How to Play Faster – Part 2

Two years after I wrote it the first article about “How to Play Faster” is still read more often than anything else on this ‘blog but, for reasons unknown, few of the readers of that article go on to read this one.

This interest in playing faster is a mixed blessing. On the one hand it shows that people are researching what to do about their problems. But on the other it suggests that they are going about it the wrong way, looking for short cuts and tricks of the trade that will get them results quickly. Of course there is no point doing un-necessary work as though it has some intrinsic virtue. We want only to do what is necessary to reach our goals in a sound way.

I stand by the diagnoses, prognoses and suggested remedies of the earlier article, but here I want to recommend a way that will benefit you much more. It might seem wrong, but it is nevertheless true: If you want to play fast, then trying to play fast, aiming to play fast, is not the best way to do it. Of course you need to do some practice at or beyond performance speed, but that should not be your only practice, or even the main part of it.

Here is the paradox: If you want to play fast do not strive for speed.

Instead strive to understand the music as completely as possible. The main thing is that if you have developed reasonable control of your playing apparatus and knowledge of the piano’s layout, then what determines how quickly you can play is how well you know the piece.

Here is how to do it:

1. Learn the MUSIC. By that I do not mean the sequence of conditioned reflexes and aural/tactile/kinaesthetic/visual feedback that we call “finger memory” or “muscle memory”. I mean themes, melodies, bass-lines, harmonies, counterpoint, cadences, structure, textures, special effects, mood, and so on. To know it as pure music, independently of the keyboard through which it is realised.

2. UNDERSTAND what the music is saying.  For that you have to understand the musical language, not by attempting to paraphrase it inadequately in English or French or Chinese but on its own terms. Fortunately we all seem to either be born with the capacity to feel and understand musical messages, or we develop it when we are very young. Even more fortunately, our understanding develops and improves simply by listening to a variety of music. The subconscious mind once again does the work for us. We do not need to consciously think much about it at all. We “just” need to expose ourselves to lots of music and pay attention to it, but without analysing.

3. Work out a fingering that is non-injurious, suitable for the articulation and patterns of stress/release that you wish to create and comfortable (so far as possible) for your hands

4. Practice both short sections (for accuracy and technical development) and longer sections (for fluency)

5. Practice at a variety of speeds, but mostly slowly and with the utmost accuracy

6. If a section breaks down at speed do not simply keep trying until it comes right. FInd out what is causing the breakdown and fix it

When you can play a piece fluently and accurately your subconscious will continue to improve and refine it without conscious effort. You may even find that you have adopted improved fingerings without being consciously aware of how it happened. But until you reach that stage it is best to fix problems by thinking about them and devising a solution.

So … stop … analyse the problem. Devise possible solutions and experiment until you find something that works. Consult a good book on practice drills to find ways to “burn in” the change. Then re-integrate the repaired or newly-learned section with the whole piece by practicing it with a few of the preceding and following measures.

If you have uncovered a gap or weakness in your technique (i.e. the kinds of co-ordination that you can manage) then seek out exercises and etudes to learn the new skill, or devise your own, or seek out similar passages in other pieces.

7. Some teachers recommend playing the piece (or sections) in a way that dissociates the music from a single set of movements, for example crossing the hands so that the RH plays the LH part and vice versa, or inverting treble and bass. I have found that useful for fugues (other than playing the separate parts of a fugue on their own, and in all possible combinations) but not much use for other forms of composition … . But try them, they might work for you.

8. Do not forget the value of mental practice, away from the keyboard. Imagine the movements you have learned and the resulting sound as accurately as possible. Apart from forcing you to make more use of the MUSICAL memory (rather than the KINAESTHETIC memory) this reduces the stresses and strains on your fingers. If you are a young pianist that might not seem to be a priority, but if you want to still be playing with enjoyment 30, 40 or 50 years from now it is important to look after your hands. That means good technique (i.e. economical, non-injurious) and no unnecessary straining. If you can achieve the same result from hours at the keyboard, or from doing something different away from it, then choose the latter!

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Following the Fingering in Printed Scores

Looking at Disqus recently I saw the following question:

When we are playing piano do we really need to follow the fingering as written on the piece?

Here is my answer:

It is often a good idea to follow the fingering given by the editor, but it is far from being obligatory. It is absolutely NOT true that the fingering given is the BEST because there is no such thing as a BEST fingering for all pianists. Pianist’s hands vary in span from tiny things that struggle to make an octave to great spades that can cover an octave and a half, and fingers from spindly little things to great fat sausages that won’t fit between the black keys.

It would be absurd to think that there is a single fingering that is right for everyone. At best the suggested fingering in any edition will work well most of the time for most hands, so long as their owner accepts a conventional or traditional interpretation of the music.

Why do I say that they should be happy with a conventional interpretation? Because the choice of fingering affects the legato, the phrasing, and the distribution of stress and release throughout the music. It is not simply a matter of finding something mechanically possible and comfortable.  Different musicians have different ideas on these matters, and they affect the fingering.

Bear in mind too that the fingering suggested in an edition might be the result of years of experience by a good concert pianist, or it might be the hurried work of some hack that does not play especially well and has a deadline to meet.

In practice I have found that most editions give a fingering that is biassed towards the smaller hand. I presume that is because it is expected that most of the learners that need help with fingering are children or adolescents.  As someone with hands that are about average-sized for a man, but with a wider stretch than you’d expect, I often find that the indicated fingering just does not work for me.

Finally, published fingerings, especially in old editions, often embody some outdated ideas such as NEVER use the thumb on a black note, or ALWAYS change fingers on a repeated note, and they introduce contortions or unnatural and difficult fingering to conform to those ideas.

In the end every pianist needs to work out their own fingering.  One good approach is to learn some principles, but be prepared to ignore them if they do not produce the musical effect that you want, and/or do not suit your particular hands.

Thasya Novita (the person that started the discussion) went on to ask:

But my teacher always told me to not use the thumb on a black note and to follow the fingering as noted. Do you think that she’s wrong?

That depends on what stage Thasya is at in learning the piano.  There are good reasons for avoiding the use of the thumb on black keys most of the time, but there are situations where it is necessary and where avoiding it can involve  going through difficult contortions for no good purpose.

So strictly speaking, Yes, her teacher is wrong if she says that it is always incorrect to use thumbs on black notes. If that is what the teacher truly believes then I think the teacher has a problem. But in advising her student to avoid thumbs on black keys and to follow the fingering in the sheet music she might well be telling  her what is best for her development as a pianist right now.

When we are learning new things it is often necessary to hear a simplified (and hence incorrect or incomplete) story for now and to learn the full truth later, when we have more experience.  A lot of misunderstanding of musical matters is because many folk continue to believe that the simplified stories they were told when they were beginners are the absolute truth.

10,000 hours to mastery?

The idea that 10,000 hours of the right kind of work leads to mastery of a complex skill is a Hypothesis.  Not fact. Not established theory. I would like it to be true, but unfortunately that is not enough to make it true.  And in the world of music there are already far to many people ready to deceive themselves that what they would like to be true is really the truth. So I would not like anyone to get the idea that I am a fanatical believer in the idea.  But we should all know about it, and if we are going to dismiss it then it should be for some sounder reason than that it doesn’t fit with our existing ideas and beliefs.

There exist both evidence and  arguments in its favour, but there are also arguments against.  In fact in Ericson’s original book on the subject the last of the 15 papers argues that the evidence and logic for this hypothesis is flawed.  Unfortunately for opponents of the idea some of the contrary arguments, at least as presented in that particular paper,  are badly flawed themselves.  For example it asserts that the idea contradicts “common sense”.  That is no counter argument at all. A lot of so-called common sense is no more than unquestioned beliefs that we grew up with. If mankind followed only common sense we would never have arrived at our present understanding of the Physics and Chemistry of the natural world. That knowledge contravenes “common sense” at every turn.

However, there are (at least) two serious counter arguments.  One is that there are flaws in the evidence cited in support of the hypothesis. It does not include the countless people who have invested many hours of deliberate practice yet have achieved little.  So in music, looking only at those that have reached a conservatory, or who have passed the higher Grade exams, ignores huge numbers of drop-outs.  It is a variety of confirmation bias.

Another, more pertinent, methodological error concerns the nature of scientific knowledge. If you are a follower of Popper’s view of scientific method the key question to ask is “What evidence would DISPROVE the hypothesis”. It is not easy to see how to make a prediction based on the 10,000 hour theory that would disprove it if false, and that is also testable. But we may not have to devise such an experiment.  It is possible that the idea is already weakened by an existing counter-example. There is a study of students of advanced mathematics, where, beyond a certain minimum, the level of achievement and understanding is inversely correlated with the amount of work.  Briefly – those with mathematical “talent” grasp the advanced stuff with little effort.  Those without the talent can put in any amount of work they – will never get it. Of course this is not conclusive either.  It might be failure to learn some necessary pre-requisite, rather than lack of “mathematical talent” , that halts progress.  And no amount of work will help if it is applied in the wrong place or the wrong way.

So it seems that there is not so much we can say for certain! All we can say is that exceptional ability rarely, if ever, develops without doing a lot (there is some evidence for 10,000 hours)  of the right kind of work (misleadingly labelled ‘deliberate’ practice), and that maybe exceptional talent (whatever that might be) is necessary … (and then again … maybe not). So why am I such advocate of hard work, and why do I not believe that in exceptional musicians we see  the easy and natural unfolding of innate talent? For at least three reasons:

  1. None of us can do much about whatever basic equipment we have acquired through our inherited genes and our early development.  This might change as we learn to insert new genes into fully grown bodies in the future, or to turn genes on and off at will, but for now we are stuck with the genes we were born with, and the way they are expressed. We also have to start from the way our brains have been shaped by whatever experiences our lives have given us up to now.
  2. Music is not like some sports where you can often make some fairly reliable predictions of future success based on inherited factors.  If your father is 5 feet tall and your mother is 4 foot 9 you can forget any hopes of becoming a champion heavyweight boxer. If you are well over six feet tall, with a trim physique, and weigh in at 100 kg then you are never going to outrun a little Ethiopian athlete in the marathon, but you might do well in the pool in the 100m crawl – if you have the right ratio of leg to upper body, your shoulders are broad, your chest is wide, rather than deep, and you have plenty of fast twitch fibers in your muscles.  Even in such relatively simple sports there are plenty of examples of seeming no-hopers that confounded everyone’s expectations by working hard and becoming champions.  So far as I know, there are no simple predictors of Musical potential.  The only way I know of to find out if you are capable of becoming good at playing the piano is to learn to play it, and see what results.
  3. Neither rapid improvement in the early stages nor the ability to learn independently without a teacher are reliable indicators of how far you can potentially go. The slow starter, and slow learner might eventually outclass his or her rivals that are initially quicker on the uptake.

What confuses the issue is that rapid early improvement can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. If something is initially difficult you may become discouraged, think yourself “untalented” and give up too soon. And if you take to something quickly (especially at a young age) you might be considered “talented”, be encouraged to do more of it, and given more opportunities than an older or slower learning person. The idea that differences in ability are due to inborn talent theory might be useful to a totalitarian state that wants to pick out those children best equipped to become future champions, to prove the superiority of its social system to the rest of the world.  But it is useless to the person that wants to become the best they can be at something they enjoy. We can only go forward with what we have, from where we are now.  All that is left under our control are:

  1. What we study and practice
  2. How we study and practice, and
  3. How much we study and practice

The challenge is to get those three things right. Naturally there is always the risk that you’ll do all that, yet still not reach the standard you had hoped for … … And that is why you have to love music for its own sake, to enjoy the journey, and not to stake everything on reaching the destination.

Learning Chopin’s First Ballade

A contributor to the ABRSM forum asked recently:

“I’ve been playing the piano for a few years, self-taught. I have a good basic technique, but can’t play Chopin ballades yet. I can play his more challenging nocturnes and mazurkas. I’m also currently playing the famous D-flat waltz. What kind of repertoire do I need to study (whether it be Chopin or other) so that I can reach the skill level require to play Chopin ballades well?”

Here is the actual discussion: Working my way through Chopin

I have to say that, until I have seen and heard them play, I would not take the word of any self-taught pianist that they have “good basic technique” very much more seriously than the claims of a self-taught surgeon that they have good basic operating skills or a self taught karate exponent that they are a skilled martial artist.

Leaving that aside, wanting to learn other repertoire as a lead up to this piece is a sound idea. However if, as they claim, their basic technique is sound, and they can play the “more challenging” of Chopin’s Nocturnes, then they are ready to start work on the Ballade.

PERFORMING A “DIFFICULT” PIECE
Strictly speaking, you should not be performing a piece that you still find difficult to play. However much time, effort and pain a piece took to learn, by the time you perform it to an audience it should have become easy to you.

To learn a piece to performance standard fairly quickly it really needs to be something where you already have all or most of the technical skills that it needs, and can make a good job of playing it from sight.

It should go without saying that you must also have the understanding to make the music tell a story and not be simply a collection of beautiful sounds, or a display of bravura.

DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO A “DIFFICULT” PIECE
For a piece that is well beyond your capabilities there are two different approaches:

Lead up to it gradually
You can lead up to it in stages by learning other pieces and studies that will develop all the skills that you need. The big advantage is that when you come to learn the special piece you learn it correctly right from the start. A side benefit is that along the way you wil have added several useful items to your repertoire.

Dive right in
Dive right in to learning the special piece. Devise exercises and/or practice for longer, until you can eventually play it. This has a lot of problems. As the techniques are not fully developed you are likely to play sections less than optimally, the process could take years. On the other hand it is likely make you better motivated.

Some teachers would say you should only ever take the first of these approaches, and that the second will do damage. I am not so sure. Motivation is a strong ally.

HOW I LEARNED THIS PIECE
Chopin’s first Ballade, quite apart from being a wonderful piece of music, is a good piece for learning new technical skills, as it calls on such a variety of technique. It divides neatly into sections, each of which has its own dominant techniques and textures that can be studied independently.

It took me three learnings of this piece before I could perform it reliably and well. The first was in 1985. I already had a performance diploma, that is to say … I was playing much beyond Grade 8 standard, but the results of this first attempt were terrible! The second attempt was in 2008 which was a big improvement, but still nowhere near good enough for public performance. The third was in 2013, and it now sounds pretty good. In each case I worked at it for a few months, alongside other repertoire. It is going to take one more period of study to make the memorization bullet-proof!

LEARNING A SECTION AT A TIME
I broke the piece down into manageable sections to learnindependently. Of course this is not the only way to chop it up. You might want to subdivide some of my sections further.

I have rated each section as Easy, Moderate, Difficult or Very Difficult. These are only as a rough guide to which parts are likely to be mastered quickly and which will take more work. They are not meant as some absolute, eternal assessment. But if you have trouble with the “Easy” or “Moderate” passages then you might want to work on other material to develop your technique before tackling this Ballade.

SECTIONS FOR INDEPENDENT STUDY AND PRACTISE

  • 1. 1 – 7 . Slow Intro (E)
  • 2. 8 – 21 . Theme, not fast (E)
  • 3. 21 – 37 . Transition ending in fioratura (M)
  • 4. 37 – 43 . New idea derived from opening theme (2 above), twice, second time agitato (M)
  • 5. 44 – 55 . Lively bravura section derived from earlier motifs (D)
  • 6. 56 – 65 . Big arpeggios (D)
  • 7. 65 – 93 . Horn call leading into slow melody over expansive arpeggios (E)
  • 8. 94 – 105 . Variant of opening theme (E)
  • 9. 106 – 118 . Variant of the slow melody (7 above) in big chords (M)
  • 10. 119 – 123 . Octave passages (D)
  • 11. 124 – 125 . Descending arpeggios with added thirds (M)
  • 12. 126 – 137 . Bravura connecting passage (D)
  • 13. 138 – 144 . Scherzando based on 4 above (D)
  • 14. 145 – 165 . Further development of the scherzando culminating in a descending run (D)
  • 15. 166 – 193 . Return of idea 7, faster and more elaborate. There is one slightly tricky measure (170) where there are four voices, three of them in the right hand, and each playing an independent rhythm (M)
  • 16. 194 – 205 . Return of original theme (2 above) in yet another guise (E)
  • 17. 206 – 207 . Appassionato section as lead-in to the violent Presto (M)
  • 18. 208 – 241 . Presto con fuoco (D)
  • 19. 242 – 245 . Rising chromatic scale over chords(M)
  • 20. 246 – 250 . Descending passage work in right hand (M)
  • 21. 250 – 257 . Two big fast scales hands an octave apart and a tenth apart, each followed by fragments of the first (2 above) theme (VD)
  • 22. 258 – 264 . Concluding fff octave passage (M)

SOME WARNINGS
You have to take care that the result does not sound like 20-odd different chunks stuck end to end. Once the separate sections are fluent then the transitions between them need work until the piece is unified and the different textures meld seamlessly. Note how the motif of a falling semitone or tone permeates the entire piece, connecting the various themes and giving an overall unity:

Good luck!!

Different Purpose, Different Practise

Some time ago I made some very strong criticisms of the free book “Fundamentals of Piano Practice”. Those criticisms still stand. But now I want to be constructive, and not destructive.

Let us, from the start, understand that there is no “one true way” to practice. Different ages, different background, different aims, different hands, different ways of thinking, different music. These all affect how you practice. Besides, the way you work at music will change as your knowledge and skill increase, and whatever point you are at in your musical development there are still different kinds of practice for different purposes.

I want to deal with some of these. I believe that my ideas and recommendations will be helpful to most pianists (if they have not yet figured it out for themselves!) but remember that you are unique, so some of this might not work for you.

So here are what I believe are the main kinds of practice, and what they are for.

TRIAL RUNS
In a trial run the most important rule is “Stop for nothing”. Keeping the rhythm is the most important. The worst thing of all is to “go back” to “correct” a mistake. That just adds a second mistake to the first one. This type of work reveals the parts of the piece that are not yet secure. Unless you have the technique to play something almost perfectly at sight this should be a relatively small part of your work, but even then working on small details would be likely to improve a piece. For most learners it should definitely NOT be the main form of practice.

PRACTISING FOR IMPROVEMENT
There are MANY exercises and methods for overcoming technical difficulties and developing technique. One of the functions of a teacher is to suggest suitable methods for each student. Literally there are hundreds of them, invented over more than three centuries. I cannot even begin to list them here, but I will be looking at some of them in future articles.

When you are working out a difficult section you need to figure out (often by yourself, without the teacher there to guide you) WHY it is impossible or difficult before you can fix it.

First ask: “Do I already have the technique, and just need to work out how to apply it, or do I need to learn a new piece of physical co-ordination?” The former can be achieved quickly. The latter can take a long time to grow.

Only when you have a section of a piece right should you aim to repeat several times slowly to fix it in your memory. Make sure that timing, fingering, and dynamics are correct or very close. A slow tempo is no problem as it will improve with repetition.

How many times should you repeat something when you get it correct? You will need to experiment to see what works for you. Some authors recommend working until you can play a passage five times in a row, correctly, each day until it is secure. That might be difficult! If you play something correctly 4 times, then mess up on the 5th, then you have to start counting at 1 again! Some can master things in fewer daily repetitions. You might be one of the lucky ones that m,asters difficulties quickly. On the other hand you might need to play something 7, 10 or more times at each session to securely master some difficulties.

In general practice for improvement will have the following characteristics:

  • Sections will be short
  • They will be played as slowly as necessary to play them close to perfectly
  • Repetition over several days (or even weeks)
  • Each small part mastered must be re-integrated into the piece

When you need to learn a new technique it is often a good idea to find a study or exercise that develops it. Alternatively you can make up your own exercises.

It is usually easier to perform difficult acts of co-ordination from memory, rather than with extra burden of decoding the notation. Technically challenging sections are more difficult when you use the score, whether you are reading in detail, or just using the score to prompt your memory.

Beware: Make sure that you do not end up with a string of brilliantly played difficulties, connected by badly played “easy bits”!!

PRACTICING TO MAINTAIN A PIECE THAT YOU KNOW
It is NOT enough to simply play through the piece every few days. If that is all you do then the “finger memory” (kinesthetic memory) will get stronger, while the musical and intellectual memory gets weaker. Eventually part of the sequence of conditioned actions will fail and the piece will break down.

Some people call this “over practising”. It is not. It is INCORRECT practising.

In addition to “play throughs” you must:

  • Re-study the score occasionally (away from the instrument) to check that mistakes have not crept in to your remembered version
  • Continue to study the piece looking for yet more patterns and regularities, harmonic sequences, melodic shapes and so forth, and reminding yourself of those you already know
  • Play through MENTALLY away from the keyboard (imagine the exact movements and sounds)

Some other activities that you might find useful are to:

  • Play hands separately
  • Play the musical lines separately
  • Play melody lines with the “wrong” hand, or with a single finger
  • Reverse the left and right hands

… anything that enhances your musical and intellectual understanding and not the kinesthetic memory will help

PRACTISING FOR PERFORMANCE
This assumes that you have already done everything above, and know the piece thoroughly. The basic idea here is to see if the piece stands up under extra pressure. Anything that adds to your nervousness, fear, difficulty … that gives you more of those butterflies in the stomach, is useful here.

First you MUST decide whether you will perform from memory or from the score. The worst thing is to decide to play from memory, then at the last moment to change your mind and play from the score. You are likely to:

  • End up playing large sections from memory, then be unable to find your place in the score
  • Mess up the page turns
  • Miss large leaps when you have your eyes glued to the score

Here are some useful things you can do to make things harder for yourself:

  • Record yourself
  • Play on a strange piano, and/or in a place that is unfamiliar
  • Play at a time of day that you do not usually play
  • Play when you are hungry and/or thirsty
  • Play in an artificially hot (or cold) room
  • Play late in the evening, to see if you can manage when at your most tired
  • Invite some friends to listen
  • Take any opportunity to play pianos in public places (street pianos, libraries)
  • Wear your concert clothes
  • Make a trial performance in front of your teacher
  • Make a trial performance in front of a different teacher

Any realizable combination of the above.

Concluding remarks
There are several dimensions to practice:

  • The environment where you work
  • What to do, how accurately, and at what speed (QUALITY)
  • How many times to repeat an exercise (QUANTITY)

But often forgotten is possibly the most important of all: INTENSITY.

It is hard to generate intense concentration artificially. It comes naturally from a love of:

  • The instrument
  • The music
  • Performing

(… and perhaps other factors?)

and is easiest to muster when you are refreshed and mentally alert.

A few repetitions with the greatest possible focus and concentration are as effective as hundreds of mindless repetitions.

What is Wrong With Deliberate Practice?

IMPROVEMENTS THAT DELIBERATE PRACTICE DOES NOT EXPLAIN
You would be excused for thinking that I am a fan of  ‘Deliberate Practice’ and that I recommend it for the majority of your practice time.  I am not, and I do not.  Of course it has its place, and is effective, but to me it smells too much of Pavlov’s methods of creating conditioned reflexes.

The essence of deliberate practice, as applied to piano technique is that by performing precise movements we create useful pathways, and that by repeating exactly the same movements, several times in rapid succession we strengthen the new reflexes.

I am not disputing that we need to create some automatic (or at least semi-automatic) patterns of movement, because it just is not possible to consciously control every detail of all the movements that your fingers, hands and arms have to make when playing quickly.  Nor do I doubt that ‘Deliberate Practice’ is one effective way of developing those conditioned reflexes.  But there has to be more to it than that. There are many aspects of learning to make music at the piano that it does not explain. In particular, some of the improvements that take place between practise sessions, or even in the absence of any practice, do not sit well with a naive or simple understanding of “Deliberate Practice”. I will look at just three things that ‘Deliberate Practice’ does not easily explain:

PIECES THAT ARE NOT PRACTICED NEVERTHELESS SHOW IMPROVEMENT
If it were true that drill improved only exactly what you practice and repeat then we would expect to have to revisit the music that we already know to improve it. But that is not how it works at all. I expect most of my readers have learned to play a new piece well, and have then found that everything they know has, almost magically, improved as well.

This suggests that there is an intelligent structure to the nervous sequences that control our movements. The analogy with a computer program and its subroutines helps here. It is as if basic movement patterns, the kinds used in many pieces, are stored once only and are not built into each remembered piece of music. I suspect that there is a hierarchy of them. When you play a piece it is like running through a master control program that calls the right subroutines to direct the arms, hands and fingers. So when, through practicing a new piece, you improve or replace a “subroutine”  the improvement (or new version) becomes available to everything that you know with no further effort.

This analogy is speculative, but it fits the facts, and is a useful model for thinking about physical skills and co-ordination.

MISTAKES FALL AWAY, AND GOOD THINGS APPEAR IN THEIR PLACE
There is an incorrect saying “Practice Makes Perfect”. The sports coach Gary Gelwix came up with a smart-alec variation on it: “Practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent”. It sounds clever, but it too is wrong, at least for some people. My insight into this came not through teaching piano playing but through my experiences as a swimming teacher and coach.

Given a bunch of young swimmers with a variety of stroke defects I noticed that many of them seemed stuck, and the more they swam with their inferior strokes the more entrenched their mistakes became. To break the habits and develop good stroke mechanics they needed a lot of instruction, a lot of well-designed exercises, and to stop swimming in the incorrect way until the new techniques were well established.  Many beliefs about teaching seem to assume that this is true of all learners. But it is not.

The interesting thing is that many of the children, with equally bad defects, gradually eliminated them as they swam length after length of conditioning training, with no instruction whatsoever, and without making any conscious efforts to improve their technique. Somehow without being consciously aware of how, they eliminated major defects and refined what was already good.

I cannot explain how or why that happens. If I had the outlook of a research scientist I would be trying to find out what is going on. Do they have superior kinesthetic sense, are they better observers of more skilful swimmers, or what? As it is I tried to quickly find which group anyone fell into. The “naturals” I just gave sets of speed and conditioning work to get on with. The others I forbade to swim distances or repeats or other conditioning work in the pool, and put through an intensive course of deliberate stroke improvement.

We can apply the same approach to music students.

EVERYTHING IMPROVES THROUGH PERIODS OF NO PRACTICE
This is the strangest thing of all. I have often noticed that after a break from practising, when I return to the piano everything is better: accuracy, variety of touch, solidity of memory, control of tempo, all-out speed and more. Perhaps this only happens if the break is preceded by a period of intensive practice, much of it of the “Deliberate” kind, but I know of no research that would confirm or refute that idea.

The important thing that these kinds of observation tell us is that there is much more to acquiring a complex skill like piano playing than reinforcing correct neural pathways through repeated activation. The mind/brain, working outside of our conscious observation, somehow knows what to ignore and allow to fade away,and what to strengthen and integrate into our overall technique.

And there is something else, even more important:

LEARNING TO PLAY SHOULD BE ENJOYABLE
I believe Ericsson and his supporters are simply wrong to say of any exercise that to qualify as Deliberate Practice it must not be inherently enjoyable. I believe that a big difference between people who develop high levels of skill and those that do not is that they are capable of enjoying the detailed, disciplined, repetitive work that Ericsson believes we would all find irksome.

Nevertheless, if it was the only sort of work that I did I would have given up the study of piano long ago. It is fun to rattle through a piece at speed, learn to play it in half a dozen different ways – some of them outrageous, to attempt it at breakneck speed, as well as impossibly slowly, to improvise or doodle at the keyboard, to make trial performances.

Many teachers think that some of these things are damaging, that they might even introduce errors and make them permanent and ineradicable. I disagree. The human mind/brain is not so stupid. The subconscious extracts many lessons from these other activities, and because they are inherently enjoyable they make it possible to continue to work at our piano skills for the many years that are necessary to reach a high level.

Difficulties of the Adult Learner

It is generally thought that adults will have more difficulty learning to play the piano than children. It is about time that we looked explicitly at some of the reasons for that view, and to disentangle fact from fancy.

Few fields of endeavour are more unjustifiably ageist than classical music, yet most of the beliefs about the need to start early and be “talented” are based on anecdotes, or on limited personal experience, or are self-fulfilling.

Let us look first at some things that are commonly thought to place limits on what we can do as adults, but are probably not serious limitations, except insofar as they make many adult learners doubt their ability:

NORMAL MATURATION MAKES IT IMPOSSIBLE
Few gymnasts are as good in their 20’s as in their early teens. It is just physics. The different physique of a mature person, especially a woman is not so well suited to the sport as the body of a young teenager.

This problem is irrelevant to piano playing

THE PHYSIOLOGICAL PROCESSES UNDERLYING LEARNING AND PERFORMANCE SLOW DOWN
No doubt it happens. In some fields it prevents top-level performance. Few soccer players, swimmers, or runners go on beyond their mid thirties, and most peak in their mid to late twenties. And in purely mental activities like Maths and Chess the creative and competitive peak is at similar ages. It is undoubtedly true that with increasing age it takes progressively longer to learn musical skills too and that some well learned skills start to decline. Fortunately this is not enough to prevent you from reaching extremely high levels of performance.

We don’t understand the physiology of ageing very well, but we do know how to reduce the effects of age: A healthy Diet, Adequate Sleep, Moderate Exercise, staying Inquisitive in general, and pursuing a strong interest.

MISSING A CRITICAL PERIOD DURING DEVELOPMENT WHEN CERTAIN TYPES OF LEARNING CAN TAKE PLACE
The jury is out on this. It is believed that some basic sensory processes have to be learned very early or they will never develop, so you can prevent a baby from learning to co-ordinate their eyes by putting a patch over one eye at a critical stage. It was once thought that such problems were permanent. Now we are more optimistic about remedying the effects of early deprivation but it is an uphill struggle and the result is never (as yet) so good as when the adaptation takes place at the normal time.  But it is far from clear that similar problems exist with high level skills like piano playing.

There is some evidence, not especially strong, that there are cut-off points in development at about 8 years old, and again at about 15, and that some kinds of learning must be achieved before then. An example is learning to recognize the specific sounds of your native language. [Or , more accurately, forgetting the sounds that are NOT part of your native language]. In piano playing there is some evidence that the highest levels of co-ordination require extensive development of the myelin sheaths of nerve fibres, and that work done in the early teens (and even more so in childhood) promotes a level of development that is unattainable in later years.

The psychology of Piaget has been very influential in education, and Piaget was a strong believer in particular developmental stages. But the evidence is nowhere near so conclusive as the educational text books make out. In any case there have been successful classical pianists that did not take up music until their late teens, and in the worlds of popular music and especially jazz, which is much more free from age prejudice, late starters are far more common.

ACCUMULATED DAMAGE TO THE BODY AND ITS FUNCTIONS
Living is bad for you! In the long run we are all dead. There is little doubt about that. So reduce the damage, and get any injuries attended to promptly and correctly.

LOSS OF CAPACITY THROUGH LACK OF USE
Start using it!!

Now let’s look at some of the problems adults face that really can impose limits:

BAD HABITS TO UNLEARN
This is serious. If you have already learned to play you might have a deeply ingrained incorrect technique. It is next to impossible to “unlearn” something. So you have to independently learn correct technique, then reinforce it to such an extent that it takes precedence over what you had learned incorrectly before. But to do this might take five, six or more times the effort (and time) that it would have taken to learn to do it right in the first place. And worse, the old habits have a habit of re-surfacing in times of stress … like playing a recital.

LAZINESS
There is no point in pretending otherwise, many of us are just plain lazy. Children work very hard and persistently to learn new skills. Many adults have forgotten what it is like to generate such an intensity of focus, and to sustain it for so long.

OTHER DEMANDS ON OUR TIME
This is a biggie. As you get older you accumulate “responsibilities”. You also get into the habit of spending time in certain ways. If you are to learn an instrument to a high standard you’ll need to work up to putting in several hours on several days each week. You might need more time than a younger person, for reasons already discussed. The general consensus of teachers in conservatoires and of top-class pianists is that for a young student in the process of acquiring their skills, about 4 hours per day is best for most people. Some do more, up to eight hours daily, but few do more than that. Some get by on less, but very few on less than two hours a day. The case of a mature artist who already has all the skills, and has a large memorised repertoire, is quite different from that of someone who is developing technique and building up their repertoire. They may need only an hour or two a day to keep up their level.

As you could be a little slower on the uptake than a younger person AND have some bad habits to obliterate, you’ll be looking at investing more time and not less. Most adults will say “Impossible! I have a job to go to, and a family to look after, not to mention the daily commute”, to which I say, “In that case you will never realise your potential, or your dreams. In fact you will never get close”.

Finding three or four hours each day is asking a lot, but if you can do it you can go a long way. And you do not need to start at that level of work. You should work up to it over a couple of years, so as not to get injured, or develop chronic aches and pains. And in that couple of years you could do some radical re-organisation of your life. Drop everything unnecessary, reduce the hours you spend at work, get rid of the daily commute, and figure out the fastest most efficient ways to dispose of essential chores.

If the best you can manage is an hour or two on 5 or six days per week all is not lost.  You are unlikely to become an international virtuoso on that amount of practice, but you can still become very, very capable.  But you will need to be exceptionally disciplined about using what time you have effectively.

FEWER YEARS OF LIFE AHEAD
What a double whammy. Not only will you need to devote more practice hours than a youngster to achieve the same results, but you will not live as long. It can take as many as 20 years for the child that takes up the piano at the age of five to become a fully fledged concert artist. As an adult you already know many things that the youngster still has to learn. But still, reckon on as long as 15 years to reach a professional standard  if you are taking up an instrument late in life. Less if you are a returner and not a beginner, so long as you do not have too many bad habits to un-learn.

So if you are 40 now, you could be 55 by the time you reach the standard of a 25-year-old debutant. No worries – you can still play at a high level for 20 years or more!

Basically you have to overcompensate for your late start by:

– Simplifying the rest of your life to make your musical studies possible
– Omitting all that is unessential
– Doing what is left as efficiently as possible
– Minimising your mistakes
– Avoid heading off in false directions
– Making greater intensity of effort
– Investing more time if at all possible

LACK OF PRACTICE FACILITIES
This is more of a problem for adults because we are generally more considerate than children. The brain does not mature completely until the early 20’s and until then the ability to empathise is not completely developed. So a child or young person will happily practice without worrying about the effect on the neighbours.

The terraced houses, semis and flats that most of us live in are far from ideal for learning to make music. Will the noise upset the neighbours? Do you need to consider other family members to consider? Even if you have four hours available for practice can you actually use them. What are the options?

Here are a few:

  • Do a run-through of known repertoire (not too bad to listen to) when neighbours and family are about
  • Do repetitive practice when no-one is around
  • Have a separate outbuilding for music practice
  • Sound-proof a room (or get an acoustic box – a room inside a room)
  • Use an electric piano with headphones (at least for some of the time). But it is not a full solution. The clatter of the fingers on the keys, and the noise of the piano mechanism are still loud enough to hear throughout a small house.
  • Practice outside the home (Church halls, schools, professional practice rooms)