10 subtle signs you are NOT trusting yourself while practicing

Should you trust yourself while you practice? There might be some benefits. But, you will not even know how unless you pay attention to signs that it is not happening. To get you started, here’s a list of ten such indications:

  1. Playing a wrong note twice, trying to fix it the second time.
  2. Trying to make sure you play the right dynamics, fingering, phrasing, etc. (you think you know what’s so important, don’t you?).
  3. Realizing you missed something coming up in the music and rushing to fix it before it’s too late.
  4. Playing tentatively because you believe your idea of the music is less valid than your teacher’s.
  5. Stopping when you have a “memory slip.”
  6. Looking at your hands to make sure you hit the right notes.
  7. Looking at the music to make sure you don’t miss anything.
  8. Playing slowly because playing fast stresses you out.
  9. Playing fast because playing slowly stresses you out.
  10. Looking through this list the next time you practice and trying really hard not to do any of them.

So what DO I do?

Do these things if you want. Maybe you have really good reasons for doing them. Or, you could try not doing them.

Either way, pay attention to what happens.

Can you embrace your faults?

As a musician, how often do you take a stance of acceptance towards yourself? I see in my students and colleagues (and certainly myself) constant battles, efforts at correcting or running away from our faults. What if those faults don’t need to be chased away? Could we even embrace them?

What exactly are we not accepting? While playing, we experience sensations, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Evaluations such as “this doesn’t feel right” or “this doesn’t sound right.” Thoughts like “I’m no good” or “this worked better last week.” Maybe we try to fix our technique, to match a sensation we remember from the past. Play in tune, with proper rhythm. Please the teacher, chase away our feelings of inadequacy.

Whether or not these are valid concerns, we still have the choice at any moment to either pursue them, or accept that things might not go perfectly. Why would we accept these things? After all, isn’t our aim in practicing to eliminate what we don’t like, to present the audience with an enjoyable, polished product. Perhaps, but do those goals interfere with our actual work while practicing and performing? Could our performance be based on qualities such as aesthetics, physical comfort and athleticism, creativity? If we base it instead on avoiding that which we fear, what room do we have for exploring those other qualities? If the goal of technical training is expanding our knowledge of the cause and effect relationships between our bodies and our instruments, is it possible that avoidance can have a limiting effect on this exploration?

How then, do we practice acceptance? We could move toward that which we fear. We could notice when we are avoiding, not so that we can slap ourselves on the wrist, but rather so that we can make a conscious decision to stop avoiding. Could we take an attitude of “yeah, it sounds bad, so sue me”?

Exercise: Choose a small passage of music or technical exercise and play it. Ask yourself “Did I feel at any point that my attention wandered away from my intention, toward something that needed to be fixed?” See if you can find what exactly it is you were afraid might happen. Play the passage again, reminding yourself that the idea is now to welcome whatever it was you were trying to keep at bay.

What thoughts does this bring up? Do you feel you might be compromising yourself as a musician, lowering your standards?

What if there were no way to do it wrong?

All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself. — J.S. Bach

We all know that you’re supposed to play classical music right. There are just so many things to get wrong, aren’t there? Wrong notes, wrong rhythms, wrong dynamics, wrong phrasing, wrong articulation, wrong attitude.

What if there were no way to do it wrong? Are there benefits to getting rid of the concept of “wrong”? Even just for a bit?

Yes, you would be lying to yourself (everyone knows there’s a right and wrong, right?). Yes, you would be disrespecting your teacher, the composer, and the great art of music. Yes, you would disappoint your audience and embarrass yourself. Yes, you might never make any progress whatsoever, and you might even go backwards. If you’re in school, you might fail. If you’re working, you might get fired. You might get a nasty look from the conductor.

That wasn’t a wrong note I heard, was it?

Let’s not argue with any of that.

I don’t mean to take this lightly (well, part of me does). But my question is only: are there any benefits to doing it wrong?

Would it be more fun? Would it be freer? Would it be more personal? Would it hurt less? Would it let you give up the stress of trying to get it right? And if that stress is gone, would it make you more relaxed, more observant, more willing to take risks?

Even just for a moment?

It’s only a question.

(Sorry, Bach, I don’t mean to pick on you. You just had that stern look I was going for…)

Stress is easy

Here’s a challenge for you: can you just let go of your difficulties?

Maybe you say it’s not hard enough. You say it’s too easy to let go; what you really need is to hold on, to challenge yourself, to get it right, to learn.

You’re playing the piano, and you feel stress creeping up. Your shoulders tense, your jaw clenches, and you start freaking out about what’s coming next. Can you just let it go?

This sounds like a question you’ve probably heard a million times in the past. Of course, the common advice is to simply relax, take it easy, focus, breathe, etc. You’ve heard it all before.

It will be easier, you will have less stress, it will feel better, it will be more fun. Right? Then why don’t you do it?

You try it, but it doesn’t work. You stay relaxed in the places where the music is simple, the spots you know well…and then something comes up and the tension is suddenly back again (doesn’t seem so easy, does it?).

Or maybe you manage to do it for a moment, but your playing is worse as a result. Your articulation is sloppy, you miss notes, etc. You’re not going to let that happen again, are you?

So the tension and stress continue forever.

You always try to play well…that comes so easily to you…it’s second nature, isn’t it? How can that be the hard way?

Maybe the hard way is letting go.