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 or out of our reach, we won’t commit much time and energy to accomplishing that goal. We lie to our brain when we say we can’t do something.
Maybe it’s true that some things are too difficult for us today, but this may not be true in a few weeks. According to psychotherapist and author Marilee Adams, Ph.D., we all have both a “Learner” and a “Judger” self, and we can choose from moment to moment which of these we want to invoke. Our Judger self asks questions like “What’s wrong with me?”, whereas our Learner self asks “What steps can I take to solve this problem?”. The solution is to trust in the process, and above all to trust ourselves.
When we begin any performance, no matter who the audience is, we need to take a few moments to focus on the task. This means forgetting about the listener as much as possible – try and blank them out (this takes a bit of practice!). Remember that any judgements we have as we play will be our own, and will not necessarily represent the views of our audience – at all. It’s best to develop an attitude of humility in performance anyway, remembering we are human and not machine. I would like to leave you with a beautiful quote left in the comments from a recent post of mine by pianist George McRae:
After years of performing I’m convinced that achieving “perfection” is about finding the beauty and honesty in the moment (Mozart talked of this). There are no straight lines or perfect circles in nature. Humans are not infallible. It’s often in the cracks and imperfections where real beauty lies. An artist must be willing to show their true selves, the good and the bad. They must be aware of the space where they’re performing, the audience, the instrument, their own mood. Practice, prepare, trust yourself! Trust the audience, trust you instrument and most importantly – trust your intuition!
If you want to learn more about the history of the piano and piano technique, Part 2 of my eBook Series, Practising the Piano is now available. Please see below for details of how to get your copy.
Practising the Piano Part 2
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