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!

Digital pianos vs acoustic pianos

Digital pianos are constantly improving but not everyone is altogether enthusiastic. Throughout history, changes in piano technology have generated dissent. Some people resisted changes in the design of the piano, such as the introduction of an iron frame. The warmer, rounder richer tone did not appeal to everyone; at least not at first. Real pianos are undeniably wonderful, beautiful things. Until the advent of physical modelling, I would have told people that practising even on an old, clapped-out acoustic piano was preferable to working on a dead, soulless sampled piano.

Digital pianos are not all equal

Sampled digital pianos still feel rather lifeless to me. The sound of a sampled piano is made from recordings of notes played on a fine acoustic instrument. They are great in terms of objective sound quality, but in the more subjective matter of their response to the expressive fingers of an imaginative, skilled pianist, I find them woefully lacking.

The program I use for my digital piano setup is Pianoteq which uses physical modelling rather than sampling. The sound is generated in real time and far more variety is possible. When combined with a good weighted keyboard, Pianoteq responds with an expressive subtlety, richness  and nuance that is altogether satisfying. Provided you have a powerful enough processor to handle the vast amount of data and a sound system that is truly excellent, then the quality of a digital setup is beyond reproach.

Do you know a good piano when you hear one?

My standards are exacting and my experience of playing very good pianos is extensive. I am also fiercely honest about musical matters. My musical aesthetics favour natural, human expressiveness and I dislike unnatural, over-processed music. I am an improviser and champion musical fluency rather than contriving interpretations that are rehearsed to perfection and the more natural and sensitive the response of my instrument, the happier I am playing it. And the last time I checked (recently), my hearing was excellent. So my confidence in the quality of my digital setup is completely secure and it is without any hint of defensiveness that I approach the question of why so many people believe that classical music should only be played on an acoustic instrument.

Their reasons are not really based on sound aesthetics at all. They can’t be, unless they have some kind of deficiency of hearing that makes their judgement inaccurate. Of course, there are other aesthetics at play. The mechanical pianoforte is a piece of extraordinary engineering, it has the inherent beauty of functional design, a rich history and we are bound to admire and love it much as we might a marvellous steam engine or a mechanical watch. We can add to this the enormous status value that an object of very high material value carries. A concert grand Steinway or Bechstein is a very expensive item. You would need a very large room to house one. A digital setup is perhaps marred by its competitive price, its convenience and its compact size. In short, a digital piano setup has no nostalgic design value, little status associated with elevated cost and an overall lack of glamour.

I don’t dispute any of this. I used to own a nice model C Yamaha piano and I miss it for all those reasons. Living in central London, in a small flat, I simply don’t have the space for a grand piano and I dislike the sluggish action of upright pianos. I admit that this rather prosaic, practical reason was how I came to consider digital pianos as valid practice instruments, let alone performance ones. I must also admit that the high quality of my mother keyboard, software and speaker systems actually means that I have spent more putting my digital piano setup together than I would need to spend on a decent acoustic instrument. So my setup has a certain different kind of glamour for me. As a musical instrument, however, my current setup surpasses my old Yamaha by miles. But I still miss having an acoustic piano as a symbol of something and will probably own one at some point in the future.

However, these extra-musical reasons would probably not be cited by those who believe my setup to be inferior. They would regard the inferiority to be purely musical. I have already refuted the validity of the superior tone argument. However, a few other reasons are often put forward.

An authentic instrument

One criticism I have heard is that Chopin’s music should be played on the instrument it was designed for. This argument is absurd. Chopin’s piano was very different from a modern instrument. Right up to the turn of the Twentieth Century, pianos had significant differences in design and sound compared to the modern machine that graces concert halls today. Ironically, I have access to remarkable physically modelled versions of historic pianos. Historic digital pianos strike me as a delightful paradox! My mother keyboard feels like a modern piano but it is still fun to play music on an instrument that sounds so different and that is more authentic.

Too easy

Another reason I have heard is the rather laughable one that suggests that digital pianos are easier to play. This is quite ridiculous. The resistance of the keys, the weight and the velocity response of my keyboard faithfully mirrors the feel of a fine grand piano. A keyboard without this kind of action is no use to me as a pianist. Interestingly, although some digital pianos have rather easy actions in terms of rattling out runs or trills, I would really struggle to make this kind of keyboard with its light, evenly weighted touch produce the dynamic range, beauty of tone and expressiveness I want. Therefore, I would regard it as being far more difficult to play than a piano with more resistance in the action.

Things like half-pedal and sympathetic resonances within the instrument are also often cited as missing but my setup generates them all. The only thing I can’t do, is shout into the piano, or thump it and hear its sympathetic resonance echo. Or at least, not without a microphone and a clever convolution reverb effect.

Listen or try them out for yourself

It’s true that I am a bit of a geek. I like computers and gadgets. But the truth is that you don’t need to be an out and out technophile to have a wonderful digital piano setup. I really do understand that some people simply have no affinity for technology in itself and that could account for their dislike of a digital piano setup. Of course they are entitled to their taste. That said, I might tend to regard their preference more as prejudice given that the musical result should be all that counts and I wonder how these nay-sayers would do in a blind comparison test… In the final analysis, it is their loss. But I am confident that more and more people will simply open their ears and hear the beauty of this exciting new technology.

The conundrum of empathy and authenticity

Connection and candour are the cornerstones of communication and therefore of communicative performance. We must use our powers of empathy and reveal our truth if we want people to feel fully engaged. People need to know that we care about them and what they feel as much as we care about our message.

However along with empathy and authenticity comes a thorny problem: we keenly feel people’s suspicious, judging thoughts as they look at us sharing ourselves honestly and this can cause us crippling anxiety.

Could you fake it?

A narcissist or psychopath does not have this problem. They can simply feign empathy and this is of course easier; whilst a unwavering sense of personal superiority means self doubt is not an issue for them, they can also excite our desire to please, our need to win the approval of the powerful, charismatic person on stage. But their lustre is more dazzling than illuminating. They may have personal power – invincibility even – but they are not really imparting a message of empowerment. Their message is designed to make us follow and serve, not question, experiment and test their ideas for ourselves.

The problem is that culturally, we have grown habituated to this self-regarding behaviour as the only star quality there is. In this climate, many of them become gurus of self-expression, leadership and presentation excellence. And that is a real problem for most of us who find shining so brightly somewhat terrifying as we face the harsh glare of all those critical minds evaluating our performance. Not only do we not know how to make others aspire to our dizzying heights of performing excellence, we would not wish to delude ourselves with any bizarre notions of being better than our audience. We normal empathising human beings want the audience to be on our side, in our world, part of our team and not separated by admiration. We crave a sense of belonging: arrogance feels just alienating and cold to us.

We recognise the real thing

The vulnerability that accompanies making the audience our equals can actually be one of our greatest strengths, as long as we realise that there is an energy which we can tap into that is greater than us. Just consider for a moment if you have any favourite performers – musicians, comedians or dancers – who do not perform impressively as such but who instead reveal something about themselves that makes them connect with the audience, express themselves connectedly, with vulnerability and warmth rather than impress us with their brilliance. Using a disarming spontaneity and an almost unassuming manner they grant us access to their inner world without any fake posturing, manic energy, hype or grandeur. So how do they do that?

Relying on rhythm

The answer is rhythm. Whether consciously or unconsciously, they tap into the deep matrix that underpins rhythmic structure and enter the state of flow that accompanies excellence in practice and performance. Rhythm empowers us to express our authenticity and empathy without any need for bravado or swagger. Developing a clear, conscious awareness of the rhythmic matrix enables us to tap into a magic that will make our stories come to life, ignite our passion and our charisma. And it does all this with a fundamental gentleness and generosity that is far more powerful than the empty showing off that we see so often and that is routinely touted as excellent.

The principles of rhythm are simple, childlike, playful and addictively pleasurable to practice. We can surrender to the rhythmic matrix, let it cradle us, guide us and flow through us. Then our ego will no longer fear the exposure that our empathy and authenticity might otherwise generate. This is because rhythm allows us to resonate fully and shine at full brightness as it clothes us in the natural, unpretentious magnificence that all of nature so effortlessly possesses.

Rachmaninov Prelude Op. 23 No. 6

The weaving lines and the glorious melody make this Prelude by Rachmaninov a remarkably beautiful and emotionally complex piece.

The Path to Mastery

There is a two-sided misconception around the practices of people who achieve excellence or mastery in their field. We tend to think that they either spent thousands of boring hours, trudging through dull details in mindless drills of repetition. Or that they are massively gifted and find it all incredibly easy as if divine inspiration were tirelessly guiding their effortless discovery of dazzling prowess.

Both these notions are a little absurd, dreamt up by the fragile ego’s fear and vanity. The problem is that when people who possess masterful skills talk about their journey, they can appear to describe it in ways that align to some degree with one of these two accounts. Sometimes the same person describes it in either way depending on who they are talking to or the time when they are asked. So which is it? Do they use aspects of both sides? I believe not! It is simply very difficult to talk about the reality of effective practice towards mastery without veering into one of these accepted paradigms. This is because this reality seems paradoxical and language handles paradox with difficulty.

The dark side

They are plausible accounts sometimes… If a student’s deep, inner force of talent is strong enough to generate instant impressive skills, a very arrogant ego may claim ownership and cross to the dark side. But such narcissistic individuals inevitably fall short of their potential and as such are not on the path to mastery.

Another equally narcissistic individual may attribute their skills purely to their ability to keep their nose to the grindstone and deny any deeper intuitive talent. But again, this inevitably lures them from the path. The true middle way of ideal practice makes use of neither boring trudge nor blind, effortless talent. To see how this is possible, we must first understand what mastery is…

Mastery is a journey not a destination

I was a child prodigy on the piano and I have honed my pianistic craft tirelessly my whole life. I admit that I have some serious skills that are very uncommon but I still feel like a beginner. I can’t call myself a master, it sounds overblown and grandiose; I’m actually an eternal student.

So mastery is a path not a destination. Of course, you can have dreams and goals that fuel your inspiration to practice with dedication but the journey itself is the key. We practise for the joy of practice and not for the results it brings.

Curiosity, Wonder and Awe

The background state of a student of mastery is awe and wonder. Such a powerful, profound curiosity that sustains itself is never bored nor does it shirk structure and discipline. Endless fascination naturally motivates detailed, iterative practice which develops skill in a fractal-like, evolutionary way. Always inspired to sift, refine and discover more means that you practice in a seemingly paradoxical state of disciplined focus whilst being plugged into something utterly free and magical.

This state is not made from two things mixed together. It is not an exotic cocktail or an unstable, explosive compound. It is a state where to be so absorbed by repetitious detail and structure IS the magic. And it is always a joy! No matter how boring and repetitious it may appear to an outsider looking in, this kind of practice is addictively pleasurable!

Dedicated and inspired, humble and disciplined, the student of mastery practices for love. And so do the best teachers, who aim to provide their  students with the tools they need in their practice. I prefer the word ‘toys’: tools are for work but toys are for play. The best practice is done like a child fully absorbed in creative play, perhaps in a sandpit or building castles with their blocks. A master teacher wishes for the student to gain autonomy and doesn’t criticise their interpretative choices but encourages them to say or create whatever they want to with greater clarity and precision by helping them become increasingly adept at handling the tools. A master teacher therefore empowers students and demands not obedience but enquiry, not correct execution but playful experimentation and not results but deep focus or a state of flow.

Is it necessary to teach humility? Perhaps we must in those rare cases where the intuitive skills are very strong and there are clear indications of arrogance. But most students only require gently checking to stop them from trying to impress. Arrogance doesn’t work for most normal human beings, anyway: the moment we start to be impressed by ourselves is the moment we crash and burn; so it is self-limiting and requires no dressing down of the student.

Discipline not criticism

Master teachers are nevertheless extremely rigorous. Discipline and structure have nothing to do with criticising, demoralising, breaking or shaming a student. Such sadly common approaches are counter-productive as they destroy confidence. Confidence in its true sense is actually faith. Developing real faith requires that the student tests, questions and tries to apply the tools and techniques provided by the teacher. Only through testing can faith arise. The student must have confidence in the teacher, in what is being taught and, most importantly of all, in themselves. Building this unshakeable trust is of the essence!

The moment when the path to mastery opens up for the student is a magical one. The student recognises their unlimited potential, is overjoyed by the deep simplicity, beauty and truth of the way and is filled with irrepressible curiosity, awe and wonder. This is the spirit of mastery.