We musicians are keenly aware that inevitably some people will not like our music very much. We must accept that simple truth calmly. However, it is very hard to accept people disregarding or disrespecting our work – a painful and all too common experience. One might think that it is just ignorance which lies at the basis of their failure to respect or show interest in our musical endeavours but arrogance and jealousy are also likely culprits. Of course, many of my friends do ask me about how my work creating and teaching music is going. They do this in exactly the same way they would show interest in the work and career of any friend, whatever their chosen field. But often such common friendliness is not extended to musicians. Given that our careers are so much more than just a job but something that we pour our hearts and souls into, it feels like extremely unfriendly behaviour when someone shows no interest in our current projects. Even when I am bold enough to volunteer information, many people tend to respond in a perfunctory way or even just stare blankly back. Why on earth would otherwise caring people be so cruel?
Music used to be something we all did together using a very different awareness of how it functions. We all had a powerful, almost intuitive sense of how rhythmic and tonal patterns are formed and work together to create complex, extended musical structure. The loss of these skills through the tragic demise of folk music in human civilisation leaves a painful social scar. A culture in which an arbitrary selection of musicians are placed on very tall, wobbly pedestals without any clear, objective measure of their deserving generates an undercurrent of resentment and scorn. People are all forced to be nothing more than grateful audience members, listening and admiring passively. Yet they still sense their potential for active participation in music-making. Sadly, the way amateur musicians usually make music is either an act of blind karaoke or by coldly decoding the dots. These approaches are nothing more than mimicry or playing by numbers and only reinforce the unhealthy passive relationship to music. Therefore, the need to have a strong opinion about music, often to the point of offensive chauvinism, is arguably quite understandable for many people.
As unforgivably opinionated and arrogant as music shaming is, it is really just a symptom of a deep cultural deprivation which leaves individuals feeling musically disempowered. It is merely their vain attempt to claw back some of their sense of musical autonomy. My hope is that by propagating training for fluent musicianship skills on the keyboard, more people will feel empowered musically and that a myriad forms of music in all its dazzling diversity and richness may be created and enjoyed by more and more people.
Mannerism is inevitable
Music is a kind of language and just like verbal language, it inevitably has mannerism. Different periods of history and different social circumstances demand different manners. This is equally true of music. Different genres of music have different manners. Classical, jazz and pop styles all have their own mannerism. Listen to a recording from fifty years ago and you will hear different musical mannerism – many aspects of which are common to all genres.
So we cannot avoid manners as if they were something bad and they certainly have their place in helping music be accessible. But it is important to acknowledge that there is something rather objective or even superficial about mannerism in music.
When a musician feels the music deeply, this is a subjective response and the expressive dynamics that stem from this deep feeling are not dictated by the requirements of the genre or the expressive conventions of the time. This means that authentic expression is a very different thing from manners. It has an inherent depth or power that transcends mannerism completely.
Expression is not an alternative to manners – we use both – but we have to acknowledge that authentic feeling carries far more truth and profundity.
Spontaneous vs. contrived interpretation
When there is no gap between the way musicians feel the music and the way they play or sing it, then we, as listeners, feel the authentic expression. The dynamics used by the musician to generate that expressive quality in the playing is not premeditated but spontaneous and natural.
Manners too can emerge naturally from a kind of social intelligence around the musical setting or use. Manners exist on a kind of spectrum from very blunt, even punk style at one end through to highly conventional, even polite at the other. Of course it is not quite as simple as this: for example, it may be entirely conventional to deliver music of a certain genre in an over-the-top, punk manner.
When expression and manners are used spontaneously rather than in a worked-out, contrived way, there is greater power and immediacy to a performance. Of course, it is perfectly possible that power and immediacy could be considered tasteless in a certain genre of very refined music.
Challenging cultural norms and championing authenticity and spontaneity
As a musician, I see my role as being one that challenges the status quo. Music has limitless depth and serves an important function in helping us deal with the human condition. Life can seem cruel, absurd and very confusing when we try to figure it out using reasoning and logic. But when we frame reality in a musical context, give it rhythm and harmony, then the ebb and flow of the story of life produces pathos, joy, melancholy, exhilaration and all kinds of deep feeling states that heal and unite us in our quest for greater things.
So music can be as nutritious and necessary for thriving as food. And I feel it is therefore very important to try and resist the pull of conventional manners and contrived interpretation in favour of authentic and spontaneous expression in order to ensure that my music contains as much unprocessed, wholesome goodness as possible! This is why I love to make spontaneous improvisation the bedrock of my musical practice.
5 Keys To Overcoming Practice Resistance
I’ve been giving some serious thought to the subject of why we get blocked around practice. Everyone struggles with practice resistance to some degree at times. I think there are 5 key insights that can help us overcome practice resistance.
1. Curiosity – rather than results
We are conditioned to want highly measurable results and tend to see practice as a discipline full of virtue or even austerity. The benefits of seeing practice as playful, curious messing about are immeasurable. The tendency to focus on results must go! The goals of our practice must be clear and be all about the skills or processes not the results of that skill. Then the results will appear naturally as a bi-product. We know that children learn best through play, as this piece explains. But this applies equally to adults in the field of music and probably in most creative disciplines.
2. Experimentation – instead of progress
We are conditioned only to trust step by step, mechanical operations. Practice is not like this. It is all about having a go, falling down and not caring and just having another go. No pressure! Although we might make a mess using this seemingly haphazard approach, it is actually highly efficacious. We learned to walk and talk this way as small children. School generates the absurd notion of linear progress and the evil of perfectionism. Practice does not make perfect. We can’t do perfect! Perfect is boring. “Play creates skill” would be a better saying!
3 Expressive – not impressive
We are conditioned to think in a comparative or critical way. So we imagine the goals of our practice as being something other people reach more easily than we can. This has terrible consequences for our development. We imagine that what we are learning is supposed to feel alien and extraordinary. In fact, it will always feel ordinary and natural. The ego mind loves a heroic struggle. But practice is no such thing (thankfully!). In order to find the right zone, we need to focus on solid, dependable things that we can trust. Sadly, the most obviously helpful things can fall into unconsciousness whilst we try to focus on stuff that is horribly taxing. The ego mind is addicted to difficulty and stress. It also craves that feeling of being entertained by doing something that impresses us. We must strip all this struggle away and just do the simple, playful things that we know work!
4. Freedom – lose your inhibition
This might sound slightly contradictory to the last point but it really isn’t! We are too inhibited! We must welcome stepping outside our comfort zone. The constraints of our self-image can cause us to feel trapped. By letting go or even being silly, we can begin to play in a fully engaged way without fear of getting it wrong. We can’t force this process of losing our normal inhibitions It actually can be very gentle. We can tease ourselves into being a bit more daring… more expressive… more free…
5. Part of your day – never a chore
Practice needs to be a habit. Much has been is written about this and some of it is not helpful. Routine is not inspiring and to force yourself to practice when you don’t feel like it is pointless. The habit of practice will form as a result of removing the conditioned mind’s pressurising thoughts and feelings. Once we are free of all this mental pressure, we can practise in the spirit of faith and curiosity. Proper playful practice really is the best thing. it is addictive! It’s the ultimate head holiday and once it kicks in, everybody loves it!
Here’s another spontaneous piano improvisation. It’s what I love to do…
The Chopin Fantaisie Impromptu is one of those iconic pieces of the classical piano repertoire. It is arguably played too much so why have I added my performance? I think the infinite ways a piece can change in the hands of different musicians is actually very interesting. My version is fast but lyrical and I search for an unexaggerated and natural romanticism and warmth.