Piano teaching, Practising

Curiosity in piano practice

Guest post by Alexandra Westcott

It is said that a sign of madness is to repeat something and expect a different outcome. How often do pianists practice in the same way and expect something to come right, without questioning the problem that needs fixing? For a musician, practising should be about solving problems, yet musicians often practise mechanically, having grasped neither the true nature of the difficulties at hand nor their ideal solution. I myself was that person at 9.  I just played and played and assumed that what was wrong would magically come right just by my repeating it. In my defence, no one had ever told me any differently.  Now, however, how to practice is the single most important thing I teach my students, and I encourage them to spend their time getting it right, not putting it right.

I find it impossible to discuss this without reference to F M Alexander.  Of the dictum “Try, try, try again….” he said,  “If at first you don’t succeed, never try again, at least not in the same way. Trying to be right, trying to endgain, is the surest way to failure. So, ‘try again this time with less tension’, or ‘don’t try again, do something else altogether’” .

When we want to make a change we have to go way beyond our physical reactions, back to our deeply ingrained mental and physical responses.  And, we need to do this in a quiet and attentive way. Mostly we are too goal orientated, and don’t stay present in the process of reaching the goal, so existing tensions and awkward habits prevent us from achieving that goal.  Finding a physical, mental and emotional stillness and clarity engenders the circumstances that enable us to have a free tactile contact with the instrument for a directness and depth of musical expression.

Sometimes this means we need to develop a whole new understanding of ourselves and our approach to the music and the instrument.  Being able to ‘be’ in a more simple and direct way means undoing and letting go of preconceptions, both physical and mental, that we have ingrained in us and that we feel keep us ‘in control’.  And therein lies the crux of the matter!

We think we have control when in fact often we are at the mercy of our automatic habits and reactions and the resulting tensions. That’s why it is so important to be alert and curious during a practice session; to see what might not be helpful to us, even if it is how we have been playing for years (in fact especially if it is how we have been playing for years…) and how we can change it.  ‘Exercises’ to fix technical issues are only any good if we use them to change a habit; play three pages of whatever it is you are trying to ‘fix’ in the same way you have been playing for years and you merely embed the problem, possibly creating even more tension (mental and physical) along the way.  Pedro de Alcantara, in his book ‘Indirect Procedures’ says: “Musicians often take an exercise that is potentially beneficial and make it harmful, by dint of the way they practise it.” So we need to know exactly what needs changing before we can set about exactly what therefore needs doing and how to do it.  And it never stops. I have been working this way for over 25 years but still find new levels of freedom and understanding, noticing either habits that are getting in my way, or discovering good habits I have yet to build!  Additionally, my engrained way of being, and my personality, is one that still, even now, thinks more is more! But when I remember to let go and stop being so ‘busy’ then it is much easier to, literally, go with the flow.

To really master the freedom that gives velocity and expression a voice at the piano we need to be a clear channel for our musical intention.  One that can become expressed in sound through an alert, free and sensitive contact with the keys, so unpicking anything that impedes that intent is worth it.  We just need to learn to be vigilant and interrogate our habits; to question, and then undo, the things that we have done without thinking for years.  This needs a total attention to our ways of playing. And as an added hindrance we feel comfortable with what we know. The Alexander Technique refers, more usefully, to the word ‘familiar’, as often it is that with which we are ‘comfortable’ which is causing the problems! It can feel decidedly ‘uncomfortable’ to manage oneself in a different way, but when I personally have managed it the rewards have been huge.

I remember during a session with Nelly (Ben Or, the foremost proponent of approaching the piano using the ideas of FM Alexander) when she said she couldn’t tell me what to do, just what not to do.  One of my own students coined it the ‘zen’ of piano playing.  As an external onlooker Nelly could often see where my tensions and problems lay, but other times those tensions are so internal that they are only felt (ie by me) and cannot be seen by an outsider.  This is why the best thing we can do is become our own detective.  No one is the same physical shape and size, or with the same mindset, so teachers can show the way but we have to travel the journey ourselves. We have to accept self responsibility and find our own solutions to problems as those problems, and consequent solutions, are almost certainly unique to us.

A note on the benefit of learning (i.e. memorising) the music away from the piano. Approaching new music this way is a good start to avoiding one’s initial physical response to a text; a response that can produce artificial technical obstacles which arise from old ways of mechanical practicing and mental vagueness and which then need to be undone for a flowing and easy performance.  Technical issues instead become a series of mentally worked out and clear components – ‘beads’- that are strung together smoothly. Suddenly ‘effortless’ playing produces beautiful sounds, singing and flowing melodies, and fluid runs.  It is harder mental work, but well worth it as the results are a quicker learning of the text and with fewer physical hiccups on the way. And it sounds obvious, but experience has shown me that very often smudging notes and stumbling over a passage is due to a lack of mental clarity rather than a technical obstacle.

This questioning curiosity is one of the magical things for me about learning and practising at the piano; there is nothing more exciting that having struggled with something, to notice exactly what I’m doing, find a fix and then discover that it works and the problem is solved/solveable! It does take detective work, and attentive playing until a new habit is formed, but it means practice is engaging and fun, interesting and enlightening, and the rewards and results are immense as they open up the possibilities of how, and therefore what I can play.

Alfred Cortot is credited with saying:

Playing the piano is either easy or impossible

Use your time at the instrument to ensure that it is easy.

Alexandra WestcottAlexandra Westcott, BA Piano teacher/Accompanist

Follow me on twitter: @MissAMWestcott

A Fellow of the ISM, Muswell Hill N10 07966 141944


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