This article is written for parents and students in order to try and help them understand the mental approaches required by a piano student in order to be successful and is not meant to be a high level university dissertation discussion. Studying each piece of music thoroughly is the best way to fully prepare the student for the next level and gives them the best possible chance of long term success. A successful musical performance depends on many things. Some elements of a good performance are obvious while others may not be so immediately apparent. We need our fingers to press the notes down. This is obvious. What is not so obvious is what is going on inside the mind of a musician when they play to make sure this happens correctly.
How do the different areas of the brain work together to make a great performance?
The study of music requires different areas of the brain to work together to a higher degree than is required by most other academic subjects. An academically gifted student is not guaranteed to make progress in playing the piano if they do not approach their studies in the correct way. I have met many lawyers and doctors who have tried to play piano without achieving the level of success they may have expected. The approach to learning an instrument is very different from other areas of academic study and this must be taken into consideration if the student is to achieve measurable success. A common problem is that many music teachers do not encourage students to routinely reach a high level of performance with pieces of music they study.
Why is it important to study each piece of music to a high level?
Surely it would be more “fun” to just get the music so it sounds ok and then quickly move on? This may be true but the fun will be short lived. The students that have the most “fun” in the long run are the ones who are happy for their musical studies to be a mixture of fun and application and appreciate the fact that a little work up front will mean a lot more “fun” down the line. If a piece of music of any level is not learned thoroughly enough (i.e. to a high enough standard) then the student will be unprepared to progress onto more complex music. A successful performance of any piece of piano music by any pianist or piano student of any age requires both the conscious mind and the subconscious mind to work together in perfect harmony. For the purposes of this article we will consider the conscious mind to be in control of everything we "think about" during a musical performance and we will consider the subconscious mind to be everything that "happens automatically" as we play. A good pianist will rely on both. Understanding the role of the conscious mind during a musical performance is relatively straight forward and easy. However understanding the role of the subconscious mind is not so easy but it is crucial if we are to help facilitate the musical journey of our students in the most effective and efficient way possible.
It is easy to consider that for example at measure 3 in the music we must "remember" to use finger 5 in the left hand on the first note of the bar. This is an example of how the conscious mind contributes towards a successful performance. For a student in the early stages of learning a piece of music they must "remember" to use finger 5 at bar 3 otherwise the music may go wrong. But what happens when the piece of music has been thoroughly practiced? Maybe the student starts to put finger 5 on the first note of the bar without having to think about it so hard. The more practice they do on this passage of music the more likely they are to be able to get this right automatically, without the intervention of any conscious thought processes. Even if the student does not remember to put finger 5 on the note at this point it will still happen correctly. The process of putting finger 5 on the first note of bar 3 will become “automatic” with enough practice. Every musician does some things automatically when they play. Whether they realize it or not, a good teacher encourages and builds on this ability. The trick is to practice the music until the music is absorbed at a deeper level. When this happens more of the cognitive processes involved start to happen "automatically" without the student needing to consciously think about every note they play.
Why is this important?
It is important that students get into the habit of practicing pieces of music thoroughly to a high standard so that the cognitive processes involved in playing the music are allowed to happen automatically. Students will benefit the most from studying a piece of music when they can play it "without thinking so hard". This level of performance can be achieved at any level of ability with students of any age. If a student is not able to reach this level of performance with a piece of music then they need to play a piece of music that is less demanding until this level of learning can be achieved.
By playing pieces that are too difficult we are not giving the subconscious mind the opportunity to grow in its capacity to handle larger amounts of musical information because the music cannot be learned to a high enough standard for this to happen. I believe it is true that the most benefit gained by practicing a piece of music happens in the last 5% of the time spent on a piece of music. It is during this "final phase" of practice that the student is encouraged to push their ability on to the next level. The final phase of practice is the phase when the music becomes fully absorbed. This is when the subconscious mind expands in its capacity to handle greater amounts of musical information. Teachers and students who neglect this final stage of practicing a piece of music are missing the opportunity to increase their playing abilities.
Little benefit is to be gained by practicing pieces of music so we can "only just" play them. If this is the case the conscious mind is still being used to control the playing of the majority of the notes in the music and the subconscious mind will not grow in its ability to take over the mechanical complexities of the performance. As the conscious mind is limited in its capacity to handle large amounts of information the student who relies only on the conscious mind while playing the piano will be limited in their ability to progress. When a piece of music is studied to a high standard certain areas of performance will stop relying on the conscious brain and the subconscious brain will “take over”. When the subconscious brain takes over from the conscious brain we perceive this as the music being played with “less effort” and “more fluidly” or we just say that the student “knows the piece of music better”. The subconscious brain controls the fine motor skills required to play complex piano music in a similar way that it controls the movements of hundreds of muscles required to walk or run. When you run you don’t think about every single muscle movement, your subconscious brain takes care of that and all you need to think about is avoiding the next obstacle in the road. When you play piano you should not need to think about every finger muscle movement, your subconscious brain should take care of this in a similar way. This will only take place if enough practice is done.
If enough practice is not done then the subconscious does not get chance to learn the complex finger muscle movements required to play the music and the conscious mind has to control every movement of the fingers making it difficult if not impossible to progress on to more complex music. By encouraging students to learn each piece of music thoroughly enough we are helping the student to develop the ability to expand their capacity for using their subconscious brain to control more and more of the performance. This is not something only the “elite” can achieve. This is something that can and should be achieved by any student if lessons are approached in the correct way. There is only so much information the conscious brain can deal with at any one time.
The more information the conscious mind has to deal with the more difficult the process of playing a piece of music is. When the conscious mind is “too full” of information the resulting performance will be prone to errors as the brain struggles to handle all the required information and the slightest lapse in concentration will cause the performance to fail. If the majority of the performance is controlled by the subconscious brain then slight lapses in concentration during the performance, which occur in the conscious brain, will not affect the performance in the same way. When a larger portion of the performance is controlled by the subconscious brain the pianist frees up the conscious side of the brain and they may even be able to engage in other activities like talking or thinking what to have for dinner and the performance will continue uninterrupted. I have met many non-musicians who marvel at the brilliance of a piece of difficult music being played by a great musician and confess that they have “no idea” how this level of performance could ever be achieved. The answer to this is that the musician is not just relying on their conscious brain to do the work for them. They have many years of practice behind them which allows most of the work to be done “automatically” by the subconscious brain. To reach that level of ability is not impossible but is in fact very probable if lessons are approached in the right way. We all use our subconscious brain every day and musicians of any age can be encouraged to approach their studies in this way from the very first lesson.
Why do students of some teachers make more progress than students of other teacher?
Is it because some teachers are lucky and just get more talented students than others through pot luck? Probably not. The most likely reason is that the teacher has an intuitive knowledge of what is required to ensure each student is able to make the most of their potential. A good teacher will have achieved a high level of performance themselves and will therefore be more likely to achieve better results with their students because they have already learned these important lessons. Some teachers understand the way the student needs to “think” when they play. Students that are encouraged to think in the correct way as they practice will do better than those who do not. Students learn better when they have been taught to study each piece of music more thoroughly, which means the subconscious mind is handling more of the mechanical workload. With the subconscious mind handling the bulk of the information necessary for a great performance the conscious mind is not bursting at the seams with information. In fact the conscious mind becomes free to think about other important aspect of the performance like dynamics and listening to the resulting performance and shaping it to make it sound more musical.
Students cannot listen to what they are doing and therefore produce a musical performance if 100% of their conscious brainpower is being used to play the notes. By practicing the music more thoroughly over time the subconscious brain takes over much of the mechanics of playing leaving the conscious mind free to process the information it receives from the ears as the performer listens to what they are doing. They can then react to this information in the form of a more musical performance. Students who to not routinely practice pieces of music thoroughly enough and achieve consistently high standards of playing do not increase their subconscious brains ability to “take over” routine mechanical aspects of the playing which means that the conscious brain has to handle all the information in every piece of music. If the student is not in the habit of training their subconscious mind to take control of the mechanical complexities of playing their conscious mind will not have enough horsepower left over to process all the information received from the ear and a musical performance will be unattainable.
Many students that rely on using their conscious brain too much during a performance will be using their conscious mind so much to control all the notes in the music that they are unable to process any information they receive from their ears. The result of this is that these students are often unaware that they have made mistakes that are obvious even to the untrained musician. Students who manage to achieve the correct balance of the conscious and the subconscious mind during a performance will be able to listen to the music they are playing and will notice mistakes when they happen putting them in a much better position to be able to correct those mistakes. If students do not learn to utilize their subconscious minds when studying music eventually the pieces of music they play will reach a level of complexity that the conscious brain alone cannot handle. This will lead to the student having a feeling that they are struggling to play the music more and more with each new piece as the complexity of the music increases. Students will convince themselves at this point that they have “gone as far as they can go” in their piano studies and they will give up. By studying each piece of music more thoroughly to allow the subconscious brain to assume more control over each performance we are constantly extending the capacity of the subconscious brain to handle greater amounts of information and progress will be greater.
As the ability of the subconscious brain to handle larger amounts of information increases the student will be able to progress to music of increasing complexity without having to struggle as the amount of information that needs to be processed by the conscious brain will remain constant. Even though the music becomes more complex the subconscious brain will have been prepared to handle the extra heavy lifting freeing up the conscious brain and ensuring it does not become over burdened with information. Bottom line. Students who learn each piece of music they play to a high standard will always be ready to progress on to the next level of complexity in their musical studies. Students who do not study pieces of music thoroughly enough will not have any of their playing techniques become automatic and will therefore need to use their conscious brains to think about and control every note. As there is a limit to how much information the conscious brain can handle at one time there will be a limit to how far the student can progress. The ability of the subconscious brain to handle large amounts of information is almost limitless if approached in the right way.
When you see a master musician perform, what you are actually witnessing is often a free flow of information from the subconscious brain with very little involvement from the conscious brain. One of the reasons it is considered important to memorize pieces of music is so that this process may be allowed to happen. While the musician is relying on reading sheet music during the performance the involvement of the conscious brain is necessary. A goal of many advanced musicians is to try and achieve an effortless performance consisting of a free flow of information from the subconscious brain with no involvement from the conscious brain at all. This is not an easy goal to achieve even for the most advanced musicians. One of the main issues I find with transfer students is that they have never been encouraged to play their music to a high standard and therefore they still have to “think” about playing techniques that should have already become “automatic”. When I first start working with many transfer students they have often spent a long time “making no progress” before they come to me. The solution – take a few steps back and encourage the music to be studied to a higher level. This allows the subconscious brain to take over areas of the performance that the conscious brain has previously had to cope with. As the students playing becomes more automatic and they develop the ability to automate more and more musical information the conscious mind is freed up and progress will once again become possible.
A Classic Example of the Subconscious Mind at Work When Practicing the Piano.
The below example is very common with students learning the piano and helps to demonstrate how the conscious and the subconscious minds work together to achieve the end result of a good musical performance. A student learns a piece of music during their weekly practice and plays the piece to their teacher in the next lesson. The piece of music has been generally learned very well except there is an error in measure 10 of the music. The student is playing the note “C” instead of the note “D”. The teacher assists the student to identify and correct the error. The original mistake has been “practiced into” the piece of music so that the mistake is now being played “automatically” and it is the subconscious mind that is controlling this aspect of the performance.
Once the student becomes aware of the mistake they must use their “conscious mind” to override the automatic playing signals being sent to their fingers from the subconscious mind. When the student “remembers” to make the correction during the performance the passage of music is played correctly all the way through. However, if the student “forgets” to correct the mistake during the performance they will go back to playing the original error. This happens because the subconscious mind is controlling this aspect of the performance. At this point, even though the conscious “thinking” mind has updated information about how the music should be played the subconscious mind has not yet had chance to assimilate the new information and will continue to send the originally learned music to the fingers until the new information has had chance to be digested. In order to fully correct the mistake the music must be practiced until the subconscious mind has been “reprogrammed” with the correct information. This will not happen quickly and additional time must usually be spent practicing the corrected version of the music before the correct version of the music will be automatically recalled from the subconscious mind.
Eventually with enough practice the subconscious mind will be successfully reprogrammed and the student will no longer need to “remember” to make the correction during the performance. After enough practice the corrected version of the music will be able to freely flow from the subconscious mind without intervention from the conscious mind. This is one of the reasons for the saying “It is always harder to unlearn something than it is to learn it correctly in the first place”. When something has been incorrectly learned the subconscious mind has to be reprogrammed with the updated information which takes time and additional effort. Students should be encouraged to practice slowly and pay close attention to the notes when they first begin work on a piece of music. (Rather than learn it first, with errors and believe it is ok to go back and correct the errors later).
If we can train our students to carefully identify the right notes to play when they first start working on a piece of music much time can be saved by removing the necessity to constantly go back and reprogram the subconscious mind with updated information. Using this approach to practice, less time will be required to learn each new piece of music and progress will be faster. One reason students often practice mistakes into their music, when first beginning work on a new piece of music, is that they are in a rush to be able to play the music all the way through to the end as soon as possible. Students often believe that if they can “get to the end” quickly, when they first start working on a piece of music, this will mean that they will learn the music faster. This is often not the case. A much more advisable approach is to practice the piece slowly in small sections being careful to practice each small section of music correctly from the beginning. Students often believe that it will take more time to get through the piece of music by practicing in this way but the truth is that this method of practice will usually enable the student to learn the piece of music in less time. This approach to practice is one that that takes time for the student to fully appreciate and understand. Learning music in this way avoids the need to constantly go back and reprogram the subconscious mind with new and updated information every time a mistake needs to be corrected making the overall process much more efficient, however self-discipline is required on the part of the student to practice in this way and they will need to overcome their natural tendency to want to play the music all the way through as a performance before it is ready. If the necessity to constantly reprogram the subconscious mind is allowed to become a regular part of a students practice the negative effects of working in this way can snowball in magnitude causing the student to experience unnecessary difficulties in their practice.
At best this can extend the time required to master a piece of music by a period of several days or more. At worst this can lead to the student giving up on a piece of music because they believe they can’t do it when, in fact, it is probably the continual process of having to reprogram the subconscious mind by constantly correcting errors that is the real reason the student is experiencing difficulties learning the music. Bottom line. Practice slowly and thoughtfully. Try to learn the correct notes as early as possible when studying a piece of new music. Don’t practice mistakes into the music hoping to correct them later and don’t be in too much of a hurry to get all the way through to the end of the music. Patience is a virtue. Students who consistently practice for lower amounts of time than recommended by their teachers are unlikely to achieve the levels of automation in their playing required to progress on to more advanced music. Practice time is a very important aspect of encouraging the student to utilize their subconscious mind and allow their playing to become more automatic. Music takes time to be “absorbed” by the student. Without enough practice time automation in a student’s playing will not happen to the degree necessary for extended success. Students who practice below their teachers recommended practice times are likely to only use their conscious minds to control the playing of the music as enough time is not spent building the subconscious minds ability to take over important cognitive processes and progress will be limited. Students may take lessons for many years and make only limited progress if the teachers recommended practice times are not adhered to. Don’t just practice a piece of music until you can “just get through it”. Spend time with every piece of music and really get to know it.
A teacher that has never achieved a high level of performance standard themselves is unlikely to be aware of the cognitive processes that are necessary to ensure students’ progress to their full potential. Make sure your piano teacher can play the piano to a high standard. There is a reason that teachers who perform to a low standard themselves end up producing students that make very limited progress.
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Further reading - How Important Is Regular Piano Practice?