“I haven’t done as much practice as I would have liked this week” seems to be a very popular statement at the beginning of a piano lesson. Before one note has been played self doubt, anxiety and guilt are already in the room, and impending disaster is sure to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I try to calm the situation by reassuring the student that even seasoned concert artists at the top of their game might sit in the green room before a performance with similar doubts, feeling they could have done more if they had only had a bit more time. And how many exam candidates stew in the waiting room thinking: “If only I had a couple more weeks, or if only I had done this and that, I would be fully prepared”? There is always more we can do, yet we need to trust that what we have done is enough, for now – provided we have not been lazy or negligent in the process of preparation.
A lesson does not always have to be a performance!
Unless the lesson is in the run-up to an exam, diploma or recital (when a non-stop complete performance is necessary) work in progress is extremely welcome in my studio. I would rather help people to get things right from the beginning of the learning and practice process than go through the arduous task of unpicking and correcting careless errors or learned-in problems. Detailed work involves the opposite of playing through from beginning to end, and in a lesson it should be possible to focus on this – offering a model of what should happen in the daily practice.
What do you want from your piano playing?
In a recent lesson, a 17-year-old student gave a complete performance of one of her recital pieces. I told her that there would be many people who would be envious of her ability to play it so well, and that she had reached a very good level with it indeed. Because piano is just one of the many activities she does outside of her high-achieving school curriculum, I asked her if she was happy with the level she had reached, or whether she wanted to push beyond the very good and aim for the excellent. Whatever she decided would be fine with me, but the choice had to be hers. She thought about it for a moment, and realised she was indeed prepared to put in more work to achieve a higher standard in her playing of this piece. Her decision determined the type of work we did together over the following few weeks, as well as her input in the daily practice. It would have been completely acceptable had she preferred to move on to other pieces, since there is a potential downside to polishing, refining and perfecting something – unless you have high ambitions in the fiercely competitive world of classical pianism.
The expression “never let the good be the enemy of the better” reminds us that high standards come from an attitude of constant striving, always putting gentle pressure on ourselves to go beyond what we think we can do. However, obsession with perfection can paralyse and demoralise us, and we will never be happy with what we do. Is there a middle path somewhere here? Certainly not every piece we begin has to be polished to perfection before we leave it.
If we have decided we want (or need) to take our playing to the next level, we will need to know that the route to mastery starts from the point where we can already play our piece or programme through very well indeed. Even after we have fine-tuned our muscle movements, the neural processes controlling these movements continue to become more efficient as we push past this stage and continue to refine. By overpractising the brain uses up less energy, freeing up space for other things in performance – such as focussing on the emotional or poetic meaning of the music. The increased bandwidth we free up by over-learning can also be used to combat the sort of stumbles we might encounter during performance, which addresses the other familiar statement, “but I can play it perfectly well at home”. If you want to perform more reliably and with less effort, then carry on practising well beyond the stage where you think you’ve nailed it. Be 200% prepared, factoring in the 100% drop-off that can happen as soon as you walk out onto the stage.
As I pointed out in last week’s post on managing repetition, when we overpractise in this way it is important to avoid becoming habituated and stale, aiming to keep mentally engaged at all times by finding new and different ways to practise that challenge and absorb us each time we go to the piano.