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"The Mental Toll of Perfection: Understanding the Guilt of Musicians"

Updated: May 13

Well now, I dare not admit this as I know by now you have this image of me being continually fabulous and continually passionate about what I do. Yes, piano playing is not only my profession nowadays, but it still remains my biggest hobby (although I do dare say when I wake up on a Saturday morning...I try and avoid it now - other hobbies are available!) So it may come as a surprise to you to read that I do, in fact, struggle with days whereby the piano is a million miles away from what I want to be doing. In principal it may seem like a good thing, and I still appreciate piano music in a dissociated sense (for example - reading about piano, watching videos etc. - anything away from me having to actually sit and physically play the instrument!), but the harsh reality is that I am only as good a pianist and musician as I will allow myself to be by plonking myself in front of the keyboard and practising or - at the very least - playing through some repertoire in an effort to reignite my passion.


But this got me wondering, and I confess it is something that I caution my own pupils on as well;


Should we actually be forcing ourselves to do something - such as practice - if our heart isn't feeling it? If we're not in the mindset, could we ultimately be doing more damage?


There are pros and there are cons, naturally, but I suppose that aside from the marginal cop out judgment of 'only you know you', there are things to consider that are universal truths amongst musicians of all walks of like:



Jack Mitchell Smith piano teacher tutor pianist Macclesfield Congleton Cheshire
There are many ways to practise away from your instrument. Keep reading to learn more...


Breaks are NOT necessarily a Hinderance



A few weeks ago, one of my pupils came to me feeling enormous guilt at having recently been on a trip for a mere two nights in Stratford-Upon-Avon. This means that she had two nights of not practising. Criminal, right?


Wrong.


In spite of the fact that she had enormous guilt, what actually showed that was of interest was that her playing - whilst not necessarily a great improvement from the previous time I had seen her - was soon back up to scratch and she actually found herself able to take on board advice and - more impressively - put them into quite immediate practice in comparison to what she may have done in previous lessons.


Why was this?


I conclude that it was down to a simple case of over practising prior. It seems almost ridiculous that over practising is a thing, but it is. Consider writing the same word 100 times repeatedly on a piece of paper (or better still - 100 different pieces of paper so you can't look back). Eventually that word is going to start looking odd, you'll question if it's a real word. It will look as if it's spelt wrong. If you've been vocalising it simultaneously it will sound wrong. Same principle.


By giving herself a couple of nights off - especially given that it was time away rather than replacing it with something else that was intently focused - my pupil came back rather refreshed and more able to take on board advice, information and just generally with a better attitude towards playing.



Other forms are practice are available



Practising piano sounds like a very intense scenario whereby you sit down at your piano with your music in front of you, maybe set a metronome and scrutinise and practice your exercises, techniques and pieces.


However, it is not.


One such simple way to approach your guilt of not actually sitting at your instrument is to consider other ways in which you can fuel your brain with piano knowledge, understanding and even skill without having to formally be there.


Here are some examples:


  • Reading Music: This doesn't necessarily have to be a piece of music that you're working on. If you are working from a workbook or towards a grade, find another score within that book that you haven't looked at and just pick it apart in your mind. You'll be nourishing the brain, improving your understanding of how music all fits together! If you consider yourself a beginner or intermediate, don't be afraid of scores that are above your playing standard. Learn to not be intimidated and replace that fear with a feeling of inquisition. What does that symbol mean? How can I learn how to quickly recognise notes that are several ledger lines above the stave?

  • Listening to Music: The inspirational quality of listening to a piece of music that you are working on is priceless, for frankly - not enough of us do it. I myself confess that I am guilty of choosing scores that I actually own - whether or not I know them (I buy a lot from charity shops and then just start playing them one day!). I can progress right through to the end of a piece (sometimes even a full sonata!) without even listening to a different rendition of it. And whilst I have ample trust in my own interpretations and sight reading ability, I am always tremendously excited at hearing how other performances differ from my own. And whilst I am all for interpretation, sometimes a little penny will drop. A note may sound different and for some reason I may in my mind have read it is Ab instead of A natural - and now the whole mood of a passage or harmony changes. Perhaps upon listening I am going too fast, and this can help me too if it is a piece I am struggling to get crystal clear - for obvious reasons! Maybe a performer's use of pedal is much more excessive than my own but it creates a lush undertone by doing so - something I can't wait to replicate myself when I get back to practising. Point being, I could practice at the instrument for weeks and weeks and never take my performance to the same level that 10 minutes of listening might push out of me!

  • Practice Theory: You may consider this one to be slightly boring, but being human our brains are just sometimes wired towards logic and practicality rather than expression and emotion. If you're feeling guilty but you don't necessarily feel 'expressive' then simply swot up on theory! The Internet is rife with information, whether that be blog posts (I have some!), videos (see below) or even - if you're feeling academic - past papers from exam board websites. When it comes to the academic approach of learning, you know best how you pick things up. Dig out that blank manuscript paper and copy - or write from scratch - some musical transcription of your own. Or learn some theory and then go applying it to musical scores you haven't yet studies (see 'Reading Music' above!).

  • Videos: Videos are wonderful tools for learning in a similar way that listening to music that you are learning is a useful tool. Aside from the obvious tutorial videos that you can find in abundance on YouTube and TikTok etc., you can find performances of most any piece of music my most any reputable performer and several other professional and non-professional pianists, learners etc. - not to mention even step by step tutorials for getting the most out of every bar of just about every piece you could ever hope to play! But anyway, use the opportunity to watch how different pianists approach different areas that you have been struggling with. Try and find videos that are of the hands solely and watch. Do you use different fingers? Do they have a gentler wrist motion? You may just have another penny dropping moment, like those that can come when listening to music!

  • Visualisation: This one takes a little bit more effort to focus, but it requires you to be able to picture the keyboard mentally and see your hands in front of you. Hold the score of a piece you are learning in front of you (or close your eyes and test your ability to play without the score) and play through it, visualising your hands playing the keys and hearing the music in your head. Music is a complete circuit, and if you can visualise what your hands do but can't remember how the music goes, that area needs attention. If you can remember how it goes but can't see your hands doing anything, that area needs attention. If you can visualise strongly enough from beginning to end, it may just be as powerful a tool as actually playing through the music!


These are mere examples of alternate ways to practice and learn, but you might just find that doing one starts to reignite enough excitement to get back to your instrument! So let's say that's happened.


You're back at your instrument...



Is your playing feeling sluggish?



If you are bounding through your pieces without a care in the world - you're happy or you're lost in the music - that's wonderful. Welcome back!


If, however, you're finding yourself hitting notes for the sake of it, not really caring, not really thinking about what you're doing and your mind is wandering, you're not really in a practicing mood yet. But don't worry...as previously covered, breaks can be a wonderful boost for your musical journey.



Re-evaluate the necessity of your practice



Perhaps the most disjointed feeling of guilt that I find with my pupils is based on what they're not doing vs. what they're trying to achieve.


Let me try and put that a slightly different way;


I offer my pupils the option to learn how they wish to, and normally this will take one of two routes:


  • they wish to learn casually, OR

  • they wish to learn academically (i.e. for exams)


The casual learner will almost certainly not have a specific need to have a piece or pieces of music ready to perform, whereas an academic learner will always have a finite amount of time to prepare a set number of specific pieces and exercises for an exam.


The pressure, therefore, is on for the academic learner.


However, who feels the more guilt when they don't practice?


The casual learner!


Perhaps it is the obsessiveness with which the academic learner does practice when they do that means they can afford to miss the odd session here and there, whereas a casual learner is doing it for a hobby and therefore - having no ties - will practice routinely but not necessarily to the end that anything learnt within that session has transferred from the short to the long term / muscle memory. Therefore, they feel vulnerable at having missed a session in the same way as which you may feel vulnerable for skipping a dosage of medication before they've fully kicked in.


BUT...


As can be proven quite without question by my pupil who decided to spend a night watching RSC's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' rather than practicing, it should be stressed and always remembered that good intention will always reap good rewards. It didn't take her long to find her footing again and be back up to scratch (assuming that she had in any way dipped for that couple of days away) and that is because she does practice and - most importantly - whenever she does physically practice she does so out of sheer passion and pleasure for doing so.


 

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