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The Mammoth in the Practice Room: 7 reasons why musicians fall short of their potential

Guest post by Stephen Marquiss

“We’ll see you on TV one day”, they said.

By the time I reached my 29th birthday, I had been on TV once – but does a school promotional appearance really count? I could’ve made it twice, for the semi-final of BBC Young Musicians. But I withdrew through injury.

I’m not for a second seriously suggesting that being on TV is the measure of a musician; and, of course, that notion is all but obsolete in the age of TikTok. I’m talking here about potential. Nobody doubted my potential.

“Stephen is an exemplary student,” glowed my piano report, on more than one occasion.

Why, then, did I become, at the age of 18, the first student in living memory at my specialist music school to sit a theoretical A Level Music paper, in place of a performance, owing to chronic injuries and mental blocks?

Spoiler alert: I know why. This isn’t some whiney, bitter yarn about ‘what could’ve been’.

13 years after my 29th birthday, I play the piano to my satisfaction. I look forward to my practice every day and enjoy every second. I have my piano-playing cake and gorge upon it. I feel like the luckiest musician alive.

So, if you believe me, instead of sick from snivelling, you might be gagging with envy. But rewind those years to the moment I scooted out of an ensemble gig without farewells, jumped in the car, slammed the door, drove over the grass separating the car park from the road and slowed down only when I noticed a police car tailing me only to lurch off just before the road where I lived…It was the last straw in a journey that led to my disintegration as a musician and person…and which kick-started the second half of my life.

The second half of my life will be black

to the white rind of the old and fading moon.

(from Crossroads by Joyce Sutphen, quoted in the music video of my piano piece ‘The Gate of Janus’ from Joshua’s Fire, the first milestone in that transformation.)

The aforementioned gig was part of a mini-tour with a fabulous ensemble, around the time I turned 29. I’d boarded a train with a clear destination. As it turned out, I was a passenger on that train, and it veered off course.

That gig was memorable initially for the fact that another musician forgot to bring the sheet music they needed for one item. The unopposed ensemble chief addressed us both with five minutes to spare. She turned to me.

“You play, then.”

My protests were waved away.

“Play one of your pieces. Just play anything. Or improvise.”

What to most musicians would fall somewhere between a golden opportunity and a routine operation filled me with something I’d felt on countless occasions, but to a greater extent than ever before.

I sat and began the first few bars of a piece I’d composed, but when I couldn’t remember any more, I played what I recall cringingly as a sort of sequence of angry chords before scuttling off.

“Marvellous! Great!” the chief gushed.

It’s hardly a tale of woe in my privileged life. But I believe that moment encapsulated something profound; the epicentre of why you, too – or at least, someone you know – struggle(d) with playing your instrument; or fail(ed) to meet your potential; or ‘gave up’.

It stemmed from the mammoth in the practice room, namely, that I’d spent 3 years under the selfless tutelage of my middle school music teacher, followed by another 6 at a music school on a full government scholarship – surely the pinnacle of any pianist’s dream – and wound up detached, dissociated and disenchanted as an artist and person.

Something about that moment, in which I sat there, a professional musician, unable to create music, or even to remember music that I’d already created, coupled with the unflinching praise raining down like patronising pellets, brought it all into focus.

Somewhere along the line, I lost not only a sense of ownership of my talent but a sense of self. With hindsight, almost every aspect of my music-making between the ages of 9 and 18 – those formative years – with a few notable exceptions, served not to empower, open and build up, but eventually to crush any remaining creative spark, not to mention physical flow, joy and coordination.

This is veering perilously close to a whimper. But I reiterate that it’s not about me. I’m fine. In fact, I’d give any TV appearance to enjoy just one more practice session in my loungewear, in which I feel flowing, enraptured and empowered in my chosen repertoire. This is about you. If I can turn things around, from feeling so disconnected that I once took to writing down my likes and dislikes in case I forgot them, then anything is possible for you.

For a start, it’s encouraging for those who feel they lacked opportunity. I don’t blame schools or individual tutors for anything that I experienced. It was a cocktail of interactions between people, circumstances, a hefty dose of history and my spongy little personality. Having said that, perhaps – just perhaps – if you ‘merely’ strummed in your bedroom or picked out one-finger tunes, the buried treasure is still intact. Perhaps the one element essential to your success – should you choose to embrace it – is preserved in amber, bursting with untapped potential.

It’s also encouraging for those who struggle, physically or mentally, with playing an instrument. I dedicate myself to busting assumptions in piano pedagogy and creating resources that eschew the kinds of misguided thinking that, whilst not necessarily causing my downfall, undeniably exacerbated it. Whatever blocks, ceilings, obstacles and frustrations you experience in your music-making, I am hugely optimistic that you can surmount them.

Here are just seven brief reflections on antagonists to flowing, expressive music-making that pervaded my own musical studies. I believe all of them can be confidently sent packing and supplanted by enabling beliefs.

Antagonist 1: I need an expert to teach me how to play an instrument from scratch. Not necessarily. The body adapts swiftly to new tasks. Poor coordination may result more often from unhelpful assumptions than inbuilt obstructions. With helpful priorities from the outset, instinct and self-awareness may be your greatest allies. Many seemingly superhuman jazz musicians are self-taught. A humble experienced musician may assist you in preserving what’s working and freeing up what’s not. But the idea that we’re blank slates requiring our hands to be positioned at the correct angles needs to go.

Antagonist 2: I’m not talented enough. ‘Not very talented’ was a school mantra. But, given tools that work with the body and an empowering mindset, all can progress. Yes, some find it easier, but for too long now, genuine progress has been their domain. Generations have been left behind.

Antagonist 3: I need hours of drill. I’d happily expunge ‘drill’ from the musical vocabulary. It’s possible to make music from the second you touch your instrument to the moment you walk away and cultivate brilliant, expressive technique. Not only that, trying to separate technique from musical flow and your body’s corresponding response means practising coordination that bears little resemblance to real-life performing.

Antagonist 4: I’m not very creative. I was privileged to receive free tuition in musical composition from the age of 9. Some of it crushed me, some bored me and some was amongst the best tuition I ever received, because it teased my own ‘voice’ out of me. You are creative. If teaching permits you to explore, experiment, make mistakes and appraise your own work, then you’ll express your creativity. If not, you’re better off on your own.

Antagonist 5: I need to separate the parts from the whole. With the human body, this is a bad idea. I swear, by the end of music school, I was just a head. Many of my physical problems resulted from a simple decline in mobility, a denial of the sheer athleticism of playing and a failure to acknowledge and address the body as a whole. Don’t get me started about mindset – it wasn’t even a thing.

Antagonist 6: I’m tone deaf and have no rhythm. Well, ok, if you’re already a musician, you probably don’t go that far. But how many of us learnt visually without ‘inner hearing’? How many learnt to read rhythms without experiencing them in our bodies, in relation to a pulse? That’s not our fault. With humility and patience (not necessarily ‘hard work’), you can fill in gaps in your musical past and surmount corresponding difficulties.

Antagonist 7: Practice Makes Perfect. I was once told that if I missed a day’s practice, I’d go back two. The same teacher told the teenage me that there would be time for relationships – but now was the time for practice. Then I only went and made more progress in about 7 years than I did in the previous 20! I also learnt that art flows from life; and that to starve art of the life that feeds it is to suck them both away, leaving behind an empty shell.


Stephen Marquiss is a pianist, speaker, tutor and Founder of Piano Portals, a holistic approach to piano playing and radical substitute for conventional exercises. Piano Portals uncovers transformational elements of able players’ techniques that’ve been all but overlooked by history. It offers fresh, surprising points of focus for your piano practice. Find out more at pianoportals.com and patreon.com/pianoportals

1 thought on “The Mammoth in the Practice Room: 7 reasons why musicians fall short of their potential”

  1. Excellent article! it distills the journey of maybe too many musicians, me included! I am thrilled to say that Stephen is my colleague and friend! So looking forward to play together again before too long!
    Arturo

    Like

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