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The Myth of Perfection

The Myth of Perfection was first published in February of 2014. I’ve decided to republish as part of this summer holiday series of posts from the past, in the hope that it will give a little perspective on the subject. ***   ***   *** Many of us are caught in the trap of perfectionism, and yet attaining flawlessness is so anti-human. Music played perfectly would actually be boring and predictable – what makes performance interesting is the human element, and what makes it electrifying is the element of risk when the performer is pushing the boundaries of what is possible or imaginable (and might even teeter over the edge here and there). Here’s what Beethoven had so say about this! To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable. No live performance can ever truly be note-perfect, and no single interpretation can ever be the one true realisation of the musical possibilities of particular piece. It’s precisely this difference between the ideal and the reality where the humanity of musical performance lies, and the wrong notes in Alfred Cortot’s recordings matter not one iota to the communication of the music’s beauty. I would even go as far as to say it what makes me love his recordings all the more – they show greatness and fallibility at the same time. The problem is that audiences raised on a steady diet of today’s recordings (often a collection of the best takes spliced together) only recognise the perfection possible in that scenario, and are unprepared for live performances. Perfectionism has been defined in psychology as: A personality disposition characterized by an individual striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical […]

The Floating Fermata

So you’re learning a new piece and you’ve done as much slow and separate-hands work as you feel is penance enough – at least for today – and now you want to play the darned thing through up to speed and just enjoy. Sounds familiar? My first suggestion is go ahead and try that, see what happens. If you are consistently able to play accurately, fluently and comfortably then chances are you have indeed done enough groundwork. But if you find yourself stumbling, baulking, stiffening up or playing wrong notes, rhythms and fingerings then it would seem that the playing is not yet capable of being on autopilot and you still need the help of your brain! You need to dig the foundations still deeper and slow down while you process the information from the score. Call on your inner craftsman and take pleasure in the building process itself, knowing the playing will be stronger and more secure later on as a result. You will reap what you now sow. There are several practice tools I use as a bridge between the slow, painstaking work and the exhilaration of playing through at speed. I have written about these extensively in Volume 1 of my ebook series on The Practice Tools, but I would like to share one with you here that is extremely effective. I call it The Floating Fermata. The Floating Fermata When we listen to unprocessed playing, we are aware of frequent stops and pauses while the player figures out what is supposed to be happening next. They are suffering from buffering, the playing sounds like a clip that hasn’t fully loaded. All might go well for a few bars and then there […]

Watch What You Say!

Over the years in my teaching, I have noticed the tendency for some students to need to preface their playing with an often lengthy verbal introduction – a description of what is going to go wrong in their performance, delivered with a sense of impending doom. Either they think I am not going to notice or they are somehow trying to hold on to their dignity by alerting me that they are aware of their errors. “I always go wrong in this bar” “The LH in that passage is lumpy and uneven” “I can’t get the pedalling right here” “It’s taking me ages to learn this piece” A genuine problem with a passage is one thing, and if you are able to get everything right by yourself you may not be in need of lessons. Those who know me realise I do not expect a performance of a piece until it has been fully digested and assimilated (this is always a process). But a post-mortem before we even play belies either guilt that we’ve not done enough work that week or – more likely, I’ve found – shame that we believe we are not good enough, not up to the task. Our brain will believe what we say over and over again.  If we say we can’t do something, we will always feel we can’t do it.  This may not be rational, but we already said it: “I can’t do it”.  The brain hears and takes that thought in.  Over time it becomes a belief.  When we believe we can’t do it, we are caught up in a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. And if we think learning a particular piece or solving a particular problem is not possible […]

Efficient Practising for Busy People

This is the follow-up to last week’s post, in which I outlined the first few stages for cleaning up a piece beset by errors, stumbles, approximations and other anomalies that might have crept into the playing either as a result of overplaying, or faulty (or incomplete) learning in the first place. Actually, the process I describe is good for initial note-learning as well – it’s just a thorough method for inputting the correct information into our brains, ears and fingers in as deep and permanent a way as possible. We build our house on bedrock and not on shifting sands. Routine Maintenance Let me clarify what I mean by overplaying. While I am fascinated by all the neurological research I read in other blogs, I am not a scientist and my findings come mostly from my wonderful training and from my own experience as a pianist and teacher. One thing I know for certain is that playing a piece over and over again usually leads to sloppiness,  imprecision (as motor skills lose finesse), ennui and a certain staleness. The clue to keeping everything in tip-top condition is the use of routine maintenance procedures in the practice room. This includes slow practice (for fast pieces), fast practice (for slow pieces), working with each hand alone, practising in sections and many other practice tools I have given before. I include quarantining those areas of the piece that cause you trouble – isolate these spots and work on them daily, before during and after your scheduled practice. Don’t think that just because you have learned a piece, you can now put the cork in the bottle and avail yourself of the contents whenever you feel like it. A car enthusiast […]

By |February 21st, 2014|Practising|7 Comments

Top Ten Tips to Maximise Your Practice

At the start of the New Year, everyone is making resolutions. I have noticed that these usually have to do with self discipline – not eating or drinking so much and exercising more seem to top the list. Piano practice, in order to be effective, must be disciplined. If there is no thought or organisation behind our work, it will be hard to find the impetus to make a regular commitment. With the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics just round the corner, I think of the time and energy the athletes have to commit to each day in their training regimes. We pianists have to train also – countless hours of dedication. We had better know what we are doing, though! It seems timely to republish one of my most popular blog posts, so here are a few tips (in no particular order) that will help you get the most out of your practice time. A Teacher. Find a qualified, professional piano teacher to help and support you. Use professional bodies such as EPTA or the Incorporated Society of Musicians to locate teachers in your area. There are teachers who specialise in teaching children, others who have more experience with adults. If you are an adult beginner, or a restarter, your teacher will appreciate the courage it takes to come for lessons. Commitment. Keep to a regular daily practice schedule come what may, even if you are tired or don’t feel like practising. It is the commitment and the regularity that matter, not the amount of time you spend. “Little and often” will help you achieve FAR more than overdoing it one day, and then doing nothing for the next few days. You might find it more convenient to […]

The Weakest Link

In the run-up to Christmas, I am reminded of the low-tech decorations we used to make at school back in the day – paper chains. We would lick the gummed end of the coloured paper strip, wince a bit because it tasted horrible, then stick it to the other end and make a link. This we did until we had formed a long chain, which we taped to the ceiling and then draped across the room, making a festive decoration. Trouble was, those links we hadn’t stuck down properly caused a breakage later on, and the chain would be on the floor when we got to school the next day. A quick repair and a trip back up the stepladder usually sorted the problem. A break in a musical performance can be much more devastating, and the consequences more far-reaching – especially if the stakes are high such as an exam or a public performance. A chain is no stronger than its weakest link Let’s say you have learned a piece and yet find it difficult to get through without error. Suddenly you go blank, or your fingers stall and you break down. You have rarely managed to get through the piece from beginning to end, but it’s frustrating because the mistakes seem to happen in different places each time. If this happens when you are alone in your practice room, then it probably means you have not done enough spadework. You are likely trying to run before you can walk and you’ll need to go back to some really solid slow practice, with each hand separately, working in small sections at a time. If it happens in a more stressful situation, this is a […]

Practising Chopin’s “Ocean” Etude

In last week’s post on ties and repeated notes, I referred to Chopin’s Ocean Etude (more properly known as op. 25 no. 12). A reader contacted me asking if I could offer some practice suggestions for this etude, so here are a few thoughts. The Cortot Edition Apart from his most useful exercises for practice, one of the things I really like about Alfred Cortot’s study editions is his commentary, often shedding light on the more poetic aspects of the music. It is so important to keep in mind that while each etude by Chopin is a study in a particular aspect of piano technique, it is also a tone poem. This is where Chopin’s genius lies – raising a technical study to the ranks of great art. Cortot has this to say about the poetic meaning of this etude, as he sees it: It is said…that Chopin composed this Study, as well as Study No. 12 (Op. 10), in his anguish at hearing the news that Warsaw had fallen into the hands of the Russians. If the legend can certainly add nothing to the intrinsic beauty of these two compositions, it lends them however a particularly pathetic significance. Wounded national pride, grief most sacred, generous outburst of revolt explain perfectly the sublime ardour that sweeps through these pages. Keeping the meaning of the music in mind while we study the technical difficulties is for me paramount. Thanks to Walter Cosand, I am able to give you the link to his wonderful library of scores. Search through and you will find the pdfs to the full English translations. Cortot realised the importance of diagnosing the technical problem and came up with an array of exercises that focus […]

By |September 20th, 2013|Practising|7 Comments

Some Thoughts on Mental Tension

When we think of tension in piano playing, we correctly label this as negative – it is a thing that hampers us and our objective should be to locate its source and then eliminate it. This tension might be physical or mental, or perhaps a bit of both! Inadequate or inefficient technique, or incorrect use of the body manifests in physical tension. Mental tension (such as stage fright, exam nerves, etc.) may have its origins in the mind but it soon becomes very apparent in our breathing and the tightening of our arm muscles, the wrist and our shoulders. If we are particularly apprehensive, our legs may also tighten up and this affects our whole system. Adrenaline gets pumped into the body and this alters the way our muscles feel and the way we respond physically to what we perceive as stress and danger. When muscles tense up our ability to move freely across the keyboard is compromised, often severely. This leads to all kinds of clumsy and uncoordinated errors until eventually we can no longer play. Poisonous Pedagogy Unfortunately, many teachers (including some with excellent reputations at the top of the profession) teach by shaming the student, making them feel inadequate and inferior. Once worn down and confidence eroded, the idea is to rebuild them in the image of the teacher. This sets up unhealthy dependency and a host of psychological problems. I am not suggesting this is deliberate cruelty on the part of the teacher, because this behaviour is usually unconscious. The teacher is simply passing on like a hot potato the way they themselves were taught. Despite the quality of the information we might get from such a teacher, nobody needs to be subjected to this […]

Write it Out!

Back in the 90s when I used to commute from London to New York each month to see students there, I was thinking of a profitable way of filling in the flying time. During that period, I was preparing for my first few performances of The Goldberg Variations and decided to do something I had heard Rosalyn Tureck speak about – write out the piece from memory in manuscript. Naturally, this took many hours over the course of some months, but I succeeded in doing it and it was a real eye-opener. Did I know the music absolutely, or was I relying on fingers slyly drumming on my tray table to prod me when I hit a blank? In all honesty, I probably did recourse to some mile-high finger twiddling but my aim was to draw on my ear and my brain, which I managed to do by and large but certainly not perfectly. It was an exercise that proved far from easy, but I am extremely glad I did it. It gave me extra confidence that I ended up knowing the piece deeply from memory. This was going to extremes, I fully recognise (frankly, life is too short). However, I often do find myself writing out a small section (it might be a bar or two, or a phrase) that does not seem to succumb to the rigours of routine practising. Students often say “I always go wrong there!”, but if you always go wrong there, then knowing this fact is a surely a gift as the problem should beget a solution. Write that bit out, I suggest. It doesn’t even have to be from memory – just copy those few bars out. I would suggest old-fashioned […]

A Short Essay on the Life of a Pianist

After a recent post, I received a request in the form of a comment from a reader, suggesting I might expand on my last paragraph. The last paragraph was as follows: I wonder how many people embark on serious piano studies because they want to be performers or because they are passionate about music, about the piano and about playing the piano? Public performance is quite a different thing, it’s not for the thin-skinned or the faint-hearted. The act of performance is an art in itself, distinct from one’s abilities as a musician or as a pianist. It is like any sort of performance art, be it acting, dancing, or walking the tightrope. Actually, walking the tightrope is an analogy I often use for performing solo piano works from memory in public. The only safety nets are the ones we build in during our practising, and I reckon I spend a huge amount of time and energy in my own practice securing the memory. This is basically the equivalent of spending a fortune on insurance policies you hope you never need to use. In his later years, the great pianist Sviatoslav Richter gave up playing from memory and brought his scores, along with a trusted page turner on to the platform with him. He even eschewed the limelight, preferring a muted lamp by the side of the piano. In interviews, he said the time spent memorising or maintaining the memory was no longer worth it, and that he could learn a multitude of new pieces in the time it would have taken him to attend to his memory. There are those, it seems, who were born to play the piano in public, and I don’t […]

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