Saturday, August 6, 2011


It's a sad fact that fear dominates the lives and determines the actions of many people to one degree or another. Luckily, you who are reading this probably do not live in fear of war, famine, or other severe hardships. But we do live in fear of what others think of us, fear of speaking our minds, fear of following our hearts or our true calling, fear of making mistakes -- the list goes on and on. These fears often prevent us from achieving our full potential or full happiness in life.

I always feel that playing the piano and studying the piano is a microcosm for life itself. Many of the challenges or triumphs I have, or have had, in life, I have at the piano as well. Fear comes into play when we play the piano and when we practice. It prevents us from playing our best, our most expressively, because it makes us cautious, and cautious playing lacks the passion, the immediacy and spontaneity that inspiring playing must have. It also makes us physically tense, and that contributes to lack of physical prowess and expression.

Fear shows itself at the piano in several ways. The most common fear by far is the fear of "wrong notes." For most people learning to play the piano, even many advanced or professional pianists, playing a wrong note causes them to cringe, and usually to go back and "correct" the missed notes as quickly as possible. I say "correct," but in fact it does not change the fact that the incorrect notes were sounded, and it compounds the problem with another, and worse, problem, in that the rhythm is now incorrect as well. Sometimes the first attempt to correct the note fails and an additional attempt is necessary; after a few of these, the whole passage begins to unravel and there is no alternative but to stop completely and start the piece, or the section, over. Sound familiar?

The attempt to correct a note is usually done in a panicky way; the body is tense and the sounds created can be harsh, out of balance with the rest of the surrounding phrase, and obviously, unattractive and unmusical. If the body is tense you certainly won't have the freest or most fluid technique. If you have a fear about a large jump, for example, you will fall short of your target, because you are tense. Even if you eventually manage to get the right notes in that part, the sound will be strained and will lack excitement. To make matters worse, when we repeatedly have wrong note(s) in a particular place, we tense up when we even start to approach that point in the music. Our bodies say "Uh-oh, here comes that place I usually screw up....." and we tighten up in anticipation. What most people don't realize is that when we have anxiety about a certain place in the piece, our ear also "cuts out," or stops listening. We are so focused on what we perceive as the problem that we just don't keep listening in an open and relaxed way. This is the last thing we want, because we need the ear to be absorbing the music and guiding us. When we stop listening, we lose the most important tool we have, the auditory image of how the music sounds. Without the auditory image, we will continue having problems in that part of the piece, regardless of how much "technical" work we do. That one little "wrong" note has now caused an avalanche of problems, most of which we aren't even aware of. To many students of the piano, the whole matter of "wrong notes" and how to "fix" them becomes an ongoing and frustrating issue.

How do I address this fear? First of all, you must have a change in your attitude. You must expect that in the course of learning so complex an instrument, with the hundreds of thousands of processes in your brain and corresponding actions in your muscles at every moment, you will play MANY MANY wrong notes! Just get used to that fact! Instead of regarding them as mistakes which must be "corrected" before anyone notices, see if you can hear the beauty of the music beyond the notes. The beauty of the music is more than the sum of its parts. (My friends often tease me about the fact that I sometimes will listen to a piece of music on the car radio, for example, even with static or bad reception. "How can you listen to this?" they ask. The funny thing is that I don't hear the static, I just hear the music.) The trick here is that you also must be playing with full commitment, full emotional involvement, as I have talked about in previous posts. When you do that, you will be enjoying the experience of playing so much that you would not even THINK of spoiling it to stop and correct a note. To play beautifully, you must love the wrong notes as much as you love the right ones.

Now at this point, everyone will be asking, how do you prevent the wrong notes from becoming ingrained and permanent? I am not suggesting that note-inaccuracies be ignored. First we need to know the cause of the problem. It is probably a combination of our physical coordination and lack of clear auditory image. The physical issues are difficult to address here, because it IS PHYSICAL. Your hand position could be off, you could be using your body inefficiently (e.g. too much finger action, not enough arm) or thousands of other possibilities, which a perceptive teacher who really understands technique can help you address. The lack of auditory image can be addressed, as I have talked about in previous posts, through transposing and other forms of ear work. If you do the right kinds of practice on the piece, you will gradually see the note errors decrease, without having sacrificed your enjoyment or musicality. You need to be patient; don't expect "perfection." Even a note-perfect performance may not be "perfect" in other aspects. Maybe we could just give up the idea of being perfect altogether. People who expect themselves to be perfect are, in my experience, usually not very happy people. Instead of striving for a perfect performance, strive for one that feels authentic for you. In other words, be the "author" of your experience.

The next most common fear is that of fully expressing oneself. I find that most people are usually "holding back" when they play. It's almost as if they are conserving their "musicality" for some future performance, like conserving energy. But the reverse is true. The more you "conserve," the more conservative your playing will be. I suppose there are exceptions, but I believe very few people want to hear someone play "conservatively."

You may be holding back because you fear people will not like, or approve of, what you have to say. The more you practice "saying what you have to say," the easier it becomes. Some people will love what you have to say, others will not, in life and at the piano. If you hold back your full expression in practice, you will only know how to hold back. It's as simple as that.

You can see how these two fears -- fear of making mistakes and fear of expressing yourself -- are common in our lives today. The brilliant thing is, when you work on these fears at the piano, your life will change too! Some of my students have really taken this to heart. They regard their lessons with me, and their practice at home, as a kind of life-therapy, but more fun, and cheaper too!

I remember hearing about a man who had his hand-writing analyzed; he was told he was rigid and insensitive. He studied what kind of handwriting a flexible and sensitive person would have, and went to work changing his handwriting to be that of the kind of person he wanted to be. It took him years, but over the course of putting his heart, mind and body into the effort, he did change and become the person his handwriting now reflected. Think about the fearless and passionate person you want to be. Become that person when you play the piano and you will become that way in life too.

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