The Psychology of Piano Technique – Murray McLachlan

130bad77-b230-4f95-b01e-c0a12b4d2371This, the third book by Murray McLachlan’s for Faber Music on piano technique, takes a more leftfield approach to piano playing and piano technique, tackling esoteric, psychological and philosophical issues such as visualisation techniques, inspiration, musicians’ health and well-being (including dealing with performance anxiety), career development, and encouraging independent learning and interpretative decision-making. This non-traditional approach is underpinned by the premise that we should love the piano and its literature, and always seek joy and creativity in our practising and learning. If this sounds like a New Age self-help book for pianists, be assured it is not: McLachlan, an internationally-renowned pianist and teacher, writes with intelligence and authority based on his own experience as a performer and teacher and many years spent in the industry, and his approach is pragmatic and practical, offering wisdom for pianists, whether professional or amateur, students and teachers.

I particularly liked the chapters on finding flow in practising, visualisation techniques (something I use in my own teaching and playing), avoiding dogmatism (in teaching and interpretation) and stepping beyond urtext editions to find one’s personal voice at the piano. The book does not need to be read straight through and indeed I have enjoyed dipping in and out of random chapters. The text is eminently readable with clearly-presented musical extracts.

Recommended.

 

Publisher: Faber Music

ISBN: 0571540317

£12.99

Advertisements

The Perfectionism Trap

DSC_2926

“Practise makes perfect” – that oft-quoted phrase beloved of instrumental teachers the world over…. It’s a neat little mantra, but one that can have serious and potentially long-lasting negative effects if taken too literally.

Musicians have to practise. Repetitive, committed and quality practise trains the procedural memory (what musicians and sportspeople call “muscle memory”) and leads to a deeper knowledge and understanding of the motor and aural components of the music. Practising in this way leads to mastery and enables us to go deeply into our music so that we become intimate with its myriad details, large and small. Meanwhile, setting ourselves high standards is fundamental to our improvement and continued growth as musicians.

But perfectionism is a human construct, an ideal as opposed to a quantifiable reality, and as such it is an impossibility. No matter how hard you practise the fine motor skills involved in playing a musical instrument there is still no guarantee that you will never make a mistake. Go to a concert by the greatest virtuosos in the world and you will hear errors, if you listen carefully. As human beings we are all fallible, and despite our best efforts, we are subject to things outside our control, no matter how long we spend in the practise room.

Unfortunately, the desire for perfection surrounds us in modern society, and the need to achieve perfectionism is inculcated in us from a very young age. “Getting it right” is drilled into children from the moment they enter the formal education system, where they are continually assessed and tested, where correct answers are rewarded with stickers and other symbols of approval and mistakes are regarded as “wrong”.

As musicians, if we carry the unrealistic ideal of perfectionism into our practise rooms we can easily grow frustrated with our playing if it is not note-perfect. This can lead to perpetual feelings of dissatisfaction, resentment and anxiety about practising and performing. It can put undue pressure on the musician, leading to issues with self-esteem, performance anxiety, and even chronic injury, such as RSI and tendonitis. And the striving for this unrealistic goal can destroy our love of the music we play and rob us of joy, expression, communication and freedom in our music making. In short, it can lead us to forget why we make music.

The “practise makes perfect“, and alongside it the “practise until you never make a mistake” mantras encourage unhealthy working habits which lead to mindless, mechanical practising, which in turn can cause us to overlook crucial details in the music. Perfectionism filters into the subconscious and creates a pervasive, hard-to-break personality style, with an unhealthily negative outlook. It prevents us from engaging in challenging experiences and reduces playfulness, creativity, innovation, spontaneity and the assimilation of knowledge – all pretty crucial activities for a musician. If you’re always focused on your own “perfect” performance, you can’t focus on learning a task. Because by making mistakes we learn.

A mistake can and should lead us to evaluate what we are doing: a misplaced chord or run of notes may indicate an awkward or incorrect fingering scheme – something which can be easily rectified. All errors and slips should be seen as opportunities for self-analysis and critique, resulting in self-correction, adjustment, improvement and progress. Repetitive practising should be more sensibly reassigned the mantra “practise makes permanent” – and it is the permanence, an intimate in-depth knowledge of the music, that comes from intelligent practising which ensures that in performance we won’t be derailed by slips or errors, and that we can continue to perform “in the moment” with creativity, freedom and vibrant expression.

People frequently – and wrongly – equate perfection with excellence. While perfectionism is negative and damaging, excellence, on the other hand, is realistic, achievable and positive. Excellence involves enjoying what you are doing, feeling good about what you’ve learned and achieved, it develops confidence and responsiveness and offers continued inspiration. And by striving for excellence we can stay connected with our artistic muse, our desire to make music, and the overall meaning of that music.

Adventures in Interpretation

There is so much in music that is subjective and open to personal taste and interpretation. In order for us to play convincingly, we have to develop an interpretation that is meaningful TO US, vivid in all its details. Unless we are convinced by what we are doing, we are unlikely to convince our audience

Graham Fitch, ‘Practising the Piano’

I recently did an interesting exercise with all 12 of my students (young people whose ages range from 13 to 17) in which we examined and played a short piece of contemporary piano music by British composer Paul Burnell called ‘Just Before Dawn’. At this stage, I gave the students no more information about the piece.

maxresdefault

On first sight, the music looks both incredibly simple, yet also slightly confusing since there is only one stave with an arrangement of notes whose tails point both up and downwards. Most early and intermediate piano students probably have not encountered a score like this before. Initially, I asked each student to sight-read the music (the notes are not difficult). This in itself presented a challenge to a couple of students who found their left hand creeping down into the bass to play the notes whose tails pointed downwards. At this point, I simply highlighted the fact that there was only one stave marked with a treble clef and then left the student to work out how the notes should be shared between the hands.

After the piece had been played through once, I read the student the composer’s programme note for the piece

The music attempts to evoke a magical time just as as summer day is about to break, but when the stars can still clearly be seen in the sky

I then asked the student to play the piece again with the composer’s description in mind. The result was 12 distinct versions of the same piece – descriptive, expressive and personal. I then asked each student how they felt the composer indicated particularly aspects, such as the rays of the sun or the stars still visible in the sky. Some students felt the dotted minims with fermatas represented the sun, while others thought these notes were the stars still twinkling in the sky. One student referenced John Cage when we were discussing the simplicity of the music (this student “performed” Cage’s 4’33” at one of our concerts); the same student couldn’t believe I was playing ‘Just Before Dawn’ in a concert the day after his lesson and queried why one would play something “so easy” in a public concert. This led on to an interesting conversation about what constitutes “difficult” or “easy” music and what kind of music is “appropriate” for public performance (the subject of a forthcoming blog article).

I found the exercise really interesting (and I hope my students did to), for it offered an intriguing insight into the notion of musical “interpretation” and how one’s personality, perception, musical knowledge/musicality, life experience etc comes into play when we make music. As I said to each student, “there is no right way, I’m simply interested to hear what you make of this piece”. When I went to perform the piece in a public concert, my students’ individual performances and views of the music came to mind and I found myself shaping the music in a different way.

I am looking forward to repeating this exercise with some adult pianists at a later date.

Download the score of ‘Just Before Dawn’ here

Explore more of Paul Burnell’s piano music here

 

Picture this

Using visualisation techniques in playing, performing and teaching

Visualisation techniques have been used by sports people and sports psychologists for some time now to enable the tennis player or athlete, the golfer or cyclist to prepare for a match-winning shot or prize-winning sprint. The technique involves imagining an ideal scenario and positive outcome to achieve one’s goal. Musicians are now using similar techniques to create better results and more vivid, expressive music than physical practising alone can achieve. Visualisation techniques also have a role in coping with anxiety and can help create a sense of inner calm before a concert or important performance.

Shaping phrases

Use one’s mind’s eye, and ear, to imagine the shape and sound of a particular phrase, its arc and its conclusion. Picture the movement of fingers, hand and arm flowing through the phrase, hear the phrase internally, play the phrase in your head and only when you are completely comfortable with the “inner aural picture”, play the phrase on the piano. Listen closely, and note the physical sensations of playing the phrase (the pads of the fingers touching the keys, the flexibility of hand and wrist, the movement of the forearm, breathing). This information provides expert, personal feedback to enable one to play the phrase in the same way each time. Gradually, just as in repetitive physical practice, brain and body learn the sequence of movements and expected sounds to recreate the phrase, and the habit of visualising the music before one plays becomes almost intuitive. This kind of visualisation can also be done away from the piano: imagine hearing the music in your mind’s ear, while in your mind’s eye imagine the fingers playing each note, tackling that tricky fioritura or complex passage, and shaping the music. You don’t even need the score to practise like this.

Colouring sound

A passage may call for a certain instrumentation – the brightness of brass, the warm sonority of woodwind, plucked ‘pizzicato’ strings, the lucid cantabile of the human voice. Take a moment to hear the sound internally, play it through in your mind – “imagine the sound” – and then play the passage. I use this technique very frequently in my own playing and teaching, and it never fails to amaze me how easily the sounds heard in one’s head can translate to the desired sounds on the keyboard. It reminds one that the imagination is a very powerful tool: the only limit to visualisation is the constraint of one’s imagination.

I use the above techniques widely in my teaching as I find that children of all ages, and adults too, respond to and enjoy calling the imagination into play. For young children, asking them to describe what they think a piece is about, what pictures or stories the music suggests to them (while reminding them that there is “no right answer” to whatever they suggest) can enable them create a vivid or expressive sound in their playing and helps them understand that playing music is about communicating their personal vision to others. Many pieces for children have titles which go some way to stimulating the imagination, but within a piece there might be a certain chord or chord progression, a particular crunchy harmony or phrase for which one might create a personal aural picture.

Teenage students also respond to visualisation. A number of my students are also string players and I ask them to imagine how they might bow or articulate a certain passage and to then try and recreate this on the piano. This is particular useful when teaching music by Mozart, Clementi, Beethoven and Schubert (and their contemporaries) for so much of their piano writing is influenced by and reflects string writing.

I also ask students to suggest words which describe the music – not musical terms but other adjectives which spring to mind when considering the piece. Sometimes a student might writer these on the score as an aide memoir. One of my students had an remarkable clear personal narrative for C P E Bach’s Solfeggio which in turn allowed her to play the piece with great variety of expression. For more on descriptive words inspired by music see the wonderful Musical Adjectives Project conceived by Dr Gail Fischler.

Adult students often struggle to achieve the sound they desire, perhaps inspired by the sound of a favourite recording or pianist, and the frustration of not achieving that sound can lead to physical tension. I observed at first hand the power of visualisation techniques at work when on a piano course with a friend of mine. The friend wanted to create a very smooth singing legato in a Mendelssohn Song Without Words. She could articulate, in words, exactly the kind of sound and expressive line she wanted but was frustrated by her inability to achieve this when playing. The tutor asked her to take a few moments to “hear the sound” and see the shape of the phrases in her mind before she played. The effect was immediate and quite incredible – that such a simple exercise could transform the sound so much and so effectively.

Take time before you play to “imagine the sound” – you may be surprised by the results!

Relieving and mental physical tension

One of my teachers has a very simple but immediately useful exercise – to imagine the arms are supported on a hot air balloon. They are floating slowly upwards on a lovely warm cushion of air. When the arms are about forehead height, the balloon is replaced by a parachute which gently floats the arms and hands down into the keyboard. This creates a wonderful lightness and softness in the hands, wrists and forearms and provides the perfect position from which to play and create a good sound.

Another useful image is to picture the arms made of thick rubber bands, without bones, which can move freely. Children find this image quite funny and quirky.

If you are prone to physical tension when you play, first centre yourself at the keyboard, mentally and physically. Close your eyes and imagine yourself playing the first phrase of your piece – inhale and exhale slowly and as you do, float your hands to the keyboard, hear the first phrase in your head, imagine the movements you will make to play the first phrase, and only when you are ready, play the phrase. Continue to play while visualising effortless playing with a calm and focused state of mind.

In performance

We know that being well-prepared, knowing that we have done our practising, thoughtfully and mindfully, can go some way to allaying the anxiety of performance. Visualisation can help too. Recalling a successful previous performance can be very helpful in creating a calm and focused state of mind ahead of another performance. This may include recalling features such as the decor of the room, the light shining through a window, as well as our own physical and emotional sensations, moods or stories triggered by the music. Such stories or moods are personal to us and may have nothing whatsoever to do with the music, but they are our stories which enable us to bring our music to life with colour and expression.

Sometimes it is helpful to “channel” a musician whom you admire. I used this technique with one of my students who was preparing for auditions for the junior departments of some of London’s top conservatoires. She was, understandably, quite anxious so I asked her to imagine she was her favourite violinist (Nicola Benedetti) and to think “what would Nicola do?” ahead of her performance. We talked about aspects such as good preparation but also stagecraft, poise, deportment and greeting the audience/audition panel.

Managing anxiety

Athletes are masters of “relaxed concentration” and the ability to imagine graceful movement and successful outcomes. We too can use visualisation techniques to launch a successful and convincing performance from the opening phrase to the closing cadence. In the (roughly) 24 hours leading up to a performance, make sure body and mind are rested, free of extraneous thought or activity. In the hour or so before the concert begins, when you are waiting in the green room, run a scenario something like this through your mind: picture yourself calmly leaving the green room and walking across the stage. You pause by the piano to take a bow and acknowledge the audience. You sit at the piano and lift your hands to the piano to begin the first piece. All your movements are calm and relaxed, your mindset is positive and focused. You play the music through in your mind, always aware of your physical sensations. All the time, imagine you are calm and relaxed, free of tension in body and mind. Most musicians have their own personal strategies for managing anxiety, but calling on the imagination can be a surprisingly powerful tool. Whether you imagine you are walking barefoot through a cooling stream or dew-soaked grass or you are watching yourself play with movements that are effortless and graceful, using visualisation can be a very powerful tool when it comes to achieving your goals. It is said that the brain cannot differentiate between “intense visualisation” and reality. So if you close your eyes and play out the role or scenario in your mind of how you want to project yourself, imagining confidence, a vivid and expressive sound, deep communication with your audience, when you actually perform the brain will be relaxed and ready. However, it must not be forgotten that visualisation cannot replace the confidence that comes from hours and hours of intelligent, focused practising.

Inspiration from left-handed pianist NicholasMcCarthy

Further reading

Proprioception and VisualizationPerformance anxiety and pressure relievers

You don’t have to be perfect to be amazing

The desire for perfection surrounds us in our modern society. “Getting it right” and “being perfect” are inculcated in children from the moment they enter the formal school system, where they are continually assessed and tested, where correct answers are rewarded with stickers and other symbols of approval and mistakes are regarded are “wrong”.

Many piano students carry this need to be perfect with them when they come to the piano and can easily grow frustrated with their playing if it is not note-perfect. Unfortunately, perfection is unattainable – because we are all human and we make mistakes. And by making mistakes, we learn. People frequently – and wrongly – equate perfection with excellence. While perfectionism is negative and damaging, excellence, on the other hand, is achievable and positive.

I encourage all my piano students to put aside thoughts of “perfection” and to instead strive for excellence (within their own capabilities), for expression, musical colour, vibrancy and a sense of “ownership” in their playing, but such results are hard won and take a lot of encouragement and positive affirmation on my part. Many students say to me “the examiner will mark me down if I play wrong notes”. In fact, examiners are looking for playing which displays musicianship and musicality, expression and communication. Of course an accurate performance is desirable, but it is not the be all and end all.

I go to many concerts and hear many pianists, amongst them some of the finest on the international piano circuit. I have heard memory lapses, smeared scales, muffed chords, but I have also heard a wealth of exciting, memorable and truly amazing performances. I have also heard note-perfect performances which lack personality, with no discernible connection between audience and performer, are over-thought, or just plain dull.

How to be amazing:

  • Know your pieces well (the result of careful, thoughtful practising). This is also good insurance against performance anxiety
  • Think about the special character of each of your pieces. What images or stories does the music suggest? “Tell the story” of the music to your audience using dynamics, articulation, clearly defined phrasing, and a vibrant sound
  • Play with confidence and poise (this makes your audience feel confidence too). If performing before an audience, even if only at home to family and friends, don’t scurry shyly to the piano and never pre-empt your performance with negative comments such as “I played this so much better at home” etc.
  • Before you play, take a few moments to prepare yourself. Don’t rush into the opening bars of the piece. Instead hear the music in your head, imagine your hands playing the notes. Remind yourself what the piece is about, for you, and think about how you wish to communicate this with your audience.
  • Banish negative self-talk while you are playing and remain focused on the music. If you feel your concentration slipping, take a deep breath in and exhale slowly to pull your focus back to the music.
  • Gain pleasure from your music and enjoy playing it, to yourself and to others. Music was written to be shared!

People go to concerts to be transported away from the every day. They enjoy the emotions which music inspires in them, and the sense of communication between performer, the music and listener.

Be amazing – at home when you’re practising, in front of others when you’re performing, but above all, enjoy your music!

Small people at the piano – a student concert

Learning PianoThis weekend I had the great pleasure of attending a concert given by students of my friend and piano teaching colleague Rebecca Singerman-Knight. Based, like me, in Teddington, SW London, Rebecca specialises in early years’ piano tuition, as well as children and adult beginners and returners. Most of the children performing in her concert were very young and some had only been learning the piano for a few months. However, each child stepped up to play with confidence and evident enjoyment, and each performance was received with enthusiastic applause by parents, grandparents, siblings and friends. Rebecca’s cheerful, smiling and encouraging manner ensured the atmosphere in the church hall was friendly and supportive. In addition to solo performances, some children played duets, with Rebecca and with other students, and at the end of the concert Rebecca herself played two Visions Fugitives by Prokofiev. Contrasting in mood and character, before she played she asked her students to think of titles for the pieces, thus involving the children and encouraging them to listen carefully.

I cannot stress too highly the importance of encouraging children to perform, no matter what their age or level of ability. Performing breeds confidence, an important life skill, and endorses all the hours spent practising and studying. For students, parents and teachers, performing demonstrates that piano lessons lead to real, noticeable achievement, and hearing other students perform different pieces is inspiring and exciting. Above all, performing reminds us that music was written to be shared. It is also very important that teachers perform: by doing so, we show our students that we know how to practise properly, that there is a difference between practising and performing, that we can manage our performance anxiety, and that our study of the piano doesn’t stop when we become teachers.

All in all, it was a lovely occasion, which I felt privileged to attend. I very much look forward to seeing how Rebecca’s students develop as young pianists at future events.

More on the value of performing here

Piano with Rebecca Singerman-Knight

The Performing Teacher

I meet many piano teachers, at courses, workshops and masterclasses. It is always good to meet other piano teachers, to exchange ideas, and to enjoy a collective grumble about the exigencies of the job. Many of the teachers whom I meet are also performing musicians, professional or otherwise, and many regard performing as a necessary, indeed crucial, part of the job as a teacher.

I also meet many teachers who do not perform, for one reason or another. Some cite lack of time, others anxiety or lack of confidence. I actually met one teacher who claimed she was “too afraid” to perform for her students in case she made a mistake.

As teachers, performing is, in my opinion, a necessary part of the job. An exam is a performance, and we need to be able to guide and advise our students on how to present themselves in a “performance situation” (exam, festival, competition, audition), and to prepare them physically and emotionally for the experience. A whole new and different range of skills are required as a performer, and it is important to stress to students the difference between practising and performing. We also need to be able to offer support for issues such as nerves and performance anxiety, and to offer coping strategies to counteract the negative thoughts and feelings that can arise from anxiety. How can you train others to perform if you have never done it yourself?

I used to be shy about performing, because I lacked performance opportunities when I was at school, and then had a long period away from the piano in my 20s and 30s. But I quickly realised when I started teaching that I would need to “get over myself”, and my shyness, and learn how to be a performer if I was to be useful to my students as their teacher. The hard fact about performance anxiety is the only cure is to do it. Just do it! I will never forget the sense of elation and self-fulfillment at having successfully and convincingly delivered a Chopin Étude at a concert hosted by my teacher, the first time I had performed in public in over 25 years. Sure, it was nerve-wracking, but I knew I was well-prepared – and this to me is the most crucial aspect of performing and teaching others about performing: preparation.

A successful performance demonstrates that you have practised correctly, deeply and thoughtfully, instead of simply note-bashing. Preparing music for performance teaches us how to complete a real task and to understand what is meant by “music making”. It encourages us to “play through”, glossing over errors rather than being thrown off course by them, and eradicates “stop-start” playing which prevents proper flow. You never really demonstrate your technique properly until you can demonstrate it in a performance. Performing also teaches us how to communicate a sense of the music, to “tell the story”, and to understand what the composer is trying to say. It adds to our credibility and artistic integrity as musicians. And if you haven’t performed a piece, how can you say it is truly “finished”?

I always perform in my student concerts, not to show off, but to demonstrate to my students (and their parents, who pay my bills!) that I can actually do it, that I too am continuing my piano studies by preparing repertoire for performance, and that I have managed my performance anxiety properly. I also feel that by performing with my students, we transform our concerts into a shared music-making experience.

I hope that by hearing and watching me playing, my students can better grasp aspects of technique or interpretation we might have discussed in lessons, as well as enjoying the sheer pleasure of listening to piano music, and perhaps drawing inspiration from it. I also get ideas when I am performing which inform my teaching.

For the teacher who is nervous about performing, one can start in a very low-key way by hosting an informal concert at home, or by joining a piano group, such as the one I run with my colleague Lorraine, which provides a supportive and friendly environment where people can perform for one another. Choose repertoire with which you feel comfortable, and practise performing it a few times (at least three) to friends, family and pets before putting it before an audience. I guarantee your students will be dead impressed by anything you can play as a teacher!

Resources

London Piano Meetup Group

Music from the Inside Out by Charlotte Tomlinson. A clear and well-written book on coping with performance anxiety, with tried and trusted techniques for dealing with nerves and improving self-confidence.