The Student Self-help Guide (pt 2)

So quite a little while ago I wrote a blog titled The Student Self-help Guide and I only got through two steps before I was distracted by other topics. So today is a return to that guide to try and cover what I didn't get to last time.

The last guide had Step One: Scales and Step Two: Exercises. Technical work designed to develop your fingers' strength, speed, dexterity and coordination. This is important stuff and if you haven't read the first guide I'd recommend doing that before continuing with this one. Today's guide is going to look into the less physical aspects of piano, and instead focus on developing your aural skills and mental mindset.

So, without further ado:

Step Three: Listening

You might be thinking 'surely this is the most important aspect of music' and you'd be right! If you can't hear what you're playing, then how can you be sure it's sounding good? Now to avoid confusion, I'm not asking if your ears are working. When I say listening I mean the ability to take a mental step back whilst you're playing and analyse your performance objectively. 

This can be fairly difficult to do, especially with a newer piece. Whilst playing there are so many mental distractions, you're focusing on your fingers, on your coordination, triple checking the notes you're reading (I think that's an A, but is it really?), focusing on timing, the list goes on. Now if you happen to make a mistake whilst all that's going on? It's very possible your mental musical train will be derailed. (What a fun analogy!)

One of the first steps in learning to really listen to yourself is to listen to everything without criticism. Play slowly. Listen to just the first four bars. What is the intended emotion? Are you expressing it? Listen to your speed, to your dynamics. Listen to your mistakes and don't worry about them, just acknowledge them and move on. Your goal shouldn't be to get to the end of the song (well, eventually, but not your only goal) but to play the piece the way you'd like to hear it played. You may have your music memorised but if you're not listening to what you're playing beyond if it's right or wrong then you're not really performing.

I would much rather hear a piece that has plenty of mistakes as long as it also has plenty of emotion. If the performer is connected to their music, it's much easier for their audience to connect both to the performer and the piece. So, even if you're just practicing on your own, listen to your piece, and perform as if you were playing for a room full of people.

This segues quite nicely into

Step Four: The Mental Zone

As a teacher it's my job to help my students develop technical and theoretical practices related to music. Reading, performing, composing etc. However, the most common lesson I find myself teaching is more of a mantra. 'Calm down'. My adult students in particular have a tendency to place impossibly high expectations on themselves. My younger students, being in school and learning on a daily basis, accept that piano is just another learning process. My adult students for the most part haven't had to 'learn' in a while, having had their entire lives to master reading, writing, problem solving, tying their laces etc. So when something new comes along it's easy to forget that the skills you take for granted now took some time to acquire in the first place. 

With this in mind, learning an entire new musical language (with two dialects of treble and bass no less) probably isn't going to be the easiest thing you've ever done. Which means it's going to take more than a couple of lessons to get it down pat (that's an odd saying I've never really understood). Add an understanding of timing/rhythm/coordination/dynamics/articulation and maybe you can agree that reading sheet music and playing it perfectly isn't going to come as naturally as say, learning to ride a bike. 

However, much like a bike, once you have it, it will stick with you. Every single student I've ever had has experienced 'the click'. That day where suddenly reading treble and bass clef at the same time just makes sense, the day that playing the C scale parallel hands together just works. If you're dedicating an entire section of your thought process to yelling at yourself and criticising your performance that's an entire section of your thought process that is not helping. If half of your brain is saying 'I can do it!' and the other half is shaking its metaphorical head at you you're going to encounter some issues. That's cognitive dissonance my friend. That's a no-no. 

So. Relax. Seriously, relax. I cannot emphasise this enough. I can't stop you from getting frustrated, and it would be hypocritical of me to try because I get frustrated all the time. However, you cannot beat yourself up every time you make a mistake. It's very bad for your brain.  It's going to take time. You're not going to be perfect after 3 lessons. You're just not. And that is very very ok. Give yourself a mental break, don't yell at your fingers, it's not their fault. And it makes you look like a crazy person. If you find yourself very very close to your sheet music, squinting like Clint Eastwood in the sun, it's probably time to go have a cup of tea. So relax. Take your time, enjoy the learning process, celebrate your achievements. 

And don't forget to listen.