MASTERING A PIECE

It is important not to confuse “mechanical” with “automatic”.

Of course piano playing has to be done automatically. Consciousness is simply too small to accommodate all of the necessary components.

Which of the components you are going to keep in consciousness is up to you: You may let all of the emotional stuff happen intuitively (which is another word for unconscious behavior) and concentrate your awareness on getting the correct fingering on that difficult passage. Or you can let the unconscious take care of the fingering and so on and direct your awareness towards expressing the piece. You may even let the unconscious do all the work and go in a trance state, and at the end of the concert you will not even remember what happened.

What you will not be able to do is to be conscious of everything at the same time. You can only keep 7±2 items in consciousness at any given time.

Now there is the other important distinction. And that is between learning and performing. In order to do anything automatically, in “automatic pilot” so to speak, you must first program the automatic pilot, or in other words, the unconscious. You cannot play “intuitively” unless you have the “intuition” in the first place.

So you must break down the complex task of piano playing in all of its myriad components and consistently program each single one and each combination in the unconscious through careful repetition. This must be done in full consciousness to avoid sloppy actions getting ingrained in the unconscious. And because you can only have a limited amount of information in consciousness at any given time, you have to make a hierarchy of aims. So, obviously, technique must come before expressing the piece as far as the direction you are turning your attention to be concerned.

But although you can break down piano playing in isolated bits as far as your attention is concerned, you cannot do so as far as your actual playing is concerned. So, as you start playing, you are already playing expressively even though all your attention is on the fingering. It is just that the expression is crap. You are not paying attention to it, and your unconscious does not have a clue about how to go about it. But you will not be able to pay attention to it until you sort out the fingering. With the fingering sorted out, you now can direct your attention to expression. But of course you will have to fight against all the bad expressive habits you acquired while practicing the fingering. There is no way out of this predicament. You must accept that this is how things work. What you can do is minimize its effects. And that means never overworking any aspect of piano playing If you spend ten hours on fingering, you are setting yourself for failure, for two simple reasons:

1. It is not necessary. Most aspects of piano playing can be made automatic in a couple of minutes if you choose a short enough section.

2. Even if you reap enormous benefits in fingering by working on it for ten hours, you will have ten hours of sloppy “unconscious” practice on all of the other numerous aspects of piano playing, and by the end of ten hours, there will be so many bad habits ingrained that your performance will always be mediocre in those areas.

So, the secret is to change the focus of your attention as often as possible: Work two minutes on fingering, then two minutes on movement, then two minutes on sound/touch, then two minutes on articulation, etc. You see, the moment you are playing the piano you are already working simultaneously on all that. It is just that one component will be on consciousness and all the others will be unconscious. So you must make sure to give the necessary resources to the unconscious (by consciously paying attention to what you are doing) as soon as possible, and not wait too much.

The worst way to work on a piece is to learn the whole piece paying attention only to fingering – an let us say this takes 1 week. Then once fingering is ingrained you dedicate your practice to articulation. Another week. But in the first week, you were doing some form of articulation – just it was a completely inappropriate one, since it was being done mostly unconsciously and at that stage your unconscious did not have the resources to do it properly – So now, as you try to add articulation to your piece, you are constantly fighting unconscious inappropriate patterns acquiring during the first week where you concentrated on fingering only. So after a week, you are nowhere near the proper articulation, so you give up temporarily, and move on to put the dynamics on. Now you have already been working on dynamics, since the first moment you touched the piano – but it is completely inappropriate since you were not paying any attention to it, so your unconscious just added any dynamics it pleased. And by now you have been doing it for two weeks. So you start another uphill struggle, but this time against the ingrained inappropriate dynamics. Meanwhile your articulation – now that you stopped paying attention to it – goes back to the inappropriate patterns first ingrained and get even more ingrained. Meanwhile your teacher has pointed out that your movement is not appropriate and shows you a completely different way of moving. But by now you have been doing the wrong movement for three weeks. Guess what, even your fingering starts to slip now. The whole piece is a complete mess.

Have you ever seen in the circus that act where a (usually Chinese) guy has several plates spinning on sticks? That is how piano practice must be: you start spinning a plate. The moment it is spinning with a certain speed and stability you start the second plate, and then the third. By now the first plate is loosing it, so you must quickly go back to it and give it some attention – but it requires far less time and effort than when you started form scratch. Do the second and the third plate, and you have time to spin a fourth and a fifth plate before going back to the first plate. Eventually you will 20/30 plates spinning and you just give each a tiny bit of your attention.

So work in small chunks, and change the focus of your attention to all of the aspects of playing necessary for that chunk (usually the chunk cannot be too small – a phrase is really the minimum size for you to start paying attention to all aspects).

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