Muscle Memory on the Concert Stage

Muscle Memory on the Concert Stage

As with tennis players that can react to a millisecond in time and make the ball over the net, hitting it the right angle by responding perfectly to the opponent’s shot to produce a winner, equally, technical choices of a pianist will be reactively produced on the concert stage to save the day.

Muscle memory, this inner force that is always there, has driven humanity to realise its craziest ideas and pushed our species forward to great heights.

 

Muscle Memory is Everywhere

It was Heminway’s habit of standing up while typing on his various typewriters—of the same brand— that, arguably, made him the writer that he was. Unbeknownst to his readers, his unconscious muscle-memory traits on his writing act, helped him to unload his mind on works such as The Sun Also Rises. And that’s just one example of many:

It is muscle memory that enables the hurdler to instantly recover after contacting the hurdle and allow him to finish the race.

In the olympics, downhill racing demands the rider to constantly adjust the balance of his body while shooting down the trail; that endeavour is merely physically possible due to the unconscious application of muscle memory.

Oh, the beauty of muscle memory… Isn’t this part of our existence great? Well, yes, as long as we subconsciously teach our bodies the right muscle memory, i.e, in the case of us, pianists, applying optimal technical approaches on our pieces. (Read more about relearning a passage here.)

 

On the Concert Stage

For performers, the stage should hopefully be where our optimal technical decisions come to fruition. It is on stage where our unconscious part of our minds takes the stage (pun intended) and leads the way to our act; there’s no time to correct, to reflect or to, contrary to what the romantic pianist believes, interpret. We just react. Interpretation has long been pre-decided in the confines of our practising room and there’s nothing we can now do to improve upon it or to radically alter it. Muscle memory is the boss here.

Many years ago, it was muscle memory that saved the day when I gambled on the penultimate chord of Liszt’s Appassionata Trancendental Étude, in the Holywell Music Room in Oxford; My performance of the piece was going unexpectedly well, when just prior to the finish line nerves got the better of me and I started to rattle inside. Still, I managed to not allow anxiety feast on my imminent pianistic demise and, reactively, crashed my left hand on the F minor chord at the bottom of the piano—that chord was nothing but correct, and at the time this mistake stripped me off of any positive emotions about my performance of the piece. Little did I know, however, that this iteration of mine of Listz’s finale would eventually make me a master-of-never-stopping pianist (as a friend of mine used to say); I would never stop on matter what or fall victim of guilt to my earlier performing shenanigans—I would march on to the end of the piece.

Muscle-memory has done its trick one too many times in my concerts, not only because it was there, readily-available, but, somehow, because I trusted it and let it do its thing when I needed it. I never questioned it by contemplating what I should do next when things got scary in a concert—I never insulted its generosity. Muscle memory just works. It is always there for us pianists, to push the music forward and, like a fantastic life vest, carry us to the end of the piece.

We just have to trust it, not fight it or bypass it.

 

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Piano Procrastination

Piano Procrastination

[Attention: Strong sense of humor required, before commencing reading this article]

From the beginning of… umm… piano-time, procrastination was common in a pianist’s routine. Pianists consistently procrastinated, and that was good.

Every now and then a pianist or musician would come and tell me that they felt guilty procrastinating too much, and that they wished they were doing it less, and practiced more, instead. The paradox here is, that they would tell me this, while having a suspiciously long coffee-session in the local cafeteria.

So, after many years in the field of… “life”, I came to conclude this: Procrastination is great!

And do you know why procrastination is great? Because if we pianists didn’t procrastinate, there would have been simply, far too many great pianists around. You wouldn’t like that, would you? Imagine: Great pianists everywhere; the horror. But, the world has only so much room for great pianists. If everyone was practicing consistently, instead of, for example, strolling in the park or trying to advance to the next level on Pokemon Go, they would have managed to become fantastic pianists, and, I’m afraid, the pitfalls of that would have been shocking:

Here’s some of the pitfalls of practicing consistently:

• The word “excellence” wouldn’t have been invented, since every musician would have been excellent. Your teacher would just be able to say: “oh, you are such a [GAP] pianist”; hmm… unexciting.
• Too many great interpretations. Thus, too difficult to choose a favorite performance.
• Too low piano-teaching rates, because of demand and supply issues.
• Too many great students, thus less demand for mediocre teachers to be able to make a living. (Which teacher would approve of that?)
• Too many heart attacks to parents who wished their kids didn’t follow music as a profession.
• Very high hospital bills, from the heart attacks above.

The list is endless.

So, the burden has fallen heavily on some of us, to keep the norm by just not practicing enough and procrastinate as often as possible, in order to keep things, well… in order.

So, as a music professional, I sincerely ask you to keep procrastinating, as much as possible.

And here’s only some of the reasons that support procrastination:

• If you procrastinated and then started practicing, amazingly the difference in your performance will show better; so, you will experience higher satisfaction levels.
• You will stop being constantly dissatisfied by your own performances, since you won’t practice consistently to experience only incremental improvements.
• You might save an average teacher from extinction, by asking his services to teach you how to become a better pianist. *cough*
• Less bullying in your everyday work environment, since your colleagues won’t be able to find any good things in you to pick at.
• More chances that your musician friend will like you more, since you won’t be better than them.
• More opportunities for just a few, select individuals to become great pianists, because you heroically allowed that by not practicing enough.
• Your partner will be able to watch their favorite series on TV, in peace.
• You can put “I also play the piano” on your CV, when you become a great accountant.
• Procrastination has to be significant somewhere, otherwise it wouldn’t exist.

So, fun aside procrastination was always there to “haunt” us all and remind us that we should get up from our couches and sit on our piano stools, as much as possible. Would stop procrastinating make us better people or pianists? That’s a big question, but, I seriously doubt it will, however.

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Copyright © 2017 by Nikos Kokkinis

Instill Talent

Instill Talent

In this article, I will experiment with the notion of creating talent “from scratch”, as they say. It’s a hypothetical scenario of the highest order, but, why not? This is my article, after all.

One of the pillars of my teaching philosophy is, that following the right strategy we can assign a random disciple to any chosen person and actually make that person talented at it. Basically, what I mean by that, is that everyone is capable of becoming talented in any disciple; I don’t believe that there are “special people”; If Mozart was growing up in the beautiful Port Talbot in Wales for instance, he wouldn’t have been the Mozart we perceive today.

If you have read through my articles, you’ll find that I strongly believe that the notion of talent was actually invented. It was invented by innocently gullible people who simply can’t do an action in the same way some other people can, and at the same time, they admire that action those people do. This “admired action” doesn’t necessarily have to be ethical, noble or generally politically or otherwise well perceived; often, we hear people say, he is a “talented thief”, or “he is a great gambler”.

So, talent is a simple admiration for a skill that we haven’t practised properly, in order to be able to reach a universally admired level of that skill. Talent is a trivial, non-important notion. If you could paint a person’s face and the depiction is so convincing like a mirror to that face, then, for some, you are talented. However, your painting immediately compared to Picasso’s abilities, and your talent loses at least half of its value. Oh, and I do not believe in auras, inclinations, flairs and all that nonsense.

So, can you instil talent? Can you make someone who is “untalented” per se in a disciple, to become “talented” in that disciple? Well, I believe you can, and I’ll try to explore this a bit in this article.

So, to recap, this, ludicrous for some task, entails to take any person in this world, and assign them with a random subject, and then use strategically the right techniques to make them talented at it.

So, let’s explore some of those techniques and try, if ever possible, to find the recipe for this word that I do not love (hate): “talent”. Why I hate the notion of talent? Let me save you some time – and years of psychotherapy and endless soul searching – by simply stating: because I’m not talented.

Recipe for Talent

DEFINITION
The first thing we need to do in order to instil talent is simply to define what talent is for us or for the person who’s defining it.

You need to clearly have an idea of what is the universally level of talent in your given disciple.

For example, you might think that a child is talented in maths if by the age of 6 can answer how much is 2 plus 14. To another person, however, this might sound easy enough and so according to them, this child should not be considered talented in maths.

So, find what you consider to be “talented” and make this your ultimate target.

Time

The second “ingredient” is time: Apparently, for some, life is ever-fruitful for all and there’s always time to do things even in the last minute before you give your last breath and this and that. WRONG! Wishful thinking all the way. I have to become a bit horrible here and say that, yes, you always need to be optimistic and have goals in life, but you should become vigilant and careful towards people who, in order for you to think that they care about you, they gently push you to try and achieve unachievable things. I have to protect you here. Macabre-alert follows:

Here’s a simple example out of zillions, that I (I = me, Nikos- Maybe you can do everything) cannot do whatever I wish and dream in life: Say that I am in car accident and I lost one leg and one arm, broke my ribs and I’m in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. While I’m losing blood uncontrollably, I overhear the driver whisper to the nurse next to him.”He’s not gonna make it tonight, his time is up”. Do you think the right thing for me to do is to jump up and say to the driver, “No, I’m not dying. No Siree Bob. I’m gonna become an astronaut! But that’s only after I gave my maiden solo violin recital at Carnegie Hall playing Bach’s complete solo works for the violin”. Now, I don’t have the slightest interest in attacking people who passed away from serious accidents or recovering from them, but do you think that I have the right to say those things to the driver? Do you think I have the right to express myself and have faith until the end? Of course, I have the right to do those things. That’s the point of the so called “hope”. I also have the right to dance the tango with Al Pacino in the original set of “Scent of a woman”…. but no, we need to be pragmatic in this short life of ours. It would be unethical to promise, say, to a ninety-five-year-old beginning pianist that they can become virtuoso pianists. Maybe they could become virtuoso triangle players, yes, but so sorry, not virtuoso pianists. No way. Maaaaybe, they might manage to play wonderfully a Sonata, if they are lucky, but to make them “Talented”, there’s no time I’m afraid.

Plus, you are not allowed to delude people. It’s not your business to lie to people. Yes, we should encourage and yes, we should give hope; but honest hope. We should always be honest. That’s more ethical than uncontrollably ask people to do things they simply can’t. Let me remind you just in case it slipped your mind, that we happen to be mere humans susceptible to mortality.

So, make sure there’s sufficient time left to basically live, and then ample time available in order to excel.

 

Top Teaching

You need a top instructor if you want to make a stone play the banjo. You need top teaching in order to achieve talent; the better the teaching the more the chances for your guinea pig to become talented. That’s needless to say. Of course, not all teachers teach the same way, and not all teachers are of the same subjective quality, otherwise, we would only need one teacher for the rest of our lives.

Also, make sure that the teacher is not only top notch, but also “compatible” with the person that you want to make “talented”. For instance, I, Nikos, the writer of this article, can be a wonderful teacher with lots of knowledge in piano, one of the greatest minds to have emerged from the southeast of Europe, a food connoisseur and a Michelin star worthy cook, but be a crappy and horrendous teacher for a particular student.

So, the search for great but also compatible teaching is paramount.

 

Proper Equipment

You can’t become a professional basketball player if you practice on a low-height basketball hoop; it helps if you were practising on a proper terrain and with a basketball that has the universally accepted specifications.

You can’t become a talented cook if the ingredients available to you are always potatoes, salt, water and a pan; you need many more ingredients to practice cooking with, more appliances to master and more spices to enrich your cooking.

You can’t become an Olympic gold medalist in swimming if you only practice in a ten feet long swimming pool wearing armor. I think you get my gist.

Thus, talent dictates that we acquire the best possible equipment available for our expertise. This way, we accelerate the process of creating talent.

 

Desire (aka Love)

Even if your protégée had all the time in the world, the best teachers, the greatest strategists tailoring their every move, the best and most up to date equipment and a cruise ship, if your protégée couldn’t be bothered, then you won’t be able to infuse them with talent, I’m afraid.

Our protégée needs desire and love for excelling in its assigned subject.

And this is the hardest task you will have to accomplish in order to instill talent to someone. Because you cannot instill hunger, aka the unstoppable desire to do something. The desire is almost impossible to instill to a person. And to be honest, it’s not ethical to try to instill desire to start with. Desire should be left alone to flourish on each one of us, without pressure. However, for the purpose of this article, this is what we somehow need to do: instill desire; tough.

However, deep inside me I still believe that a person, who hasn’t got the desire to become talented at something, can still excel at that subject by just following the beaten track of the subject’s instructional zeitgeist.

 

Final thoughts:

Despite all this drivel above, I still believe somehow that you can drive someone to reach their highest personal level of potential at something.

Everyone of us is unique and everyone of us is talented at something, I suppose.

I just hope that the talent we carry can only be used for noble causes. Because talent can only create talent.

Am I Allowed to Stop Liking the Piano?

Am I Allowed to Stop Liking the Piano?

In this article I will discuss one of the most dreaded questions a pianist could face. “Am I allowed to stop liking the piano?” Or, by paraphrasing, “what the cousin of my auntie’s friend would think if I stop liking this horrible big instrument?” Have you ever asked those questions yourself?

I would like to start by saying that in my minute studies of music I discovered this: the best way to manipulate and control a musician is by the employment of guilt. How powerful a tool guilt is… isn’t it?

Music, similar to many other pursuits in life, often requires irrational ways to convince us, mere mortals, that something is more important than we actually think it is. Apart from performing, one of musicians’ ways of advocating that music is to be considered as a superior human occupation, is by using guilt as often as possible. This often happens subconsciously.

Thus, that’s why teachers naively and genuinely ask their students some of the following questions: “Did you practice this week?”, or “Did you listen to this performer play at the proms last night?” etc. This is an unfailing subconscious way we all teachers used to instill guilt in our students’ fragile, pure, and perhaps infantile musical ideals. The thing is, that even if we teachers try to be as soft as possible in our wordings and expressions, we can’t escape from forcing the feeling of guilt on our students, since this is the way teaching was done from the beginning of time. So, the principle is: “Do A to achieve B, because B is important”, so, if you don’t do A, you won’t achieve the important B. We’ve learned to accept all this.

So, by the time a student decides that piano is not their cup of tea, it’s too late. The claws of guilt have spread all over them, grabbing every drop of sheer and undemanding enjoyment of music.

However, coming back to the question, whether it is ok to stop liking the piano, I think it’s ok. You are free to do whatever you like in life as long as you don’t harm anyone or yourself. Stopping liking the piano it’s perfectly fine, exceptof course, if your goal is to become a concert pianist; I would frown upon stopping liking the piano at that point.

“Hm, but what are my friends will think of me?” I hear you say. Well, here starts the second part of this article.

In life sometimes, you need to find ways of benefiting from when people are wrongly judgmental about you. Let me elaborate. Often, the people you least expect might try to over-exaggerate and point out your “mistakes” no matter how small those mistakes are. For example, here are some trivial things they would say: “Oh, you held this b flat longer, John” or “I wish you didn’t take that fast tempo, Barbara”. Those people will have their own agendaof course, and more often than not, their motives will not be directed to helping you. Thus, you need to be as vigilant as possible, and always try to discover other people’s ill agendas promptly. Here, you have no other solution to encounter those perfectly human insecurities and complexes of others, but to welcome them and perhaps using them as future reference or as a great story to tell your friends or grandchildren. The more we succumb to other people’s opinions, the more guilt is succeeding in making us weaker and less confident in whatever we do in life.

So, always try to think of how to benefit from a comment or remark, rather than automatically and instinctively defend yourself from it. As they say, “there are two sides to every coin”.

To recap, often the route of our musical problems lies in not so great places, such as in guilt. And guilt will lead to fear. Technique and all are just incidental in our music lives. First in the parade of our musical endeavors marches our mentality, and second behind follows our fingers, by being shown the way from their stronger leader.

 

 

Copyright © by Nikos Kokkinis

 

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How to Become a Great Pianist in Just a Minute

How to Become a Great Pianist in Just a Minute

[ Attention: Strong sense of humor required, before commencing reading this article ]

In an age where vanity has reached new zeniths and pianists want to grasp the essence of pianism in quick fashion, I made the greatest discovery of pianokind.

In a ‘eurika’ moment I found how to become a great pianist in just a minute.

But before going into detail, I just want to share a few thoughts on the thousands of pianists that practised hard and sincerely only to now be amazed by this discovery.

They’ve spent years practising and rehearsing, trying to play fast and loud, to no avail. If only they knew…

If only they had stopped and think, instead of aimlessly practising geeky composers’ pompous offsprings and other competitive banalities.

They never spent a minute to think, or a minute to reflect. That minute could have saved their dreams.

However, it’s my “minute” that is going to shine; it’s my minute that is going to save the day, once again.

So, pay attention. Forget about musicological research, structural analysis, philosophical evenings with cheese and wine or good old piano practising. Everything is going to be accomplished in just a minute.

So, here’s how you are going to become a great pianist in just a minute. It is a very simple trick:

First, you need to build a time machine.

Now, I am a piano teacher, so I sincerely apologize if I cannot provide you with detailed instructions on how to build a time machine. If by any chance you don’t know how to build one by yourself, here’s what to do: Ask somebody else to built it for you. Simple. That’s the easiest way, with the added advantage that you can concentrate on your other musical activities during the building process.

Now, after the time machine is ready, you only need to go back in time 20 years. Then you practice as much as you can. The good thing is that you will still have the knowledge that you currently possess in the past, so you don’t have to re-learn things.

After you become a great pianist, the only thing that you have to do is to set the time machine back to the present time, and you ready. You will be regarded as a great pianist!

Did you see how simple it was?

All best!

Performance Anxiety in Music

Performance Anxiety in Music

Since the beginning of time performance anxiety was the norm in whatever we did as species; from an orator speaking in an ancient agora, to a lutist playing in the local market, humans had always had this issue to address.

Through the centuries, the seeking of musical perfection and the rise of classical music as the “serious” music, as opposed to the “unserious” other musics, has made us talk about performance anxiety more and more in our musical lives, often stopping us from the very thing that a bit of stress is supposed to help: performance. In consequence, recently, literature about performance anxiety has reached heights of enormous gravity.

We need to be concerned about performance anxiety, since many musicians have been discouraged from this condition to even perform live. We need constant scientific progress in defining performance anxiety in musicians and treat it (if possible). Even though I’m not an expert, I strongly believe that, sometimes, having a little “helpful” stress when performing is normal; and, to take it a bit further, somehow, it’s a necessity in our quest of becoming complete musicians.

I, for example, remember sometimes being extremely anxious before an important concert or an exam performance. I had to use all the things from my musical bag-of-tricks to fight this anxiety feeling; and I always came to the same conclusion: I needed deep knowledge of the repertoire I had to perform.  Because, I knew, that if I had sorted out the muscle memory and the finger agility on certain passages, that would have helped me to see the performance through regardless of the intensity of the anxiety.

 

Here are Some Suggestions to Help Us Eliminate Performance Anxiety

First, we have to understand that performance anxiety is different from normal levels of stress that we all experience before performing live.

In order to fight performance anxiety we have to deeply understand one core thing in music: that there are no bad musicians (If you want more details read my related article here). I believe that all musicians are equally “valid”, are equally important and are equally good.

Then, we have to start considering that live performance has always been an adventurous act that entails the element of surprise and the feeling of uncertainty in its outcome; and that’s why performing live is so beautiful.

We also need to realize, that in life nothing is perfect. Similarly, in a live performance there are no perfect people (audience) that judge imperfect ones (us, the performers).

Then, we must appreciate, that as much as we have the urge to judge everything in everyday life, from buying good quality milk, to find a good tennis coach, we also have the inherent right to judge a performance. Judging or evaluating something is a human quality that exists in order to improve us. So, in a way, when we are being judged in a performance, we improve.

Also, we need to develop the “talent” of not caring about trivial things in life; like opinions about our playing. Some people are very good at it. When I was a student at conservatoire level, but even earlier than that, I would experience some not-so-valid performances which were strongly advocated by their own performers, and I was thinking that I wasn’t going to be happy if I had played like that. And then I thought that, likewise, someone else wouldn’t be happy if they played the way I did. So, musical consensus is ever-changing and could be subjective.

Last, make sure you remember this word: preparation. Just make sure you are as prepared pianistically as possible. Play your pieces to your family as a practice, ask for different opinions on your playing, listen to what your friends say about your own playing and keep the good things they say, but not the bad ones.

Remember that there is no perfect performance and keep going.

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