technique and harmonic awareness.

I’ve been putting some of these teaching “tricks” into practice with my students, a number of whom have expressed interest in learning some jazz, and while I would never ever profess to be a teacher of jazz piano (it’s a whole ‘nother world as far as I’m concerned!), I’m happy to work on some simple pieces with my students.

One student, who joined my studio last summer, was “escaping” from jazz. Her previous teacher was obviously keen on jazz and was teaching the ABRSM jazz syllabus which is very separate and distinct from the ‘classical’ piano syllabus. Like me, Bella was finding the music quite incomprehensible. Together we looked at the score, puzzled by some of the markings. I’ve been playing the piano for a long time (over 35 years), and I pride myself on my excellent sight-reading skills which enable me to pick up most music and gain a reasonable understanding of it on first view. Grade 2 jazz repertoire, however, was a mystery. What did the instruction “straight eights” mean? And what were those dashes where the notes should have been on the stave? (We realised eventually that this was a marking for improvisation.) Some internet research didn’t enlighten me much, and I was relieved when Bella declared she wanted to return to classical repertoire. Indeed, it was a relief to both of us to open the Grade 2 book and see a comforting page of Haydn.

Fortunately, Gershwin’s scores look like ‘traditional’ piano music: there are no weird markings, and he uses standard Italian terms, and places where crossed hands are required are less for virtuoso effect and more for ease of playing. So, by not having to translate the score into a language I understand, I can devote more time to honing technique to suit the music.

My students are growing familiar with my weird and wonderful visualisation techniques. Asking them to “tell the story” of the music has produced some wonderful effects, especially in those students who have been working on exam repertoire, where musicality is as important – if not more so – as playing the notes accurately. Reminding them that the piano can be “orchestrated” or played to mimic a particular instrument is also useful. Another trick I employ is asking a student to “hear” or “sing” the music in their head before playing. My teacher does this with me and it really does work. Another technique, employed at a recent lesson, was asking me to play the opening movement of the Poulenc Suite in C with my eyes closed, thus forcing me to think about touch and quality of sound.

Most of my students now know about the “giant invisible hand” which “lives” in my piano room. This helps them to articulate their hands towards the black keys by moving their elbow, or to push the wrist down to play drop slurs. It also pushes the forearm along to move the hand and wrist fluently when playing scales and arpeggios. It sounds daft, but this, more than anything else, is the visualisation technique which works the best. Even my adult students have come to know it and tell me they find it useful when practising at home.

Something else my teacher does is play on my bare forearm to demonstrate touch. The skin on the forearm is very receptive and it’s amazing how a quick demo of how I should be playing the opening measures of my Chopin Etude can be translated into sound on the keyboard. I have not yet tried this with my students; sadly, these days of child protection and over-cautiousness about touching children have made me wary of doing anything more than occasionally adjusting a child’s hand position.

Little Sam, who is only 8 and is already showing an affinity for jazz after only a year of lessons (he pulled off a characterful performance of ‘The Entertainer’ at my summer concert), proved at his lesson yesterday that he understands about “jazz hands”. He quickly picked up the idea of “slapping” the keys, lifting his hand off the keyboard momentarily before allowing it to fall heavily onto an E flat, thus emphasising the syncopation in the bar (he’s learning a piece called ‘Homework Blues’). Later, when I was looking at the opening of Gershwin’s first Prelude, I found myself doing exactly the same thing, which just goes to prove how one’s teaching can inform one’s own playing: it seems that by teaching a new technique it crystallises it in my mind – and fingers.

And now I really must do some practising…….