ArT of the Piano: How to practice without scrambling your melon

Do you talk to yourself when you play? Maybe in the form of criticism....maybe in the form of encouragement? Let me explain why NEITHER works.

From ages 5-17, I played by feel, by intuition. I saw pictures and stories and expressed musical gesture through moods. I never had critical thoughts enter my head-space because piano was my refuge.

This changed when I went to college and felt way behind everyone else technically and musically. I started over-analyzing and criticizing myself constantly. I'd sit in the practice room for hours, trying to play two notes together and getting nowhere.... because I was over-thinking and engaging in negative talk. All of this inner criticism caused me to distrust my natural instincts. I blamed the flow state, my "refuge," for my technical deficiencies. My inner words were getting me nowhere.

Mendelssohn-copy-10embwe.jpg

I believe we can't engage in self-talk and play well at the same time. Even if the words are positive.

WHY?

BECAUSE.............

Playing music, or any art form, is a right brain activity. It involves imagination, flow, feelings. BUT......criticism and judgement (positive or negative) are a form of analysis which is..........LEFT brain.  

The right side of the brain, simply can't think in words. To judge while playing creates a mistake. For example: You're playing easily, everything is flowing and you think, "This is going well!" Immediately you make a mistake....because instead of happily staying on the right side of your brain, you re-directed your focus to analysis, to the left side. So even positive judgments aren't helpful in performance...they distract from the moment.

In practice sessions, I'll find myself judging what I'm doing, before I'm done doing it. Even talking out loud to myself while I'm playing a passage ("That was a stupid mistake. You keep doing that and no one is going to hire you.") This is the perfect set-up for self-sabotage in performance. Because I am systematically practicing how to derail the side of my brain responsible for my performance success. 

We need to incorporate making separate moments for analysis versus feeling, for constructive problem-solving versus playing in the flow in our daily practice sessions. Make time to think, to logically prepare, to plan. Make time to flow.

BUT DO NOT MIX THE TWO. Instead, (deliberately) alternate.

Elephants are smart but are not so effective at pianissimo.....just like our left brain isn't great at performing music.

Elephants are smart but are not so effective at pianissimo.....just like our left brain isn't great at performing music.

One experiment I tried a few weeks ago was to systematically switch between left and right brain activities. I started with a phrase and thought of as many details as I could...planning  out what articulation, what touch to use, analyzing the harmony, making sure I understood what kind of technique I needed to do, and what sound I wanted (TOTAL LEFT BRAIN). Then I stopped thinking and just played the phrase (RIGHT BRAIN). When I was done, I evaluated how I did (LEFT BRAIN). When I was happy, I moved on and added more sections.

Recently I've noticed I can play much longer sections (up to 3 pages) with a quiet mind. 

I feel strongly that if we regularly practice turning our words off and on, we will lessen the chance of mental self-sabotage when we get on stage. The words in our head (positive or negative) ironically get in the way of our authentic communication through our music. Learning to turn off the brain on command, even for one measure is a HUGE success. One measure leads to two measures. Two measures leads to a phase, leads to a phrase, leads to an entire piece, leads to a entire performance.....voila: you're suddenly doing, being, living a flow-state!

It can be also useful to experience a quiet mind away from your instrument, to become familiar with turning your thoughts off. Check out this helpful article on meditation