A young pianist once told me an unusual story about how he had practiced for his jury exam at music school. The exam was scheduled for 9 o’clock in the morning. So the day before, wanting to be as ready as possible, he decided to practice all night. To keep himself awake, he periodically ate coffee grounds from a spoon.
When 9 AM arrived, he sat at the piano in front of the judges and found he couldn’t play a single note. His body and mind were completely wrecked. Soon afterward he showed up at my studio in search of a better way to practice.
As extreme as this story is, I can actually relate to it myself. When I was still under the age limit for one of the world’s biggest piano competitions, I set myself the goal of “learning” Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto in a week. To save as much time as possible for practicing, I put my meals in the blender so I wouldn’t have to spend time chewing them.
I don’t remember if I learned all the notes of the piece in that time or not. I only remember that I abandoned the project when the week was up. Maybe I got tired of drinking blended food! In any case, I seem to have misplaced the score to that concerto, and I can’t remember a note of it now.
Looking back on that crazy experiment, I can definitely understand the wild ambition and panic that can overtake a musician. But I’m also glad I learned not to attempt anything like that again!
You may have never tried either of these extreme approaches to practicing. But let’s look at a milder version of getting overly caught up in the ambition for results:
Getting overly determined to “nail“ a difficult passage
The desire to master a challenging piece of music is wonderful. Without such desire, we wouldn’t have the energy we need to meet the huge demands that great music can present.
But I prefer the word “mastery” to “nailing it”, which doesn’t quite fit with my idea of healthy, deeply effective practicing. I start picturing someone hammering a nail into a board. And then another image arises, of a pianist overexerting—physically, mentally, or both—driven by a belief that they can, and must, become perfect and infallible.
We can all get carried away by ambition and take it too far sometimes. And when we do, it can create tension in our mind and body that works against us.
On the other hand, when we embrace our inherent imperfectness and allow music to flow through us freely and spontaneously, we become vulnerable and open not only to error, but to the full beauty, magic, and power in music and in ourselves.
You don’t have to be perfect, and you don’t have to try. When you relax the effort to “get it right,” your mind will be more free to operate with its natural intelligence, and your body will be more free to operate with natural ease and expansive aliveness.
So, if you find yourself focusing hard on “nailing” a certain passage, try letting your mind and body relax. Take a couple of deep breaths. Then focus on your breathing for a minute or two. Take a moment to check in with how your hands and whole body feel. Then play a couple of sounds that you find beautiful, and let yourself enjoy them. Finally, if you feel like going back to that difficult passage, take your time with it, and see If a new idea occurs to you about how to solve a technical problem, or how to create a fluid phrase.
In my experience, and for all of my students, relaxing your mind and trusting your natural abilities can yield wonderful and surprising results.
If you’ve had an experience of letting go of excess effort and getting a better result, I’d love to hear about it. Please share in the comments below..