Dec 062004

Getting the body settled at the piano is easy compared with getting the mind settled. The mind flies off in all directions when we practice.

Concentration, the word used to indicate someone is thinking, is not a word I like.
In our youth we heard parents and teachers say:

“You’re not concentrating.”
“If only you’d concentrate, you could do so much better.”
“Don’t let your mind wonder.”
“Hello, where are you?”

All these experiences give us the feeling that concentration is a moral value. We are good if we concentrate and bad if we don’t and if we don’t we certainly need to work on the problem. It is a key element of our self-image as students.

I don’t like the word concentration because it is so closely allied with verbal thinking. For some, concentration is synonymous with verbal thinking. Playing the piano is such a physical task of the senses that concentration seems almost an inappropriate word to use.

Another objection is that I don’t know how to tell students to concentrate. What are they supposed to do? When people try to concentrate they usually end up thinking about trying to concentrate which isn’t the same thing as actually doing it. Real concentration doesn’t know it’s concentrating because it’s unaware of itself. A quote from Kate Kimball is a wonderful example of this experience:

Mindfulness, or awareness, does not mean that you should think and be conscious ‘I am doing this’ or ‘I am doing that.’ No. Just the contrary. The moment you think, ‘I am doing this,’ you become self-conscious, and then you do not live in the action, but you live in the idea ‘I am,’ and consequently your work too is spoiled.

You should forget yourself completely, and lose yourself in what you do. The moment a speaker becomes self-conscious and thinks ‘I am addressing an audience,’ his speech is disturbed and his trend of thought broken. But when he forgets himself in his speech, in his subject, then he is at his best, he speaks well and explains things clearly.

All great work — artistic, poetic, intellectual or spiritual — is produced at those moments when its creators are lost completely in their actions, when they forget themselves altogether, and are free from self-consciousness.
(“Everyday Mind, 366 Reflections on the Buddhist Path,” edited by Jean Smith, a Tricycle book; “What the Buddha Taught,” Walpola Rahula)

Involvement Beyond Self-Consciousness

How do we reach those moments of being so totally involved in our playing that we lose our sense of self-consciousness? We can’t will them to happen. These moments are gifts to our lives. When my students experience these moments they express the feeling of the music as moving through them as if they are a channel through which the music flows.

The following quote by Martha Graham expands this idea of the channel to create a credo for the artist at any level. Taken seriously, the obligation of this passage is more imposing than most amateurs ever imagined for themselves.

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action. And because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression can only be yours and can only be unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other person — no one can find it for you, it will be lost. The tragedy will not just be yours, but the world will not have it — and the world needs it for that’s what each of us has to offer life, that unique form which is in us.

It is not your business to determine how good it is, whether it’s worthwhile, nor how it compares to anybody else’s expressions. It is only your business to keep it open, keep it clear, keep it yours — in a phrase, keep your channels open. You do not even have to believe this in order for it to work: all you have to do is keep the channel open and be aware directly of the urges that inspire you.

In order to approach this channel, sometimes it is necessary to go downward to a place that’s still alive within us, to feelings we left a long time ago…but they are dormant…and if we make contact with them, they will rise up again. These are the spaces within ourselves that have the power to revitalize us and to renew our energies.

These moments are not reserved for only accomplished musicians. They can happen at any point in one’s playing. I believe the quote from Kate Kimball (see above) is an example of this experience.

The explanation I like best is that I play for those moments when music plays me. It doesn’t happen very often. It doesn’t last more than a second or two. My playing may not even sound any better. But that moment when I am inside the music is about the sweetest feeling I have ever known and I will do anything to get back there. Even practice.

Kate mentions it lasts only a second to two. At first these moments sneak in between the vast stretches of our self-consciousness; they are moments when the channel is open. Becoming aware of “I am doing this” stops the moment and closes the channel. With continued practice these moments become longer.

Mindfulness and Awareness

Being fully present at the piano is being aware of the sensations of touch and sound. It’s not a verbal description of the sensations but just the sensations themselves.

Mindfulness is total focus on these sensations of playing the piano.

In this way we come closest to the possibility of entering into those moments when we lose self-awareness. It is this way that we most successfully approach the conduit that can open the channel and allow us to forget ourselves for the music.

It’s also a terrific way to learn to play piano.

The more aware and knowing one becomes of all the physical sensations of touch and sound the more knowledge and information one finds in the sensations. The right feel of distance between the fingers becomes the right note. The right feel of arm movement becomes the right feel of the notes of a large skip. The right combination of both becomes the right passage work. The right feel of key resistance becomes the right sound from the piano. The right imagined sound becomes what the finger does. (That’s called playing by ear.) All the things students try to get “right” are felt in the sensations of the body.

What I find most useful in my own practicing is to imagine what the next chord, or note or group of notes is going to feel like under my fingers. Entwined with this is the imagined sound. Where I can’t imagine the feeling of the fingers, I don’t know the passage well enough so I must slow down to allow myself more time to know the sensations. If I can’t imagine the sound, I sing it or play it slowly just to focus on the sound.

One reason students need to play passages of their music over and over again is because they don’t pay attention to this crucial sensory information. Either they observe themselves playing to see if they do it right or their minds are off somewhere else.

There are some meditation exercises where one is to be aware of the breathing by focusing on the in and out sensations of the breath. By such inward attention it is possible to reach different levels of experience. In a similar manner, mindfulness on the sensations of our actions playing the piano can move us to a different levels of musical experience.

There are things for us to learn from people who teach meditation. Interestingly, athletes have been learning from them for years and this knowledge is an important element of sports psychology. In the arts, we’re a little late. Barry Green’s book “The Inner Game of Music” was based on Timothy Galway’s earlier book “The Inner Game of Tennis.”

Sensations Beyond the Hands

After understanding that the mindfulness is placed with the sensations involved in the playing of the moment, we must learn where all these sensations are felt and heard in the body.

Where do we learn how to play a passage? Where do we “know” it? We tend to think it’s in our heads but it doesn’t feel like it’s there. I can imagine the sensations of playing the piano so where do I feel those sensations?
Obviously we feel sensations in the fingers but what about the arms, the shoulders, the neck. We may not be aware of the shoulders and neck but sometimes they are so tight and sore after practicing. Why did we never feel these uncomfortable sensations as they developed? Clearly, we’re missing a lot that’s happening in our bodies.

Where do I remember the sound of a piece of music? Is it in my head, in my ears, in my fingers, maybe my chest, maybe my stomach? It seems an odd question yet the answer is elusive. Where do I consult myself to play a piece I know? Where do I hold the sound?

My answers to these questions may well not be the answers of others. In fact, I’ve had different answers at different times. The correct answer isn’t the issue but rather the process of beginning to understand that music is an experience of the whole body and not just the obvious parts.

An easily overlooked possibility is that body movement itself holds some vital information. Different pianists move very differently when they play.

A fun exercise is to watch a video of a performing pianist and then try to move the same way the pianist did. Sometimes it feels utterly strange and sometimes very freeing.

Trying to move the way Horowitz moved as he played feels very strange to me. Actually, he didn’t move much at all and looks stiff. It obviously worked spectacularly for him but I think my body would go into spasm if I tried to imitate his body posture and movement.

With Joseph Hoffman I had no trouble watching and imagining what I would feel like moving as he did. It helped me play more freely.

Wandering Minds

Mindfulness and awareness certainly aren’t consistent qualities for most of us. A few people aren’t too bothered by this problem but for most it’s a constant problem. Perhaps it’s the biggest problem students have.

It’s hard to quiet the mind and pay attention to the sensations. Our minds are filled with words and little fantasies. We think of things yet to do and things we should have already done. We recall past angers and losses as well as future plans and dreads. All kinds of things come up that take our attention away from our awareness of the music and our playing. The suprisingly rare quality of self kindness is the key to success. The only way to work with this issue is to acknowledge it and understand that our attentiveness deserts our task over and over again. Getting mad and disappointed at ourselves only adds another distraction to the collection. It’s not useful.

A better course is to note the absence of awareness and then return focus to the sensations. No self-judgement is necessary. It’s not a big deal; it’s just returning to the process of attention and mindfulness to the playing.

As time goes on, our awareness gradually becomes more consistent. Some days can be really good and some rotten. It happens to everyone in varying degrees. Accepting this as the way we are saves so much time and energy.

Learned Pieces

Pieces that are finally learned present the same problem in a different way. Students are so involved with the task of learning pieces they really don’t know what to do after the piece is actually learned. Frequently they get bored and play the old pieces with wandering minds, just going through the motions they learned.

We forget that we “learn” the piano so that we can “play” the piano. After the piece is learned, we are finally in a position to begin to play. We are finally in the position of being pianists instead of students.

How do we stay focused on a task when we’re so tired of it? How do we bring it back to life? How do we make it ours and not just do what our teachers told us to do? These are not easy questions and there are no easy solutions. One must encounter oneself and take endless chances.

Being a student is safe in comparison with being a pianist. Having an understanding teacher is crucial as students try different things.

All the things I’ve said about the sensations still apply here. In our boredom it’s easy to forget our focus. Often re-engaging that focus is all that’s necessary to bring back the involvement with the music. Without leaving the focus on the sensory input, other approaches can help.

Students can try outrageous approaches. Playing a piece for laughs is always a good idea so music doesn’t become too serious. Making it way too expressive, exaggerating every little nuance and detail can open up interpretive possibilities. Playing it to the metronome, but still musically, can clarify structural and formal issues.

Imagining the piece in different colors was helpful to my son taking viola lessons and some of my students like it too. Imagining the piece as a story or opera or ballet can be useful for some. More analytical students might prefer going through the piece phrase by phrase to find the high point of tension within each phrase and then find the phrase or phrases that are the climatic ones of the whole piece. Sometimes listening to different melodic lines of the piece add new meaning and clarity, especially the bass line, the cello part of our music. Imagining what the piece would sound like with an orchestra playing it can give new life to the music. Performing the piece before an audience is a wonderful way to revitalize music.

Teachers who are too judgmental and harsh make students afraid to try different ideas and interpretations so students become timid and fearful. They are understandably afraid to find their musical selves. This is a tragedy for it is one of the great joys of music.

Practicing, Part 1: Getting There, Chronic Practice Problems, & Leaving a Teacher
Practicing, Part 3 — Mind Games
Practicing, Part 4 — Emotional Self-Management

  2 Responses to “Practicing, Part 2: Concentration, Mindfulness & Awareness, & Staying Focused”

  1. […] Practicing, Part 2: Concentration, Mindfulness & Awareness, & Staying Focused Practicing, Part 3 — Mind Games Practicing, Part 4 — Emotional Self-Management […]

  2. Learning piano alone is indeed very hard. You need someone or some organization where you ask for help to guide you to learn it effectively and easily. Fortunately this post is very helpful and indeed a very good help. Aside from this, technology makes you learn and fast. Technology nowadays really helps to learn something fast. Like watching tutorials of piano lesson from youtube. You can learn it also easily. You just need of the technologies in this modern times. Like when when a student study fractions, he just needs fractions calculator as guide to learn fast. The same way with other skills if you want to learn you just need technology to learn it fast. Learning piano is not an easy way but you can learn it in an easy and fun way with help online like this post.

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