Practicing without judgement.
“Do your judges wear the faces of people from your everyday life? Of your parents? Teachers? Priest? Rabbi? Guru? Do the faces melt together into your own disapproving face and consciousness? Find out. Go along with your perceptions, and continue to feel your own power center, your own sense of being, your right to be totally you and no other. As you sense yourself more deeply, you can afford to reach out to your judges. Have a dialogue with them. Let them speak their piece about what they expect you to be, and answer clearly that you are only who you are. Ask them for support of whoever you happen to be. Ask them to pack all of their expectations back into their traveling bags.”
– from A Sporano on Her Head, pg. 15 by Eloise Ristad.
This book was recommended to me in college years ago and I have yet to find another book that more clearly articulates the power of the belief system when it comes to performance in music. I see students of all ages and levels get blocked by their own self judgments on a daily basis. The effect on a pianist’s coordination and mental processing is obvious to anyone in the room when their inner judgments take over. Brain research has found a scientific reason for why we can’t accomplish a task when our confidence has left us: when emotions take over our amygdala, our (analytical thinking) prefrontal cortex takes a back seat.
When this happens in practice or within a lesson, it’s best to leave the piece or section and find alternative repertoire where success is more readily accessible and return to the difficult passage later in the session or another day. Unfortunately more often what happens, is students in practice (and teachers within a lesson) will continue to run a section or passage when the student is clearly flooded with emotion and feeling completely incapable (fearing they can’t achieve it or they aren’t good enough). To force a musical passage when the student’s amygdala is overwhelmed with emotion will not bring positive results; it will only result in a deflated sense of one’s ability to accomplish the task at hand.
“Too often teachers deal with this withdrawal by reteaching the material, usually slower and louder. But they are attacking the problem from the front end of the information processing system and this is rarely successful. … The better intervention is to deal with the learner’s emotions and convince the learner to allow the perceptual register to open the blinds and pass the information along.” From How the Brain Learns, pg. 54 by David Sousa.
Unfortunately there are a lot of parents, teachers, and students that think it helps when one is motivated by fear and judgment. While a powerful motivator, it is a negative reinforcement at its core and it elevates the product over the process. These good intentioned messages stick with individuals forever. I urge you to challenge this philosophy as it may win short term goals like contests, but in the long term pianists in this mind set often lose the desire to continue learning their instrument over time and can leave the art of creating music forever.
The amazing thing about this beautiful process of creating music, is that its intention usually stems from seeking joy or some kind of fulfillment. This is why we want to take lessons. This is why we learn new songs. This is why we practice challenging repertoire. We enjoy hearing the music, creating the music and expressing both intriquite and simple ideas through sound. Judgments about ourselves and our abilities only inhibit this process. They interrupt the flow of ideas, the decoding of a score and connection with a work of art that often has stood the test of centuries of time.
So next time you sit down to work on that tricky passage in one of your favorite pieces, I urge you to practice being a neutral observer, leaving good and bad judgments aside. Try figuring out what is making that passage particularly difficult. Is it quicker chord changes, more hand independence, more accidentals, a change in a repeating pattern? Naming these elements take the focus off one’s insecurities and back onto the page of music.
And the last thought I want to leave you with is this: it is the imperfections in us and our works of art that reflect our humanity and add beauty to our work .
In Japan, Zen Gardner’s purposefully leave a fat dandelion in the midst of the exquisite, ritually precise patterns of the meditation garden. In Iran, even the most skilled of rug weavers include an intentional error, the “Persian Flaw,” in the magnificence of a Tabriz or Qashqa’i carpet and Native Americans wove a broken bead, the “spirit bead,” into every beaded masterpiece. Nothing that has a soul is perfect. – from My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen.