In life, we repeat certain ways of doing things until they become habits – until we become unconscious of them and do them without thinking (and without the need to think about them). It is said that good habits are hard to form and yet easy to break, while bad habits are easy to form and yet hard to break. How true!
If you want to break a habit, you first need to be conscious of it. I had a student who was unaware that when she wanted to play expressively, she raised her right shoulder. Not the left shoulder, which behaved quite normally, but only the right one. When I asked her if she was aware of this fact, she said she wasn’t. We discussed how her raised shoulder could possibly be of benefit, and we both agreed that this is not only a futile gesture but one that positively impedes looseness and freedom in the upper arm and shoulder – essential ingredients in skillful piano playing. I gave her an exercise to develop mobility in the shoulder, but for the first week I asked her to put a mirror on the music desk of her piano and just observe her posture, without trying to do anything to change it. In each lesson thereafter, I would simply tap her right shoulder very lightly when the upward movement recurred and after a few weeks, she had reconditioned herself not to raise her shoulder at all.
A particularly bad habit, and an extremely debilitating one for fluency in playing, is the tendency to stutter at the piano. By this I mean you reach a place in the score, land on something erroneous, jab at the spot a few times until it eventually meets with your approval and then move on as though nothing were amiss. The worst part of this (apart from that it’s excruciating to have to listen to) is that eventually you become immune and don’t even know you are doing it!
I had a student who was especially guilty of blotting his scores in this way, and in an attempt to correct it, I asked him to stop every time it was happening. The direction was to take his hands off the keyboard and place them in his lap. Ever cooperative, 9 out of 10 times he just carried on, meaning that rather than disobeying my direction, he had become totally blind (or should I say deaf?) to this impediment. It was something he always did in his practising until he no longer noticed it.
“I ALWAYS GO WRONG THERE!”
It often amazes me that people don’t understand that WHAT YOU DO REGULARLY IN YOUR PRACTISING IS BOUND TO SHOW UP IN YOUR PLAYING! That, surely, is the whole point! Thus, if you hack away at a passage, finally getting it right on the eighth attempt, what you have actually practised is getting wrong seven times and right once. What, then, are the chances of getting it right – and right the first time – when you are in a stressful performing situation such as an examination? When a student tells me they always break down in a particular place, it tells me that they have regularly practised this breakdown rather than taking time out to find out what the problem is. If you really can’t do something, it is much better to leave that spot out completely and wait for the next lesson than approximate it or trip up over it in the practising.
There are times towards the end stages of learning a piece when we absolutely need to practise a performance, to decide ahead of time that we are going to carry on through any accidents or errors and under no circumstances stop or falter. In the learning stages, we need to do the opposite.
I suggest removing your hands from the keyboard and taking a moment or two to figure out exactly where you went wrong, and why. Before you rejoin the keyboard, spend another moment or two mentally rehearsing the corrected version, hearing it and seeing it in vivid detail in your imagination.
SNAKES AND LADDERS
Remember the board game where if you land on a square with a snake, you have to go backwards and climb up again? If we don’t go back a bit in our piece, we will not be incorporating our correction back into the context of the flow of the music – we need to approach the spot from a few notes (or bars) before, and progress a few notes (or bars) after. To reinforce your work, take this small section and repeat it WITH TOTAL CONCENTRATION three or four times. If we play the correct version more times than we played the faulty one, a good habit can supersede a bad one.
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