How it works

Usually, we think of discipline as pushing ourselves to get better at something—struggling for results, and sometimes even ignoring physical pain or discomfort.

But the Art of Practicing is a different kind of discipline.

Instead of pushing ourselves and struggling for results, we practice recognizing when we’re pushing ourselves and struggling—and then we apply various techniques to let go of our struggle and to cultivate a natural freedom.

These techniques apply to several different elements of practicing:

Two additional elements complement the Art of Practicing and prepare you to fully develop your playing:

1. Physical Ease

Your body is an instrument just as the piano is, and it’s designed to work in a certain way. If you move inefficiently, it’s like having broken hammers or an unregulated action in your piano—a lot of the music that’s inside you can’t get out. Although we all have different sized hands and different physical proportions, we all have muscles and bones, and they work best in particular alignments and combinations.

Nothing is more physically complicated than playing an instrument—in fact, scientists have said that playing a musical instrument is the most complex neuromuscular activity that people engage in. So take heart—there’s a reason for the frustration we often experience. The fact is, it really matters how high you sit—so that you can get the best leverage with your fingers and arms. And it matters how you use every part of your playing mechanism.

For instance, a lot of people try to get power by overworking their fingers, instead of by using their arms more to get a bigger sound. Forcing the fingers to overwork like this causes unnecessary tension, which translates into playing less expressively than you’re capable of. Another habit that can wreak havoc with your muscles and with the music is holding your fingers above the keys when other fingers are playing—if you do this, you overuse the muscles that keep those fingers from giving in to gravity and falling onto the keys and relaxing like they need to. Then, some people move their wrists too far up or down, or they keep them locked in one position, which really limits comfort and expressiveness.

But when all the different parts of the playing mechanism are used comfortably and efficiently, playing feels effortless and you can make music with tremendous expressive freedom.

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2. Sensory Awareness

Of course, these physical requirements are all in the service of art—although we’re athletes, we’re primarily artists. So, along with the extreme precision and coordination that takes years to develop at the piano, we also have to take time during practicing to hear all the sounds we’re playing and to let them affect us deeply. Often, we just rush through a piece, missing some of its richness and depth—the treasure that is always right in front of us, waiting for us to notice and revel in. We just need to slow down and pay attention to each sound.

Many pieces of music that we play are written by a great genius and have tremendous depth and subtlety, and to master even a five-minute piece—to physically execute it and to really absorb it in all its intricacy—can take months. This time can be a great pleasure and highly productive if we take time to notice and enjoy every sound we make. The secret is to balance all the activity of playing with an intense receptivity to sounds. Often, this means we have to move less and sit more still, so we can give the sounds our full attention.

Although the piano, unlike most other instruments, is laid out in black and white, allowing us to produce a pitch whether we hear it or not, those pitches won’t sound like great music unless we really listen and connect to them. So even though we often have to play many notes simultaneously, we need to play very slowly for a while so that we notice how each sound is affecting us. Then the music will really live inside us—which means it can flow out naturally in performance.

In addition to tuning in to sound, you also need to tune in to the physical sensations of touch and movement—to notice your body and how it feels as you play. Playing without looking at your hands, for instance, forces you to be very aware of how your body feels, which results in a more sensitive touch and more efficient and smooth coordination. And all of that has a huge effect on how your playing sounds.

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3. Rhythmic Integrity

Rhythm is life. Heartbeat, the rhythm of breathing—music flows because it contains these fundamental rhythms of life. Phrases ebb and flow. But a piece of music can be very complicated and difficult to organize in a way that works rhythmically. If we emphasize the wrong beat, or if we shape a group of notes in a wave that flows forward when it should instead be ebbing, our energy gets stuck and the music suffers. If we pause too many times in a phrase, we let the air out of the tires that the piece is running on, and the music can fall flat. We can lose the attention of our listeners.

Applying simple rhythmic laws, which create a sense of pulse, can make all the difference. A section of music we were struggling with can suddenly flow naturally, the way it was meant to, instead of falling apart.

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4. Mental Clarity

We often come to the piano with a tense and cluttered mind. Yet we need to focus when we practice, just as when we perform. If we train our mind to relax and let go of distracting thoughts during practicing—to stay with the details of technique, sound, and sensation—we prepare ourselves for the wide open space of performance, in which we’re intensely aware of the present moment—the room, the lights, the silence before we start, the feeling that time has stopped.

Simple relaxation techniques can help us practice intelligently, with a high level of awareness. We can accomplish more in less time, and we can become familiar during practice with the extreme state of receptivity that happens onstage, so that it doesn’t throw us off balance so easily.

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5. Emotional Openness

When you go to a concert, you want to hear music made from the heart, music that moves you, that touches you in some way. How do performers do that? Is it hit or miss? Or are some people just naturally good at it? Actually, you can learn to do it–you can cultivate your natural ability to express yourself from the heart when you play. Some of it comes from playing with minimum physical tension, and from using the techniques for tuning in to sounds and sensations, mentioned above. But you can also deliberately tune in to your heart energy by reflecting on experiences that open the heart. Once you access this heart energy, it can spread through your body and be expressed in your playing.

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6. Knowledge of Your Musical Tradition

The above five elements form the core of the Art of Practicing. In addition, you have to know the particular language of your musical tradition—whether it be classical, jazz, blues, rock, folk, experimental, or world music. It usually takes a long time to learn this language, and while most of it comes from hearing music over time, a lot of it is also imparted by teachers, and sometimes colleagues, who learned it from their teachers and colleagues, etc. We each have a particular musical lineage, and we’ve inherited what we know from all the teachers, performers, compositions, and books we’ve been exposed to.

Traditions of style, phrasing, pedaling, fingering, color, nuance, imagery, and endless other details all play a part in our learning and in how we end up playing different kinds of music. I had several teachers, and each of them imparted valuable information and understanding to me about different composers and pieces and how they can or should be played. Each of them showed me different ways of using my hands and arms to get appropriate effects in countless musical fragment and phrases. Each of them taught me different things about the overall architecture of different pieces of music. All of this training and understanding goes into the study of a new piece of music.

Finally, if you play for others, you need…

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7. Confidence for Performance

If you’ve practiced with the other six things happening, you’re ready to let the music flow out freely in performance. But you still need one more thing: confidence. This is a big subject—in fact, I’m writing a whole new book about it. But one thing that can help you a lot is a simple, contemplative practice that I teach–called the Fearless Performing Exercise–which transforms stage fright into confidence.

We usually feel afraid when we’re about to perform—we don’t know what will happen, no matter how much or how well we’ve practiced. Vulnerability is a fundamental aspect of being a performer, and of being human altogether. But there is a way of getting beyond thinking about ourselves and about what people will think of us, and focusing instead on what we have to give to them. It’s our birthright to celebrate our humanity by sharing music with other people, whether it’s in a small room with a few friends, or in a big hall. Each of us has a place in the world of sharing music with others.

Confidence in performance is a triumph of the human spirit. Whatever your ability, you can find great fulfillment in performing. You can develop a confidence that will blaze and transmit brilliance and power to your audience.

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