As in writer’s block¹, piano playing, by being a creative activity and hopefully not a monotonous typewriter-type routine, often encompasses its own share of stalling.
So, the “Pianist’s Block” per se, is when you have run out of ideas of improving a piece of music, but also, when you’ve lost the motivation to practice.
It’s arguably one of the most dreaded situations a pianist could face.
In this article, we are going to learn how to overcome the pianist’s block, regain motivation and get back to practicing, with flair.
Loss of motivation to practise.
It is an extremely common human disposition to have difficulty in performing a task that requires repetition. In our case, this “repetitive” or perhaps monotonous task, is the act of practicing. And, as you know, practicing is hard as it is, let alone practicing efficiently. Students are the usual suspects here, and their difficulty to get down and practice and generally doing non pleasant activities has always been there from the beginning of time; this was always normal though. There are many reasons for students’ difficulty to practice; here are some of them:
- Too much homework at home, so not enough time to squeeze practicing in.
- Too tired after an academically exhausting day.
- Too many after-school activities that drained their energy by the time they have finally reached the piano.
- Too bored to practice – do not feel guilty about this, it’s expected.
- Prefer watching their favorite TV series or playing their beloved video games – also understandable.
We need to appreciate, that all reasons above, are perfectly legitimate, reasonable, and of course, absolutely typical for us, mere human beings. We are not robots, let me remind you, be programmed to do things faultlessly.
To make their children listen and do the right thing, parents for instance, had always had to resort to some grown-up ways; for example, they would use mild warnings. They would often say, “If you don’t practice the scales as your teacher told you, you are not having pizza for supper tonight”, or,” If you don’t learn Für Elise by Christmas, you are not getting the latest iPhone”. Those ways were always perfectly normal, because, children inherently needed to ultimately learn the value of things and the value of doing things timely and correctly.
Make no mistake, if parents keep succumbing to their offsprings’ tantrums and their, predictable, constant desire for pleasurable pastimes, their children are going to eventually hold them accountable for their future failures. And ultimately, the children are going ask their parents why they haven’t pushed them enough to accomplish more things in life.
As a general advice, we need to encourage and be sympathetic with people who find regular practicing hard. We should listen to them, understand their way of thinking and try not to make them feel guilty. Our goal, if at all possible, should be to help them recover from a possible pianist’s block and help them carry on practicing and improving their pieces, efficiently.
To finish this section, I would say that loss of motivation in things we do in life was always very common. There were always many reasons for it and they differ from person to person.
However, there is always hope, and as the saying goes, there’s always, always, a solution to every problem,.
There’s always a solution to every problem.
In life, as you appreciate, when we like something a lot, we can’t wait to do it, and we like doing it as often as possible. So, I have to alarm you that if you have reached a point of motivation-to-practice loss, it’s time to start reconsidering things in music perhaps, and recover your music goals.
As with the “writer’s block”, there isn’t any university course, or a vaccine, or a special miraculous treatment to treat and cure the pianist’s block forever. We just have to follow some simple techniques that will eventually help us to soldier on through this peculiar condition.
Here are my two techniques that I found help my pupils to shake off the pianist’s block:
Recovering from pianist’s block
1. Robot Mode
First of all, we have to turn Robot Mode on. The general idea here is to just sit on the piano stool, place our fingers on the keyboard and start playing, without evaluating too much. However, refrain from playing “Robotically”. Far from it. Let me elaborate:
Robots, as seen on TV or generally perceived by most people, just go about their businesses without expressing feelings and without evaluating the reason why they have to accomplish their tasks. They just act “robotically”, as we say.
Here’s how to exercise the Robot Mode:
1. Every time you go past your piano try not to do the following: A) Think about how difficult your pieces are. B) The sheer length of them. C) Their negative psychological impact on you-if any. Just see the piano as the wonderful instrument it is.
2. When you have time during the day, just sit on the piano stool and open any of your piano books.
3. Place right hand on the keys and start playing the passage you are not comfortable with, without thinking its complexity. Repeat with the left hand.
4. Just plough on, without any type of emotional evaluation.
5. After, you have finished practicing, treat yourself with a small gift. For example, a cup of tea, or a small bar of chocolate, or even watch your favorite series. This last part is extremely important to do.
6. Repeat this process daily.
By following the above steps, gradually, you will become accustomed to the notion that practicing is not a laborious activity but a pleasurable one, since you stop thinking of the negatives, and instead you just receive the pleasure deriving from just playing music.
So, to put Robot Mode into perspective, pianists just need to start practicing without evaluating the act-of-practising, prior to them commencing practicing.
Through this unchallenged act of sitting down and practice, you will start automatically and inevitably find interpretational answers and rekindle your desire to keep playing the piano. Well, you will find more interpretational answers than not practicing at all, anyway. You will also start experiencing incremental results and progress.
Humans, often tend to value the importance of things accordingly to their emotional state at any particular time. That’s why we often use the expressions “I don’t feel like it” or “I’m not in the mood for it”, etc. However, when we feel stressed out or are in a grave situation and we have to take quick action, logic kicks in and we start doing the right thing without evaluating our actions too much, because simply, there is not enough time available to us. Here’s an example: Say that you need to perform a hard piano piece for a concert in two months time. At the same time, you know that you only need perhaps a week to learn the piece. Subconsciously, you know that the right thing to do is to start practicing as soon as possible and get done with it. However, since you’re human and naturally susceptible to procrastination, you could just decide to start practising in the following days; that’s perfectly acceptable in our lives. However, if your concert was next week, you would just sit down and practise without further ado, without thinking about it, without overanalyzing and without procrastinating, because you know your piano limits and because there is not enough time left.
So, coming back to the “unchallenged act of sitting down and practice”, the essence of the Robot Mode is that the appetite comes with eating, as the saying goes.
Recovering from pianist’s block
2. Setting Short Term Goals
The next approach in recovering from the pianist’s block is to set short term goals.
“Short term goals” in music, means to set more achievable, more realistic and smaller objectives, to help you complete a grander music task.
Instead of thinking, for instance, “I have to play the Hammerclavier by the summer”, you have to set smaller goals/steps in achieving your ultimate goal, of playing the Hammerclavier. Having to play a momentous work can be overwhelming, so, to stop vagueness in practising and loss of focus, you just need to take it step by step.
Example Goal: Learn the Hammerclavier. (Here, the Hammerclavier stands for our ultimate goal)
1. Do not contemplate the piece’s gestalt. Well, do not often contemplate the piece’s gestalt. In essence, we should refrain from constantly reflecting on the whole picture/sheer length/magnitude/artistic influence, popular culture etc. of our piece. This could overwhelm us and make get down to practicing even harder.
2. Break piece into smaller objectives. Instead of, say, thinking that you need to start completing the first movement, decide that you are going to learn a system per day. This way, the piece doesn’t overwhelm you and you just keep on practicing more comfortably and more realistically.
3. Join smaller goals together. This is the final part; merging all those smaller objectives together to consolidate the piece. (Piece = our ultimate goal).
So, there’s not a lot of science in practicing constructively, with permanence and flair. All we need is a couple of positive thoughts, a piano stool, a cup of tea on the table perhaps and a bit of strategy. So, do consider using combined those two little suggestions above, and you might enjoy a more prosperous piano life ahead.
¹The term Writer’s Block was coined by Edmund Bergler in 1947. Read more about Edmund Bergler, here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmund_Bergler
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Nikos Kokkinis is a pianist and teacher.
He keeps up PianoPractising.com, a site dedicated to the optimal approach to learning the piano that is being read by thousands of readers. This site has helped a few readers realise their musical potential and improve their understanding of the piano and music in general.
Articles often contain fiction through narratives and one of their main purposes is to facilitate an enjoyable read, often by sacrificing established academic norms.
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