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!