What exactly is a state of flow or peak performance zone and how do you get into it? In this video I explain what flow means to me as a teacher and student of fluent musicianship and give some key pointers on how to achieve this elusive state.
As a fluent musician, to learn to play fast notes on the piano, you first need mental dexterity and then you need to be able to let go and play with physical and rhythmic freedom. It is the passive, muscle-memory approach that becomes obsessed with the physical difficulty of fast playing. In reality, strong fingers are a bit of a myth: once you can find and maintain the right mental focus whilst letting go and playing with genuine freedom, fast notes are easy to play.
It can feel quite strange for students of fluent musicianship to be forced to think of nothing but a simple model of how music works: I won’t allow students’ focus to drift towards anything other than intending musical shapes made from rhythm cells and tonal blocks plugged into the rhythmic matrix and keyboard map. At the slightest sign of critical thinking, ruminating or analysing, I pounce! Success is completely dependent on finding a single-minded moment-by-moment focus on the model and I realise that this approach can seem dogmatic. I make jokes about wanting blind obedience and PlayPianoFluently being a cult and when these jokes don’t raise a laugh, it’s a little unnerving for me…
PlayPianoFluently is not a cult!
So it’s very tricky for me as a teacher. Any cognitive distractions away from the model as you play are just that… distractions! So I have no choice but to coach people to stop thinking, to simply focus on the components of a basic model unfolding in real time! I have to test their learning as if they were five years old and five-year-olds would find it no more difficult than adults with all their sophisticated reasoning skills. It requires less deep investigation or nuanced understanding and more simple memorising. And it seems to go against the established current mores of education, mores that make a virtue of students thinking for themselves and finding their own path to understanding, mores which are good and right, I’d say, in most learning contexts. But as playing the keys fluently is a skill to be practised, rather than a path of intellectual discovery, the mind needs only to be focused and still. I would be lying if I didn’t teach it in this way.
Really I’m the very opposite of a dogmatist as a piano teacher. I do encourage students to explore, creatively, passionately and self-indulgently, just not cognitively. I want them to do it on the level of pure feeling rather than thinking, discover themselves more with the intelligence of the body and soul than the head. I want them to surrender and rebel against their fearful inner critic; to express themselves playfully, generating drama, poetry, unfolding story, nuance, tension and resolution.
Be self-indulgent, free and rebellious
How a fluent musician explores the way musical shapes unfold in the rhythmic matrix to create the amazing landscape of musical meaning is completely and utterly up to them as an individual. A teacher should dictate nothing. But the part of the brain that explores, experiences and generates this musical landscape feels less like the mind and more like the body and soul. It’s a visceral, sensual, emotional and ultimately very personal journey of discovery. The cognitive mind needs to be quiet, calm and clearly focused for this freedom to occur.
Most of the time in our busy civilised lives, we are consumed by constant mental striving: an endless cognitive chatter, measuring, checking, judging, evaluating and arguing about what and who is right and this keeps the body-and-soul part of our wisdom under wraps. Music is a rebellion against this current default way of relating to each other and the world. There are not very many activities that unlock our inner selves in this very free, unfettered way, where critical evaluation becomes redundant – certain sports might come close, especially extreme ones like surfing, martial arts and of course fluent performing arts like dancing and music-making. Making music is one of those rare activities that can totally free the genie and grant us our deepest wish to experience life directly and uncensored.
In the throes of unfolding musical expression, the mind must be humble and quiet – obedient even – whilst the body and soul become active and take over. However, the mind has a very important job to do in keeping a constant focus: it must stay awake and alert in order to choose or “tag” shapes made from rhythm cells and tonal blocks plugged into the matrix and the keyboard map. Of course, it must do that actively and this is a mental skill which requires practice. It must do this well… only nothing else!
When you know the language of music fluently, you love to discover new music. Whilst it is natural, up to a point, to want to play music we know and love, there can be rather a delusional element to this, if what you are playing sounds less intelligible than you might think…
Playing by pinning fingers to set keys destroys natural musical fluency – you can use any fingers.
If we can only play music using the same fingers every time, it means that muscle memory has such a critical role in how we play the piano that our musicianship is stunted. On the other hand. If we can play the same passage using different fingering each time, this means that we know how patterns of the music are formed within the structure of the keyboard.
This is fluency – the ability to effortlessly understand how patterns of tonality and rhythm are formed. It is the ability to intend every sound as we make it, to know where it lives in the tonal structure of the keyboard. True improvising – or composing in real time – becomes impossible if we rely on executing muscle-memorised finger patterns. We need to see that we can learn to improvise music as naturally as we speak, then we will play with ease and flow. Playing by pinning fingers to set keys destroys this natural musical fluency.
What makes a good piano sound?
A good piano sound comes from a combination of factors. We must have a decent instrument with a good range of volume and timbre. It must have a reliable action with a wide range of velocity available so that you can control the sound. Acoustic pianos must be new or well maintained, whilst all the major makes of digital pianos, Yamaha, Kawai, Roland and Casio make pianos with excellent actions.
I prefer the sounds generated either by good acoustic pianos or by physical modelling technology not sampling. This is because physical modelling can offer the same kind of detailed expressive control that you get from acoustic pianos. I use Pianoteq for my piano sounds and it is amazingly expressive and responsive and sounds great. It’s so important to remember that expressive control plays a much bigger part in generating a great piano sound than you might think… So, for a great sound to come out of any piano, you need great technical control and musical imagination to make it really speak or sing.
Expressive control plays a much bigger part in generating a great piano sound than you might think. For a great sound to come out of any #piano, you need great technical control and musical imagination to make it really speak or sing. Click To Tweet
So let’s think about how we control piano sound in more detail.
Velocity controls volume and timbre and different velocities combine to shape melody and balance harmonies. In this way we can create many different colours
Playing notes legato, or staccato, and everything in between in various combinations creates different qualities of sound.
Precise timing of musical events occur within the rhythmic groove really affects how we hear the sound. Listen to these expressive delays and how they make the sound feel thicker and warmer.
So as the music unfolds rhythmically we vary the sound dynamically in these ways. As a general rule, we make a stronger sound by playing LOUDER, LONGER or LATER and we make a weaker sound by playing SOFTER, SHORTER or SOONER. But this simple rule belies the ambiguity, subtlety and seemingly infinite complexity that arise when we play.
You’ll notice, I’m also using the sustain pedal. Because it releases all the dampers, it doesn’t just sustain notes but also adds layers of resonance to the sound as all the strings vibrate sympathetically. Half-pedalling in particular creates many different subtleties of colour.
Reverb and FX
Room acoustics affect the way a piano sounds profoundly. Where a piano is placed within a room with ambient reflections is a very important consideration and will affect the way we play. When recording, using effects like compression and chorus can also affect the sound.
A pianist must combine all these controlling factors intentionally as the music unfolds. It’s a complex process: we must do it naturally and intuitively. So the most important controller is YOU.
We must use the muscles in our hands and arms to coordinate all the movements in an economic and relaxed way. The hand works like a claw, and the fingers must feel like they are walking rhythmically on the keys. The weight of your arms must be supported by the trapezius – never twist your hands to sit on the keys with your elbows dropped or tucked in. This arm position means we can make use of gravity and never push or force, even for the loudest sounds. We must only play the keys from a touching position – touch the key surface before dropping down to the key bed. Never slap down through the keys from above as this is uncontrolled and can cause injury. The finger drops down to the key bed hitting it at the precise moment we intend rhythmically and makes a soft landing with the characteristic upward feeling at the moment of impact that we all feel in our legs when we walk, run or jump.
A good technique feels natural but precise as it must respond perfectly to our musical intention. Stick to these basic principles of technique. Don’t over-analyse or practise technique outside of playing music expressively. Obsessively developing strength or independence of the fingers is usually counterproductive and can be really damaging. Just let your fingers walk over the keys rhythmically and then they can play with natural and effortless expression.
Your creative musical mind
Your moment-by-moment expressive choices or intentions to tell your musical story meaningfully and authentically determine what dynamics, articulation, timing and pedalling you will use to make a truly great sound. These choices are all governed by our musicianship, specifically our ability to understand how rhythmic and tonal patterns make sense. This is an intuitive skill, but we can develop conscious fluency just as we all have using language. To do this, we need to develop a clear grasp rhythmic and tonal vocabulary and structure. Theoretical elements like notes, chords, intervals, keys and note values don’t generate fluency as they require too much cognitive decoding to grasp quickly enough to be fluent. My PlayPianoFluently course teaches the real vocabulary of music that we can effortlessly hear and understand naturally in real time as the music unfolds.
So to get a great sound out of a piano, we must use skill and imagination to INTEND that sound expressively. Of course, people have different tastes and music comes in different styles so it’s great that we have pianos with different sounds. We can argue about the relative merits of different pianos for as long as we like. But as long as a piano is well made and working properly, we can approach playing it by considering what particular things it can do well. What kind of sounds can it make to bring the music to life? How can I use my skills to do this?
To get a great sound out of a piano, we must use skill and imagination to INTEND that sound expressively. Click To Tweet
People often think that I manage to get a good sound on my recordings because I’m clever at tweaking the parameters in Pianoteq to make my own presets. I’m not all that clever or experienced at doing this. I do have a go at it sometimes but the default presets are actually really great as long as you use your technique and imagination to get great sounds out of them.
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!
Non-perishable skills, like language, walking, riding a bike are valuable. So many people learn set pieces and scales but without constant practice, their memory begins to fade. Aural and muscle memory do not survive the brain drain which afflicts us all. But playing the piano fluently relies on non perishable skills.
Finding a new way of learning
My ideas about musical fluency have existed for quite a while in various forms and I have shared materials via www.playpianofluently.com. I now have a solid scheme of work and am developing coherent materials that effectively create a complete course. I’m very excited to share my approach to learning piano in a way that has real clarity and structure.
I am very proud of the course and incredibly grateful to all my students, especially Dave, Paul, Thomas, Jemima and Steve for their extraordinary patience. It is really down to them that the materials exist in their current form. They demanded clear explanation and illustration of the ideas and have experimented tirelessly in their tireless quest for musical fluency on the piano.The principles behind PlayPianoFluently are simple. But to describe something which seems quite obvious to me, in a structured course, using words and pictures has been a big task.
The courage to let go – focus on the matrix and keyboard map
I love the “learning to ride a bike” analogy. Non perishable skills are a foundation for lifelong learning. Most people, when they learn to play the keys, focus on the notes – decoding the dots on the music seen as a list of pitch and time data. Alternatively they focus on the musical result and play in a “karaoke” way, relying on muscle and aural memory. Decoding is rather like examining the components of the bicycle as you ride it: the gears, the pedals, the brakes etc. Karaoke playing is like looking around you at the scenery passing by. Clearly, neither of these is the right focus to use when cycling. And they are dangerous too!
The right focus is, of course, the road. Just keep pedalling, keep your hands on the handlebars and brakes and look at the road! All the various things you do – steer, brake, pedal at different rates etc. – happen as a natural response from the body that comes with practice. All you need to do is know where you are as you focus on the path ahead. And this conscious focus on the road – although effortless to do after practice – must always be maintained.
The symmetrical structure of the matrix and the keyboard map are what forms the road in this analogy. You must focus entirely on their deep structures. This is the focus that you need, not thinking about notes. And mindless repetition or rehearsal of the exact same movements is equally corrosive to those all important non perishable skills. Too much repetitious practice can cause awful problems in even the most amazing musicians.
Explore the musical landscape
The truth is, making this shift of focus is not so difficult really. The blockages to acquiring these non perishable skills are entirely the result of the persistent mental distraction of decoding the notes and doing karaoke (the mechanics of the bike and the beautiful scenery!) If you want to analyse the score as data, then go ahead and study musical theory and analysis! If you want to passively watch the musical scenery without having to actually ride a path safely through it, then just go to a concert or put a record on! Playing fluently needs different attention.
You need to see the wholeness and symmetry that underpins the musical landscape as a constant, unchanging, familiar, beautiful and crystal clear underlying framework. Then you will be able to navigate any path you like through it, effortlessly and coherently. And because your skills are non perishable, you will enjoy exploring music for your whole life.
So when people ask “Does the PlayPianoFluently course really work?”, I give answers like, “It does if you actually do it!” or “It works for me!” I used to say that the last thing the world needed was another piano method! I felt that musical fluency as I experience it is built on a model or solid principles and that the course a student takes should be their own journey of discovery.
A tool box
It is the understanding and application of those principles with clear focus and consistent practice that is the key to success. But I realise that a well designed course is a vital tool for the student. However, It is only a tool box: or maybe a toy box. It is up to you to grasp the model, focus on it and practise maintaining that focus as you play with the materials. What you play is less important; it is what you focus on as you play that really matters. So go exploring!