Be an Olympian at the piano

The London 2012 Olympics are a wonderful celebration of sporting success and the superb achievements of Team GB (and others) are an inspiration to us all. Of course such triumphs do not come easily, and every medal winning British athlete interviewed has put their success down to hard work, commitment and focused training, day in day out. Cyclist Mark Cavendish (who sadly failed to achieve a medal in the cycling road race) commented after Team GB won gold in the team pursuit in the Velodrome that to be that good you must “spend hours training on the track, from 7 in the morning to 10 at night”. This sounds like a punishing regime – indeed, it is a punishing regime! – but there is no doubting that these athletes do it because they are driven to achieve and because they love their sport.

British cyclist Bradley Wiggins who won the gold medal in the Olympic time trial

Musicians are like athletes in lots of ways: we train endlessly for a few important competitions, concerts, festivals and exams, or we might play what we love just for fun, but it all comes down to enjoyment and fair play, and there is plenty we can learn from Olympic athletes to help us in our day to day “training” (practising).

Commitment and Discipline: practice regularly! You don’t win gold medals on one training session a week. Remember: regular practice = noticeable progress

Focus: get into the habit of knowing which aspects of your practice need most attention. It might be technical work or a tricky passage in one of your pieces. Learn how to pinpoint problem areas and work over them in a focused way

Self-belief: tell yourself you can do it and trust your musical instincts. Don’t be put off by small errors in an exam or festival performance, and don’t let fear of failure hold you back. Learn from every mistake you make.

Dream big, aim high: set yourself challenges and clear goals – a Distinction in your next exam, first prize in that competition, an involving and exciting concert performance – and “go big” on the day. Work hard, but don’t stop loving what you do.

Keep fit: like an athlete, a musician should stay healthy. Do warm up exercises to help relieve tension, look after your body, and never play through pain.

Be creative: if your are finding your practising boring, think of ways to make it more interesting. Don’t be afraid to try new approaches and take advice from teachers, mentors and other musicians.

Train the brain: learn how to deal with performance nerves and fear of failure. “Download” your anxieties by writing them down: this can help you step back from your nerves and rationalise them. Get used to the pressure by filming or recording yourself performing, or by performing for your family at home. Use relaxation techniques such as deep-breathing, repeating a phrase or “mantra”, or visualising yourself in a successful performance situation. (See this article on stage fright.)

Get inspired: go to concerts and masterclasses with the professionals, and find out what makes them tick, how they prepare for that big event, and what motivates them to keep going (read my Meet the Artist interviews to find out more about what drives professional musicians).

Celebrate achievement: take pride in your exam or festival successes. Whether it’s Grade 1 or Grade 8, it all counts, and each success should inspire you to aim higher and greater.

Love what you do: every single musician, professional or amateur, that I’ve met does it because they love it. And I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it!

Good luck!

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