For many people, the piano evokes images of effortless grace and soothing melodies, a symbol of tranquility and a means of escape from the daily grind. The expectation of many beginners is often to simply “sit and play,” to let the music flow through one’s fingers and wash over the soul. This idealised notion of piano playing, however, is often at odds with the reality of piano practice, a process that demands concentration, discipline, and a willingness to delve into the intricacies of music and the techniques required to perform. While the end goal may be to achieve a level of proficiency that allows for ease and self-expression through music, the path to that goal is paved with mindful practice and focused concentration.
Seeing a pianist perform during a concert or watching a scene in a movie where a pianist seemingly effortlessly creates such beautiful sounds gives the impression that he or she completely “Switches off” and “Lets the music take over”, especially when the performer is particularly expressive. They make it look so easy.
This image contributes to produce the unrealistic expectation that music will magically flow, as long as the player allows emotions to guide them and lets the feelings flow freely.
While emotional expression is certainly a core element of performing and experiencing music, pianists of all levels will confirm that once the time comes to sit down at the instrument and literally face the music, it’s a completely different story: the process is not instantaneous, there are challenges to address and the expectation of being able to play with grace and fluidity clashes with the reality of piano practice.
In order to bridge this gap between expectation and reality we need to adopt a different mindset when approaching piano practice, be less preoccupied with the end result, and be more about the present moment: this can be achieved by making sure that there is a constant internal dialogue happening between the pianist and him/herself.
So what is a dialogue?
A dialogue is a conversation between two people where ideas are exchanged and at the end of it an agreement is reached, or new insights are gained by both parties. Therefore an internal dialogue is a conversation happening between one person and him/herself, where said person asks questions and answers them internally in pursuit of a higher state of knowledge.
Applying this concept of internal dialogue to piano practice requires to be able to access a mental state in which the practitioner sets goals, acts upon them, assesses the results of their efforts and adjusts both goals and strategies accordingly: it is an extremely dynamic state which does not allow for the mind to be wandering off. It is not about diversion, rather about the antithesis of diversion: focus and concentration.
I’m going to provide an example of internal dialogue I had the other day while practicing:
I am now in full practice mode and I need to be both the practitioner (P) and the teacher (T).
I am practising J.S. Bach’s 2-part invention n.12 BWV 783, and in the next five minutes I am going to have a look at bars 7-9 as they don’t feel fully secure yet. The first two semiquavers (excluding the semiquaver rest) of bar 7 beat 3 in the left hand and also bar 8 beat 1 have a tendency to be unsteady.
Here as the Practitioner I have identified an issue, emerged or still latent from previous practice sessions, and set a small goal for a definite amount of time.
P: I played through the passage
T: Are you happy with that?
P: Still a little unsteady in those places
T: Try slowing down
P: I slowed down slightly and it still doesn’t feel secure enough
T: What could be the cause?
P: I feel tension building up in the outer part of the left hand in those places, corresponding to the fourth and fifth finger. It could be an issue of fingering.
T: What fingers are you using?
P: For the three initial semiquavers, fingers 5-4-2 in both instances
T: Could there be a more effective, more reliable fingering?
P: Somehow I initially went for a one hand position fingering, covering the one octave arpeggio with a single hand position.
T: Try 2-1-4, it means a change of hand position, however it’s standard arpeggio fingering
P: I tried and it seems steadier. It also leaves me more room to come in with the right hand immediately after. I feel no tension building.
T: You’re going to have to work the new fingering in at a slower speed now and increase gradually
You can see clearly that in this exchange with myself as both the practitioner and the teacher I set a goal (to make the semiquaver passage steadier), acted upon it (played the passage), assessed the results (deemed the steadiness and evenness of the semiquaver could be improved) and adjusted my strategy (slowed down and chose a more effective fingering which would result in better steadiness immediately and also later at faster speed).
You can also see that, in the context of piano lessons, such mindset has to be actively stimulated by the teacher.
In the very early stages of a student’s piano journey the teacher has the crucial role of being the guide who sets goals, listens, evaluates, asks questions and suggests changes of strategies. It is the ultimate goal of the teacher to encourage critical thinking and stimulate internal dialogue so that the student will implement effective practice strategies on their own during their practice time at home.
The first condition for that internal dialogue to happen is to be mindfully listening at all times, to the music being made and to our inner self: if the pianist does not listen, there is nothing to discuss. Another condition, as already mentioned, is to be concerned with the present moment and the task at hand (a small goal set for the next three minutes of practice) and not to be distracted by the final outcome (to become a great pianist, play at the school recital, play a Christmas song for auntie Susan). Another yet is to be curious: to be willing to ask questions and embrace the insights.
If all of that sounds like hard work, well, it is. However the reward for such diligent practice and critical engagement is the mastery we touched upon at the beginning – the ability to transcend the mechanics of playing and let the music flow effortlessly. This mastery is not a sudden revelation but a gradual unfolding. As the pianist delves into the intricacies of music, their critical thinking skills become ingrained, allowing them to connect with the emotional depth of the composition. In this state of heightened awareness, the pianist can simply “sit and play”, no longer burdened by technical challenges, but instead guided by the music itself.
In other words: you need to be mindful in practice to become spontaneous in performance.