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Piano Lesson Insights: Do You Practice To Play Or Play To Practice?

7 August 2014

Piano -poolWhat has swimming got to do with playing piano?

 

Though an unlikely source of inspiration to a piano player, much of what Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe has to say on the subject of training / practice is something that can greatly benefit not only swimmers, but piano students too.

 

Many who watched the recent interview Thorpe did with Michael Parkinson may have been surprised and/or preoccupied with the revelation that he is gay. Certainly the media have focused on little else that was discussed.

 

To be honest, I am not a great fan of sport in general and I have no interest in Thorpe’s personal life, but I ended up watching the interview as, frankly, there was not much else on t.v. that evening at that time.

 

To my surprise, in the interview, Thorpe said something that really struck a chord (pun intended) with me.

 

Parkinson was asking him about his connection to the water which is apparently described in great detail and in “almost mystical” fashion in the first chapter of Thorpe’s recent book (which I have not read, by the way).

 

What Thorpe said was (in paraphrase), that most swimmers train to compete at various races / events. In other words, for the majority of swimmers, it’s mostly about the winning.

 

But Thorpe says that he competes so that he can train. In other words, for Thorpe, the greatest joy and fulfillment is in the continuation of training itself.

 

What a great lesson that is!

 

Having studied, practiced, performed and taught piano for many years, I can tell you that for most pianists / keyboard players, it is the same.

 

At least sometimes, if not all the time, most of us fall into the temptation to reduce the time we spend practicing piano to a means to an end.

 

For every piece we start learning, we want to get to the end of the learning process so we can finally perform that new piece we have been working so hard on, whether for an audience or just for ourselves.

 

Of course, the problem with this approach is that it can easily make practice a tedious chore.

 

As I gradually become a little older and (I like to think) a little wiser, I am discovering that the best part of playing piano is not the occasional performance where one gets to rattle off what one has learned in front of others.

 

Rather, for me, it is in the process of learning and discovering new things, not just about the pieces I practice, but about myself and my abilities and/or limitations.

 

When practicing piano (or keyboard) one really is communicating with the instrument. Each keystroke creates a particular sound in response to your movement, and you in turn respond to that sound through further finger movements, wrist and arm gestures, your breathing — and your mind and emotions.

 

As you practice, if something is not quite sounding the way you want — for example, if some notes in a scale passage are partly blurred — the process of listening for what exactly it is that you want achieve or change in the result you are getting, and the adaptation and experimentation of your approach to elicit your preferred result is a profoundly uplifting, at times transcendental journey of discovery and growth.

 

Perhaps when playing that elusive scale passage you might try concentrating your focus solely on just the white notes, or maybe just the black notes, or perhaps every fourth note or every seventh note. The possible approaches are endless.

 

Perhaps the most important thing to realize is that practice is not about playing things perfectly — or beating yourself up if they are not perfect. It is about ‘playing’ — as in toying with, experimenting with, entering into a dialogue with — the music.

 

Unlike performing, there is no pressure when you are practicing — just infinite opportunity to let your spirit soar and to rejoice in the joyous discovery of new insights into the music and into countless little things that help you become the best version of you.

 

So next time you practice, don’t race to get it over with. The opportunity to practice piano (or keyboard) is a priceless treasure that you have the privilege of taking to extraordinary and wonderful heights.

 

If you (dear reader) have not yet experienced the tremendous joy of learning and practicing piano, I warmly invite and encourage you to consider taking your first steps on your piano lessons journey here with Musiah — by taking our Free Online Piano Lessons 14 Day Trial  — available for a strictly limited time.

 

If you have any questions about Musiah's online piano lessons, please feel free to email me directly at support@musiah.com.

 

Thanks for reading, and please feel free to comment.

 

Til next time, 

 

Brendan Hogan

Piano Teacher & Musiah Inventor

 

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