The Perfectionism Trap

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“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.

Should you ever put your piano in storage?

It’s a heartbreaking decision many pianists face at one time or another. You have to move to a smaller home – or maybe move overseas for a new job – and you just don’t have space to keep your piano with you. Or it’s simply not practical.

At first sight, the choice seems to be between selling your piano and putting it in storage. Neither option is easy. Naturally, storage seems like the least-worst. At least then you don’t have to part with your beloved piano.

The trouble with storage…..

Storage is far from perfect, however. On the one hand, it can end up costing you thousands per year just to hold onto an instrument that you never play. On the other, the ambient temperature and conditions in many storage warehouses are not optimal for keeping your piano in good condition.

Too dry, and many of the parts of the instrument will contract. Too humid, and many of the parts will swell. These conditions could lead to loose tuning pins, loosening or drying out of glue joints, blemishes in the finish, even rusting strings. And an expensive restoration bill when you do finally take your piano out of storage.

One piano shop owner and restorer told us that he was recently given two pianos to restore. Both of them had been damaged by their time in storage. One of them had had all its felt parts eaten away by moths!

A better alternative…….

Now, the ideal humidity level for a piano is around 40%. And while you might want to check with prospective storage providers that they can guarantee this if they take your piano, there is a third option to consider.

Why not give your piano to a shop to rent out for you?

This is a great option that means your piano will be taken care of. Any issues with its condition will be spotted and treated right away – and the shop will take care of them for you. All at no charge to you, because they’ll be paying for maintenance and upkeep out of the money they make on the rental.

Just think – your piano will be properly cared for. You won’t have to shell out thousands a year in storage fees. And, best of all, it will still be yours. So you can claim it back at any time.

If you’re moving to a smaller home, talk to your piano mover to see if they know any reputable shops who can handle this for you. Most professional removal firms will be able to do this if you ask them.

Or you can do a search yourself for local piano shops who may be able to help. Talk to them so you can be satisfied they’ll take care with your piano. The peace of mind and savings you’ll enjoy are sure to outweigh any possible inconvenience.

 

This article was written by Damien Seaman, brand manager of buzzmove.com, a site where people can compare reliable removal companies

 

This is a sponsored post. All information was supplied by buzzmove

Disclaimer: Frances Wilson’s Piano Studio does not necessarily endorse organisations that provide sponsored posts which link to external websites, and does not endorse products or services that such organisations may offer. In addition, Frances Wilson’s Piano Studio does not control or guarantee the currency, accuracy, relevance, or completeness of information found on linked, external websites. However, every effort is made to ensure such information contained on this site is accurate at the time of publication.

Stop-Start

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During a conversation in a recent lesson with one of my students, she told me that her previous teacher would stop her every time she made a mistake and ask her to correct the error before continuing. She admitted to me that she found this habit irritating and I asked her what effect it might have on her playing. “It stops you playing with flow“, she replied.

She’s right, of course. Like the person who continually interrupts when you are trying to explain something, or read a presentation, the teacher who continually stops a student to correct mistakes is interfering with the “flow” of the music. Students will also stop themselves to correct mistakes, a pattern I am trying to correct by encouraging students to “play through” their pieces when they come to play for me at their lessons. Unfortunately, such habits are hard to shift, especially when kids today exist in a school culture which insists on “right answers”, and the ticking of the correct boxes.

Music is different. It is the “flow” of music – the sense of a narrative unfolding – which makes it appealing and engaging to listen to and audiences, examiners (and teachers!) would far rather hear a complete performance with a few errors or slips than stop-start playing which seems hesitant and disjointed. My students don’t believe me when I tell them that most audiences don’t even notice minor errors and that even the finest pianists in the world make mistakes. We are all human after all! I prefer students to play right through a piece before we go back over it together to work on details. An alert student can usually highlight where errors occurred and will know how to correct them, and I encourage my students to be active listeners who can make a mental note of any slips while they are playing, knowing they can check them afterwards.

There is another good reason why stop-start playing is not recommended. Musicians, like sportspeople, use procedural memory (more commonly called “muscle memory”), part of the long-term memory which is responsible for knowing how to do things, i.e. memory of motor skills (for example, to play arpeggios or whole pieces or music). Repetitive practise trains the procedural memory and when done correctly it enables us to store a set of movements in our memory. It is this memory function that enables us to land on the right notes at the right time, to complete that scalic run accurately, or to play a series of chords, and so forth.

If we always stop at the same point/s in the music, the procedural memory remembers this and the stopping points become embedded in the memory. So when you go to play the piece, you will always stop in the same places, thus creating hesitations in the music which interrupt the flow. The avoid this I encourage students to play through, skimming over mistakes. Some find this exercise quite difficult, which is an indication of how engrained the need to correct errors can become. I also encourage students to practise in a variety of ways: to do careful, detailed practise to make problematic sections secure; and to play their pieces through without stopping (this is particularly helpful when preparing for an exam or other performance). During performances in lessons I do not stop students while they are playing: I always prefer to hear a whole piece, even if there are some errors, than a stop-start “performance”.

Effective practising for a performance diploma

Managing the practise of a selection of pieces, as one needs to when preparing for a performance diploma, can be problematic and at times frustrating.

I find juggling four works at the same time so tricky. If I leave one aside for a while, even only a week, it seems to fall apart!

For my Associate performance diploma I had 7 works in the programme and for the Licentiate 8 (I treated the Bach keyboard concerto as 3 works from the point of view of practising). All the pieces had their own particular difficulties, knotty sections which needed focused practise. Ensuring that everything was practised regularly and systematically became a feat of juggling and time-mamagement, as my practise diary attests, with each day’s work minutely mapped. One of the most important things I took away from the experience of preparing for my Diplomas was understanding how to practise deeply and thoughtfully.

  • If you have limited time to practise, learn to be super-efficient. If it helps, map your practise time in advance and keep notes of progress in a notebook. These notes should include 1) what you plan to achieve at each practise session and 2) what you actually achieved. The notes you make after the practise session should offer food for thought and consideration at the next practise session. However, allow your practise plan to be flexible – there will be days when you can’t practise, or don’t feel like practising, and I believe it is important to be kind to oneself on those situations, rather than beat oneself up for not practising. Rigid schedules can be unrealistic and dismotivating.
  • You don’t have to do all your practising in one chunk (and bear in mind that after about 45 minutes, one’s attention is waning and it’s time for a break, if only five minutes to do some stretches and make a cup of tea). Taking breaks during practise time helps to keep one focussed and engaged and ensures practising is productive and mindful, rather than mindless “note-bashing”.
  • Learn how to dissect the pieces to spotlight which areas need the most attention. Take out technically challenging sections and “quarantine” them so that they get super-focused work. And don’t just quarantine sections once: build quarantining into your regular practise routine and return to those problem areas regularly to ensure noticeable improvement.
  • Break the pieces down into manageable sections and work on those areas which are most challenging (technically, artistically or pianistically) first while your mind is still fresh and alert. Start anywhere in the piece, work on a section, and then backtrack and do an earlier section before knitting those sections back together.
  • With a multi-piece programme, try to have the works on a rotation, so that you start with a different work (or movement if playing a sonata or multi-movement work) at each practise session rather than spending a week, say, working on a single piece.
  • Even when you feel a piece is well-known and finessed, spend some time doing slow practise, memory work, separate hands practise etc. Be alert to details in the score – dynamics, articulation, tempo etc: even, and especially, when a piece is well-known we can become complacent about such details and overlook them.
  • Schedule regular play-throughs of entire pieces, and (about 3 months prior to the diploma date) the entire programme, even if some works are not fully learned/finessed. This allows you to appreciate the overall structure and narrative of both individual works and the entire programme, and helps to build stamina.
  • Practise away from the piano is useful too. Spend time reading the scores and listening to recordings – not to imitate what you hear but to get ideas and inspiration. Go to a concert where some of your repertoire is being performed and in addition to listening, look at the gestures and body language the pianist uses and how he/she presents the programme (all useful pointers for stagecraft and presentation skills, on which one is judged in a performance diploma).
  • When we’ve been working on the same pieces for a long time, we can lose sight of what we like about them as we get bogged down in the minutiae of learning. It’s worth remembering what excited you about the pieces in the first place, why you chose them and what you like about them (I ask my students to make brief notes about each of their exam pieces, and I did the same for my Associate programme).
  • Above all, enjoy your music and retain a positive outlook throughout your practising.

Further reading

The 20-Minute Practice Session – article on Graham Fitch’s blog

I offer specialist support for people preparing for performance diplomas, including advice on planning a programme, writing programme notes, stagecraft and managing performance anxiety – further details here

Rewiring turns “I can’t” into “I can”

cf3a43f548ef0b0425f8af95032b8849Whenever we have a thought or physical sensation thousands of neurons are triggered and get together to form a neural network in the brain. “Experience-dependent neuroplasticity” is the scientific term for this activity of continual creation and grouping of neuron connections which take place as a result of our personal life experiences. With repetitive thinking, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons each time, and neuroscientists and psychologists have found that the brain can be “trained” to build positive neural traits from positive mental states. The trouble is, the brain tends towards the negative: it is very bad at learning from good experiences and very good at learning from bad ones. This negativity bias was very important in keeping our ancestors alive during times of great hardship and danger, but in our 21st-century brains it can be a block that prevents positive experiences from becoming inner strengths which are built into our neural structure.

As musicians most of us are very familiar with “the inner critic”, that destructive voice within that can sabotage a practise session or performance and damage our self-esteem with negative self-talk. The ability to self-evaluate one’s playing and performance and give oneself critical feedback is of course very important: it enables us to practise effectively and mindfully, it encourages humility in our work and tempers the ego. Equally, we should be able to accept criticism and feedback from teachers, mentors, colleagues and peers, provided it is given in the right way. But if our own self-criticism, and/or the comments of others, is repeated too often we can fall into a spiral of negativity.

From the teacher who continually undermines the student with negative feedback to the inner critic which constantly comments adversely on one’s playing, chipping away at one’s self-confidence, these repetitive detrimental experiences encourage negative neural traits which in turn build a negative mental state – and with repetitive thinking, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons each time. So if you continually dwell on self-criticism, anxieties about your abilities, your lack of confidence or a teacher’s negative comments, your mind will more easily find that part of your brain and will quickly help you to think those same negative thoughts again and again.

Break the negative cycle and turn “I can’t” into “I can”

  • Banishing the inner critic is a key act in encouraging a more positive mindset. Acknowledge that your inner critic exists and then literally “show it the door” by imagining you are ushering the horrid creature out of your mind.
  • Attach a positive thought to a negative one: “I played that passage incorrectly, but I understand why I made a mistake so I know how I can put it right“.
  • Exchange perfectionism for excellence. Perfection is unrealistic and unattainable, excellence is achievable. Strive for excellence in your own work by setting yourself realistic goals and standards (these can be set in consultation with a teacher or mentor).
  • Draw confidence from the positive endorsements and feedback from trusted teachers, colleagues, peers, friends and family. If it helps, write these comments down in a notebook and refer to them when you feel anxious or nervous.
  • If your teacher is continually critical despite your best efforts to play well, it is perhaps time to seek a new teacher. Few students will progress well if they feel constantly put down by a teacher or coach.
  • Approach practising, lessons and performances with an “I can!” attitude rather than “this is going to go wrong”. Try not to set up a negative feedback loop before you play, but instead draw confidence from previous good experiences (a lesson where you know you played well and your teacher offered praise and positive feedback, or a performance where you received compliments from the audience or another musician whose opinion you respect).
  • Draw confidence in an exam or performance situation from knowing you have done the right kind of work in your practising and that you are well-prepared
  • Try the Buddhist practice of “wise effort”. This is a habit of letting go of that which is not helpful, or is negative, and cultivating that which is positive and helpful. (It is related to mindfulness and NLP).
  • Spend time with friends and colleagues whose company is positive and inspiring.
  • Above all, allow the mind to focus on and remember the good stuff. Just as thoughtful repetitive practising leads to noticeable improvement at the piano, so repetitive positive thinking brings a more positive, cheerful mindset, which will in turn have a positive effect on your playing and your general attitude to your music making.

Further reading/resources

How Complaining Rewires your Brain for Negativity

The Perfect Wrong Note

Music from the Inside Out

How Positive Thinking Rewires Your Brain

Let’s Play Piano! No excuses!

There is absolutely no need to regret not having learned to play an instrument simply because it is truly never too late to do so. Sure, people like to tell themselves that they’re too old for learning something new, but that’s just not true because we never actually cease to learn new things.

The only thing that stands in the way of you playing the piano is making the conscious decision to learn how to play. To avoid the hassle of finding a piano teacher and rearranging your schedule to commit to lessons, piano-teaching apps such as flowkey exist.

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Learning the piano has never been easier or more comfortable than it is in our day and age. Although no app can fully replace an experienced piano teacher, flowkey comes pretty close! flowkey teaches you all there is to know about playing the piano and reading sheet music in the comfort of your home. All you need to get started is a computer (PC, Mac, laptop) or tablet (iOS and Android) and your instrument (piano, digital keyboard, etc.). Open the app in your web browser or download the app for your tablet, sign up, and you’re all set.

HOW TO BEGIN YOUR MUSICAL JOURNEY

Signing up for flowkey is a quick and easy process. You answer three questions to enable the app to categorize your level of experience and create a specific learning plan just for you, and you’re all set to go. The way the app works is simple: you choose a piece of music and start learning it. “But how does that work,” you might ask, “if you have no experience reading sheet music?” Ah, not to worry: the app’s player not only shows you the sheet music that “flows” across your screen but also a bird’s-eye view of a professional pianist’s hands, playing the music. These keys are even highlighted with bright colors to make it easier to follow along visually.

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One very helpful feature of flowkey is that it provides you with real-time feedback while allowing you to learn at your own pace. You don’t have to be shy or embarrassed to repeat a difficult section an extra time: flowkey is a friendly piano teacher that accommodates you and adapts to your desires and wishes. Speaking of wishes, if there’s a particular song or piece of music that you’d like to learn which isn’t available in the flowkey library, you can always contact the support team to request your song wish which then gets recorded and released in one of the upcoming monthly song releases.

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The bottom line is that flowkey is a great tool for people of all ages and levels. The songs and courses are meant for both beginners and advanced piano students who can take on the challenge of learning a difficult Chopin prelude or perhaps completing the “Chords & Pop Piano” course to improve their improvisation skills. The best way to start (or continue) your musical journey and test out this revolutionary method is to try it out for yourself!

Find out more

This is a sponsored post.

Spectrum 5 – 15 contemporary pieces for solo piano

The ‘Spectrum’ series, published by ABRSM, and compiled by acclaimed pianist Thalia Myers, holds a special place in piano repertoire in helping many pianists, young and old, discover the world of new music for piano, what might loosely be termed “contemporary classical music”. The first Spectrum collection appeared in 1996. Commissioned by Thalia Myers, it was a response to the dearth of serious contemporary piano music accessible to the amateur and/or student pianist. The latest volume, Spectrum 5, is now available, making some one hundred and seventy seven contemporary piano pieces available to pianists and piano teachers. Works from the series (5 volumes for solo piano and 1 for piano duet) now appear in exam and competition syllabuses, and are used by teachers of piano and composition as important reference materials. Perhaps what is even more significant is that the series showcases the work of contemporary classical composers around the world, allowing them to distil in miniature, characterful pieces the essence of their compositional language and style.

As in previous volumes, Spectrum 5 offers a broad range of pieces by composers such as Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Howard Skempton, Michael Finnissy, Helen Grime, Chen Yi and Karen Tanaka. The pieces have appealing, evocative, and witty titles – Imaginary Birds, Schrödinger’s Kitten, The Jig is Up, Beethoven’s Robin Adair, Commuterland – to fire the imagination, and range in difficulty from around Grade 6 to Diploma level. The wonderful range, originality and variety of pieces prove that contemporary classical music is not “plinky plonky”, atonal, inaccessible or lacking in melody, and as such as Spectrum series is the best introduction I know to encourage young students in particular to explore contemporary music.

The book contains biographies of all the composers and in most instances, the pieces are accompanied by footnotes by the composers giving background information about their music and guidance on interpretation. There is an accompanying audio download of all the pieces, elegantly and characterfully performed by Thalia Myers.

Recommended.

Further information

‘Spectrum for cello’, compiled by William Bruce, and ‘Spectrum for Clarinet’, by Ian Mitchell, were published in 2004 and 2006 respectively.