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  • elzbieta bilicka

Give me a deadline!

The other day, a friend asked me to write a post about efficiency, especially regarding to piano practice. Why she thought I was the right person to do that is a mystery to me since I'm fully aware of my weird and unorganised working routine. Back at university in Poland, my friends used to come to my room and listen as I was practicing. Some of them would even sit there for a few hours, probably waiting for me to really get started with something substantial, but then all of a sudden I was done and willing to go. Their only comment was: 'Wait, what - that's it?!'.

Once, I was even asked to take part in a test whose objective was to compare various ways in which pianists work on new music. Each of us was given 15 minutes to read and prepare in the best way we could a one-page piece; after that time we had to 'perform' it in a clean, concert version in front of a jury. Since the jury was in fact my friend who was writing a master's thesis on efficiency, I asked him about his feedback on my results. He summed it up pretty much like this: 'You were doing everything wrong but somehow it worked!'.

I guess that's enough to convince you that I don't really have the authority to write about wise and thoughtful practicing. I do consider myself efficient, though, rather in the right-before-the-deadline kind of way but still! That's why, even though I feel slightly under-qualified for this task, I will try to reply to my friend's request and write a few words about how to achieve satisfying results at the piano in the quickest way.

Whenever a subject of efficiency is taken up we hear about a necessity of making plans. Again, I'm extremely unorthodox in this department - my present daily schedules are as flexible as one could only dream of. It hasn't always been this way, though. There was a time when I had to combine a demanding boarding school with the music one to which I had to commute two hours by train for weekend classes. Later, I had to put up with studying in a foreign country, learning the language I barely spoke, giving private piano classes, working at school in a nearby city and from time to time, flying to various places to play concerts. Now that I'm having a gap year and taking a long, well-earned break from life, I have a lot of free time. Surprisingly, it seems much more difficult to maintain efficiency now than when I was being extremely busy. That's because I miss a syndrome which motivates and shakes me up unlike any other.

The syndrome I have on my mind is called deadline rush. If I was to point out any secret that lies behind my being successful at preparing a piano program sufficiently in a rather short time this would be it. Once I get a deadline, most preferably a short, three-, four-week one, my brain instantly moves up a gear and employs working technics that surprise even its owner ;).

First thing that switches on is a new quality of focus. I have very little time so I simply can't afford to waste it. When practicing, I concentrate on the essentials and give up the unnecessary, like mindless repeating or playing whole pieces just for fun. The crucial trick is to play as correctly as possible from the very first moment you start working on a new piece. What I mean here is not to teach wrong patterns to your brain and body. If you practice in stages - first, you read the score, than work on technic and finally add musical nuances - as a matter of fact you learn a piece three times. Our intellectual and body memory has sponge-like qualities, it literally codes all signals that it's exposed to. The more repetitions of these signals it gets, the stronger the codes become. That's why if at some stage of your learning process you choose to neglect, for example, a quality of sound, right voicing and phrasing or even a speed in which your hands will have to move in a final rendition, you code yourself in a wrong way. Later, you try to reprogram your brain-body system but it is much more difficult to change a code than to create a new one; it may even turn out impossible in some cases. Besides, it significantly extends the time of the whole learning process.

The other aspect connected with a higher focus is having a fully awake and present mind when you're practicing. The subject of mindfulness, hated by so many and so commonly misunderstood, deserves a separate post so now I will only mention its essential point. When you put your mind in a quiet and still state you give it a great perceptive space. Your senses get enhanced and you have better contact with your body and everything that is happening around you in the present moment. It allows you to listen to your own playing more cautiously and actually hear it in a more accurate way. You can actively observe your body and be aware of the way it works, to what extent it supports your good results at the piano and to what it undermines them. You feel the level of your body's stiffness which allows you to properly adjust it. As a result, your sound quality becomes much better, you develop the so-called 'outer ear' that helps control and improve all aspects of your rendition plus you get significantly less tired after a few-hour piano practice.

The last efficiency-related issue I'd like to mention is motivation. This is a brand new discovery for me, I learnt about its importance and hidden perversities a relatively short time ago. I mean, we hear about it all the time. The media are full of motivational talks, there are tons of books on this topic. The tricky part which is not mentioned that often, though, is a cunning, fox-like nature that motivation can have.

I used to think that it didn't actually matter what drove us so long as it was powerful enough to get us to the results we wanted. In fact, I wasn't paying attention to why I was taking up various challenges or making my plans at all. The thought that I might have been doing even the good things but for the wrong reasons never occurred to me. And what reasons are wrong? Basically all whose purpose is to either help you run away from yourself or make you feel better with yourself. If you practice to distract yourself from nagging thoughts or feelings all the efficiency components - focus, mindfulness, body and sound awareness - are distorted. If you work on your piano playing to prove your value and worthiness to yourself and other people most of your practice is nothing more than a show-off. Your mind is more interested in projecting your opinions on your performance (which in this case means opinions on you as a person) on imaginary or real people that may be listening to you.

All in all, to practice truly efficiently we have to be ok with ourselves. We need to sit at the piano with a calm mind and a sense of unconditional self-worth. Our motivation obviously has to orbit around concerts or other professional engagements that we have in schedule but we will be able to work peacefully, efficiently and with pleasure only if we entirely separate ourselves and our sense of worthiness from music that we play.

That pretty much sums it up! I have no special tricks or ground-breaking methods to share. The only advise I can give to you is to find small, personal goals if you currently lack in big, professional ones. If you're anything like me and your greatest powers wake up only at the sight of a deadline, arrange it for yourself. Just always remember to do it in a friendly, not regime-like way and never forget to reward yourself after you succeed!

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