A Philosophy on Practice

Why do you do it...?

In this article, I will challenge traditional approaches to practice and encourage the reader to probe deeper into the meaning and purposes of practice with a view to providing a new mindset on this much-disputed topic for the benefit of self-satisfaction and peace of mind.

"Practice makes perfect", goes the age-old adage; but does it?  I would eat my hat if even one pianist of any experience agreed with the idea that practising for many hours/days/weeks/years provided 100% success in all areas of pianism.  I know it is not the case for me and I read online regularly that it certainly is not the case for others, so I started to dig deeper into the philosophy of practice, to question what it actually means to do it and even pose the question: why do it at all?

This noun, practice, is very, very strange.  It is instilled in us from a very young age in all walks of life; whether it is a physical art form such as painting or driving, gymnastics or piano playing, or mental, such as memory training exercises for daily tasks or even song/poetry recital, we are reminded that by practising it, we will improve.

It seems to me that this may indeed not be the case because if it were so easy, everybody would simply improve at a very similar rate without the regular frustrations (comparisons with others/impatience) that come with trying and trying again, no matter what they are practising.  Perhaps there is another way to look at this notion of 'progress through so-called practice'?

I propose a way of thinking for pianists (which may be applied to other subjects but such discussion is beyond the scope of this article) which I trust will help many different kinds of pianists with their finger work (scales, chords) and perhaps even repertoire internalisation, amongst other applications which may be realised over time.

The concept of 'practice' must first be dissected in terms of pianism before being challenged as to its worthiness.

Traditionally, practice has always implied repetition, specific focus and a sense of progress from inability to ability.  By going over particular fingering, for example, one is said to eventually 'get it'.  It is undeniable that this may be the case but was it actually the repetition (practice) which generated this progress or was it actually an increased sense in self-belief; a kind of mental development which positively affected the body, thus producing the desired result without actually having to spend so much time at the piano?

As is generally known but not acknowledged enough, the body follows the mind.  Because of this fact, it seems a little illogical to suppose that 'monotonously repeating' a particular fingering or perceived difficult passage is of benefit since fingers do not have brains; it all takes place in the mind.

By extension, it may surely be suggested therefore that one be able to practise not a particular passage or fingering, but a kind of mental 'meditation' on self-belief which itself will have a positive effect on the fingers so that they may function as desired in any passage of any perceived difficulty?

To do this, the pianist is recommended to spend much time away from the piano.  Far too many pianists, of all levels, are obsessed with practising scales, chords and passages, études and technical exercises at the piano, totally neglecting the power of the relaxed mind.  Why?  This leads me on to my next point:  Why?

Practice gets in the way of playing Purposefully.  It must be understood that practice = idea of progress = implied beginning and end = end? = then what?  Once you can play every scale and chord in every key with any finger combination at any speed, then what?  This logic is very much ignored but must, must, must be considered since the final point is very important:  then what?

By believing one needs to practise as something separate from actually playing, one removes the natural flow of Self and the indescribable source of inspiration and desire that comes with it.  Practice must become part of ones playing so that the idea of 'end' is removed.  In addition, since no progress is being made since there is never an end in sight to achieve (such is musical ability), one will automatically play to the best of their ability at all times and since the value of 'good' is not fixed due to varying tastes, one may play in a constant state of mental peace and joy without the need for negativity to trickle in.  On top of this, you will feel a sense of, dare I say it, 'progress', or improvement but this must be understood to mean:  greater channelling of that which already exists in you but which has been blocked by all the negativity that the ego represents.

This concept of removing practice can be philosophised further.  If one considers their practice as playing and their playing as practice, what happens is that specific technical abilities are acquired unconsciously.  Over time, such a pianist (a 'water pianist', as I term it) plays well 'unconsciously', not having wasted a large percentage of their time on technical exercises or finger work 'consciously'.

I am reminded of a story called The Centipede's Dilemma:

A centipede was happy - Quite!
Until a toad, in fun, said:
"Pray, which leg in turn moves after which?"
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch,
Not knowing how to run.

This is quite a powerful poem because it very clearly describes the problem of conscious interference; that of when conscious thought and over-analysis gets in the way of what happens quite naturally and perfectly well all on its own.  What the pianist, of any experience, should aim for is a mindset which acknowledges no difference between practice and playing along with an understanding that technique comes not from the conscious repetition of one particular technical item but the general continuity of playing in a positive mental environment.

Consider the following four stages below:

1.  The pianist is unaware of what is necessary in order to reach a more satisfactory level of ability so does not know what to do in order to achieve it.  They may even believed that nothing more is required.  When advised, they may consider that particular skill quite useless so be unaware of the value of the deficit.  This may be called 'unconscious incompetence'.

2.  As the first stage, but now the pianist understands the value of the deficit but is unaware of how to acquire it.  This may be called 'conscious incompetence'.

3.  By now, the student has spent much time working on a particular skill by way of repetition but has experienced much frustration in the process.  By comparing their own rate of perceived progress with that of others and creating expectations in the form of a 'practice regime', usually to fail, the pianist continues to experience negative emotions and a sense of 'slow progress'.  This may be called 'conscious competence' and is the stage where many pianists of all levels find themselves in a kind of self-inflicted rut.

4.  Finally, the student may reach a point of what can be called unconscious competence in which what has been practised through forced repetition has become a habit and requires no conscious thought to execute anymore.  This is the pinnacle level to acquire yet always seems so far away due to the negative impacts of stage 3 above.

Despite what may be considered 'normal' in regular pianism, that of buying exercise books and asking your teacher/telling yourself that scales are a must, as well as correct fingering (whatever 'correct' means!?), simply try to spend time away from the piano in a state of thoughtful meditation.  Imagine you sit at your piano; what do you feel?  What sounds do you hear that you would like to play?  Is there a particular piece you wish to be able to play but currently (and incorrectly) feel is above your level?  Imagine yourself being able to play particular passages or scales, etc., without any doubt that you are unable to do so, whether you can physically or not.  This is utterly irrelevant.

During this meditative-like period (of which I recommend many), reassure yourself that it is most certainly possible for you, no matter the task/desired path, because there is no end to learning to play the piano; it is simply a constant 'now ability', for want of a better expression, and that whatever you need to be able to execute in terms of rhythm, feel or technique will come out of you with the correct mind frame.

It is not a problem to master your major scales;  in fact I recommend this above all else, but only as a tool to keep your fingers busy and to give you keyboard awareness.  They should not be considered as 'practice' to 'become better' since that will occur naturally as you play and play and play...

A balanced mind provides an equally balanced performance.  It is not the other way around.

Enjoy your present playing, remove expectations and see practice not as 'something to do to get better' but as nothing at all... simply Play You, and what is necessary, will appear.

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