Process oriented pianism
Any music teacher worth their salt, who requires their student to make musical goals, knows to push their students towards realistic goal setting. That's not to say that a student shouldn't have a goal of "playing at Carnegie Hall", or "win the Cliburn Competition". But in order to achieve these goals, we need to formulate a series of interim goals.
The deeper you go in creating these short-term landmarks, the further you're actually getting from making goals, and the closer you are to making systems.
I'm a big fan of scheduling my time, and acting in a consistent manner day to day. I wrote about aspects of my schedule when I spoke about my morning routine, and matching activities up with energy schedules.
James Clear expands on this idea in an article about the benefits that systems have over goals. He suggests that if a coach of a sports team focusses on the systems built and refined in daily practices, inevitably is going to have greater success over the course of a season, than a coach focussed on winning a championship at the end of the season. If a championship is unattainable without the day to day systems in place anyway, why not put all energy and expertise into perfecting the system.
Clear uses his own writing as an example. He set to a system of writing new articles every Monday and Thursday. Over the course of the year, he had produced a volume of work equivalent to 2 books. But if he had started that year with the plan to write 2 books, so many questions and unknowns would have gotten in the way: what should the book be about?, how should it be structured?, what sources should I draw on?...This is only off the top of my head.
I spoke about something similar to this in a post called Dangerous Goals. James Clear's article adds elements to the discoveries I made there. Particularly, his second reason to focus on systems rather than goals.
One critique that may be made about focussing on short-term systems rather than long-term goals, is that if we have no 'eye on the prize', we won't work towards anything in particular. But his point is that once we attain a quantifiable goal, we can easily lapse into passivity, perhaps regressing on the skills that took us to our goal. If we can't identify and replicate the systems that led to an achievement, even a new goal is like starting from scratch.
Setting goals and working towards them is like trying to tell the future. We can't turn ourselves into something we're not. What we can do is start with an acknowledgement of our strengths and weaknesses, and work on systems, habits and schedules, that utilize our strengths. New skills will emerge, new habits formed, and inevitably we are capable of producing much greater work than ever before.
So before you worry about visualizing a performance goal far off in the future (even six months is too far away), focus on your practicing. How is your practice system working out for you? How are your day to day routines supporting that system? Are you spending enough time practicing? Are you spending your practice time efficiently? Are you strengthening these artistic systems with personal growth, social time and paying attention to your physical health?
Most of us would agree that the best piano playing has a certain spark of intuitiveness, spontaneity that could not be planned. Don't worry too much about planning your playing in the future. Plan your day, plan your work habits, and you might be surprised by the artistry that comes out.
Being a pro
One writer I really admire is a guy named James Clear. He's the source of the read 20/pages a day system that I mentioned in an earlier post. He writes extensively on habit formation and strategies to formulate creative excellence.
I happened upon a podcast interview with him where he expounded on a lot of ideas in this article: The Difference between Professionals and Amateurs. In short, the difference that he discovered is simply a willingness to commit to regularly engaging in one's chosen work:
Being a pro is about having the discipline to commit to what is important to you instead of merely saying something is important to you. It's about starting when you feel like stopping, not because you want to work more, but because your goal is important enough to you that you don't simply work on it when it's convenient. Becoming a pro is about making your priorities a reality.
I know that I myself have always had trouble committing to seeing repertoire or a recital program through to complete, professional-level mastery. When I was getting tired of practicing the same pieces, my undergraduate teacher would extol the virtues of theater actors: "They have to perform the same play with the same lines and the same actions day after day. They can't afford to get tired of it, and neither can you."
It's true, the point is well taken. These professional artists had to commit to the artistic merits of their production. They had to invest their own talent to bringing a play or a musical to life day in and day out.
I had the opportunity to ask a singer on tour with a Broadway musical how they achieved this professionalism. He said that in such a large ensemble, everyone's individual approach in a given night allowed for subtle variety which could only be noticed by the actors. A scene where the cast casually socializes, free of choreography, would allow for different interactions every single time. The actors could test each other's commitment to character by pushing different boundaries in an attempt to make others laugh. Even the most systematic and planned blocking allowed for variations night in and night out.
I really took this insight to heart. It is the sign of a true professional to withstand seeming monotony and find artistic variations within the repetitive routine.
Pianistically, we have set choreography of notes, rhythms, articulations and dynamics. We even have more subtle elements imposed upon us by performance practice, and the expectations of our teachers or colleagues.
But beyond this there is still a wide margin for variation. The balance between our hands can shift between phrases to show different nuances of a story. Rubato can ramp or ease up to highlight dramatics arcs. We can explore the extremes of individual articulations; staccato does not just mean detached.
A professional pianist shows up with regularity to explore these variations while the amateur pianist explores a piece only when, and until their inspiration lets up. Even the pianist who moves on to pursue something else, even if practicing consistently, but not consistently pushing one's understanding of certain repertoire, will never reach the same kind of professional artistry that others who show up and dig deeper will.
I have one more comment before I leave sleeping and schedules for a little while. I found a really great article discussing how to identify your most productive times of the day, and how to best utilize your energy highs and lows by categorizing the different tasks that need your time.
The article asks you to consider your tasks on a scale of high or low for energy and for impact. This gives you four types of tasks: high energy/low impact, low energy/low impact, high energy/high impact, low energy/high impact.
Once you've identified the best times of your day to get work done, you want to put your highest energy, highest impact tasks there. That's why I practice in the morning, about 3 hours after I first wake up. My best mindset is then filled with my most important task.
I take this idea further when I schedule my teaching during my low energy points in the day. I don't find teaching college aged students particularly tiring, but it's still very impactful, so late morning and early afternoon is my best time to get this done, efficiently for my own mindset and levels of energy.
Low energy/low impact things still have to get done. Ideally, you can all these things in around the edges so that they get done in places where you need a boost of confidence in your productivity. These kinds of things, like answering email, are important, but are never your top priority. But if you crank several things out in a few minutes (given their low energy requirements), you feel rather accomplished.
Hopefully you can keep the high energy/low impact tasks from your life!
Now this way of scheduling isn't always perfect. I teach my youngest students when they're out of school, late afternoon and early evening. This is a nebulous time for me, as sometimes my afternoon second wind lasts till 8 or 9 PM, sometimes it's over by 5 PM! But this is certainly a high energy/high impact kind of work. Sometimes you can't do all of your work in the most productive parts of your day. I counteract these low energy teaching days by always having snacks on hand, drinking plenty of water, and standing up to teach instead of sitting.
If you've never given a lot of thought to how you schedule your day, I urge you to. I feel most like myself, and most like a successful musician and teacher, when I have a productive strategy in place and keep to it with consistency.
Waking up, for musicians
Musicians, I think, are notorious for working late and sleeping in. I used to be in this crowd. I loved getting to a piano around 8 PM and having the rest of the night ahead of me, without any commitments to anyone, where I could practice. I felt 'the muse' late at night, I felt inspired. It was harmless if I wasted 45 minutes with friends talking in the hallways outside our practice rooms because I could always just practice later.
As I expanded on in my Friday post, I reached a crisis point where I couldn't manage to get my practicing in if I tried to work late.
I don't know much of the science behind it, but I do feel like I think better in the morning, even though I would have sworn several years ago the opposite. As I think back now, the last five years have easily been the most productive of my life, musically, and most positive of my life personally. Perhaps I felt inspired working late in years past, but that doesn't mean that the work I actually did was any good.
I've told enough friends, colleagues and students about my love of mornings to know that most people will still reject the idea. They aren't morning people, you see.
I'm very much of the opinion that anyone can become morning people. Here's how I did it.
We're very familiar as a society about sleep cycles, but we don't think about our awake cycles. When we're awake, our bodies go through natural cycles of energy. I always get tired around 1 or 2 PM, regardless of how much sleep I got the night before. I get through it by either working (I do well if I'm teaching during this time), or I take a quick cat nap (10 minutes with about 5 minutes snoozing after my alarm is enough for my brain to shut down, without getting into too deep a sleep). Either way, I catch a second wind and have a long productive period through the rest of the day.
The trick to being a morning person is to always be a morning person. Sleeping in is the worst thing we can do for our productivities and scheduling. I've yet to have anyone tell me where their internal battery is located, you know, the one you have "catch up on sleep" for. Unless your body needs healing, in which case sleep is the best state your body can do that in, do not sleep in (more than an hour or so).
We also usually don't accommodate our sleep cycles when we're trying to get up. In my doctoral work, when my workload was so heavy that I had to cut out sleep time, I was able to be very successful if I slept 6 hours a night. I would feel worse in the morning if I slept 7. The reason is that we will feel much better waking up if we wake up during the lighter part of a cycle. Since our cycles work in about 90 minute increments, you ought to wake yourself up after 3 hours of sleep, or 4.5, or 6, or 7.5. I've adapted to well with this strategy that I still only sleep about 6 hours every night.
The biggest thing is consistency. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time, and you'll be surprised at how quickly you become a 'morning person'. Give yourself a few weeks of following these simple rules and I bet you'll be a morning person in no time. Please let me know if it works for you!
For the love of mornings
I wanted to follow up on Friday's post to talk a little about why I love mornings, and what I do when I wake up so early.
I'm not the kind of morning person that wakes up energetic and singing praise of the day. It is difficult for me to wake up, and I do let myself it snooze once or twice (this is a planned thing, I give myself the time to do it intentionally). I do need a good hour before I feel like myself after waking up. I do 'need' my coffee.
All these things are good and fine. When I say I love mornings, I don't mean that I get up and attack the day. I don't even follow strategies that some suggest, like exercising first thing, or meditating.
I love mornings because it's a time for me to be an introvert. I am a classic introvert, meaning I need time to be alone to recharge. Being around others is draining. Even though my wife is the singular exception to this rule (I wouldn't mind if she joined me first thing in the morning), I like time to be completely by myself. I drink a cup of coffee and check social media. Usually I don't check social media again until the evening, after work.
Then after about 20 minutes, I read. About a year ago, I read this simple idea if you read 20 pages a day (not a lot of reading), every day of the year, you're reading over 7,000 pages through the year, which means you'll read at least 20 books a year, at an average of 350 pages/book. Reading just one more page per day adds another book. But twenty-some books was way more than I had read since I was in high school, and I jumped in. I love this time, and it has helped me value reading over social media or TV throughout the rest of my day.
After about an hour, I go wake my wife up, spend time with her, get her coffee and help her get ready for the day. Given that she works a typical school day, and I work partly after school, this is crucial time to spend together.
Once she leaves, I finish up my third cup of coffee, and read some more or send some emails. Then by 8 or 8:30 I'm either practicing, or heading off to teach a class.
I have found that morning practicing is extremely rewarding. I think much more clearly, and I listen better. My mind is totally alert for a couple hours. In general, I've had my best performances since becoming a morning practicer and I don't think these things are unrelated.
Tomorrow I will tell you the secret to becoming a 'morning person', even if you're certain it'll never work for you.
I love mornings.
That I would write that sentence with 100% honesty would have surprised me little more than 5 years ago. I used to love my late nights and sleeping in in the morning. This reached its pinnacle at the end of my undergrad where I was able to practice till 1 or 2 in the morning, and sleep as late as I wanted in the morning without any commitments. But in the midst of my doctoral degree, I made a significant switch.
Initially it was out of necessity. The nature of my coursework meant that I only had limited time to practice. And many occasions throughout the day happened where I'd want to practice, I'd have a little time, and no practice room was available.
Funny that my teacher, in hearing of my plight, didn't think the solution was for the school to buy more pianos!
Instead, he related that when he arrives at school, between 8 and 8:30 AM, no one is practicing. Obviously, students who regularly can't get into a practice room ought to reorient their schedule to where no one else is practicing.
This proved to be a good mood. I was able to practice way more. And because I still valued my coffee time, as an introvert, I was able to wake up at least 1 or 2 hours before I "had to" to get to an available practice room. When I got married and my wife had to leave earlier for work, I woke up earlier still.
Now I wake up between 5 and 5:30 every morning, almost without exception. I look forward to weekends, not because I can sleep in, but because it's time where I can be awake and enjoy my mornings even longer. I LOVE mornings.
I'm going to expand on my routines more over the coming days to give you some insight into why this has been such a transformative practice for me as a person, and as a musician.
Two types of practicing
Through years of graduate work, I’ve spent a lot of time sitting in my office overhearing other piano students practice. One thing I’ve noticed is a tendency to perform, instead of practice, in the practice room.
Maybe put another way: some students practice with the intent of performing, while others practice with the intent of learning.
In the first category, students run through pieces, constantly. When it’s new, they run through the piece slow, eventually they try it faster. When they’re perfecting a piece, they’re simply performing, performing and performing. I’m not sure where the nuances of interpretation are addressed in this process; presumably they analyze issues in their performance in bulk at the end of one run.
In the second category, a students practicing doesn’t exactly sound like the final result. They work in short section which they repeat often, one right after another. They manipulate passages of the score, working in a variety of ways to create challenges for themselves within the text. On a certain passage, they may go from a slow practice to performance tempo in a matter of 10 minutes, but they’ve covered just a small patch of ground.
I’m highly in favor of the latter approach. I would always rather make a lot of progress on a small section of music, rather than a small bit of progress on a lot of music. If I dig into a passage intensely, I’m going to make observations, solve problems and test solutions incessantly. More than likely many of the strategies I use in the first one or two sections are going to inform how I work on the rest of the piece. In the end, I’m going to have a much deeper understanding of a piece that’s going to make the rest of the learning process much faster.
I also think it’s going to be more secure, but more on that on Monday.
Well that was easy
I've always had the best intentions to get to know The Bulletproof Musician blog. If you don't know it, you owe it to yourself to visit. Here a musician-turned psychologist-turned musician/psychologist posts weekly studies on cognitive and behavioral practices and finds deep and insightful conclusions meant to bring out best practices in performing musicians.
Going through some archives, I was recently intrigued by this post about how easy or how difficult our practicing feels. He’s studying the difference between practicing “to make things easier” and “wanting practice to be easy”. There’s a slight difference: in the former, our practice goal is to start with something hard and progressively make it easier to play; in the latter, we start with something easy and end with something easy, in fact, we avoid difficulties altogether.
The article is based on a study of people playing a simple control game; some were allowed to practice at consistently difficult levels, others were held back. Both groups practiced the same amount of time. Tested at easier levels, both groups performed well. When the stakes were raised, the first group performed significantly better.
The author suggests this is an obvious conclusion (“well duh”). But he’s concerned about the practical application to us as musicians. When we learn a piece, we know what to do, but at some point we plateau (as he says, when we need to get from “good to great”). His suggestion is that things not be perfect before we make our practicing difficult, to avoid plateaus where our practicing is easier. Think about applying this principle to practicing your repertoire, where he’s saying it’s okay to move on before something is perfect as the more we challenge ourselves, the better the finished product:
“Like assigning a set of scales at quarter note = 60, but asking a student to increase the metronome by 2 clicks as soon as they can play it  times in a row with < mistakes. As opposed to simply asking that they play the scales at quarter note = 60, and not increasing the tempo until they’re 100% mistake-free.”
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act