The Pianist’s Resolution

Playing and Living • Beyond the Notes

The start of any new year or season is for many a time for making resolutions: a time for ambition, grit and determination.

Whether it’s a fresh commitment to healthy eating and exercise, or a renewed self-discipline in setting aside time to practise the piano, this is a month where many make a decision to turn a new leaf.

But how can we foster perseverance and ultimately success?

Perseverance and Success

When we think about perseverance we typically lean towards negative and forceful concepts and solutions.

“I simply MUST persevere…”

No wonder when we meet obstacles that can’t be overcome with force and determination, we are quick to revise or even give up on goals.

I believe that we need to counter these instincts by approaching our objectives from more positive and pliable angles, and here we can learn much from daoist philosophy. When making ambitious resolutions, let’s adopt this kinder perspective, so that we can succeed in our aims.

Careful, realistic planning

For our resolutions to succeed, we need a solid (but not unyielding) plan; one which breaks down our goals into easily manageable steps which can be undertaken at a steady pace.

“When it seems as if nothing encouraging is happening to us, it is important to remember such perseverance. Work may be drudgery, maintaining a home may be routine, and we may find our goals quite distant. But we must persevere and prepare nevertheless. That will bring a steady pace toward our goals, and buoy our faith in rough and threatening times.”

Deng Ming-Dao: 365 Tao Daily Mediations (1992)

Notice how perseverance and preparation go hand in hand here. We need a concrete schedule of ideas, actions and measurable targets. A vague hope is unlikely to sustain us in moments of doubt, nor provide a means to celebrate our progress, step by step.

Whether challenging ourselves to learn a Chopin Ballade, compose a double fugue, or learn to play jazz standards from The Real Book, we need to break down the steps involved in attaining that goal. It can help to list these steps alongside a realistic plan of how long each might take, what might be involved, and what help may be needed.

Be kind to yourself, and set easily achievable targets. And if you are unsure about your plan, discuss it with more experienced players or a teacher.

As Deng Ming-Dao goes on to explain:

“To taste the fruit of perseverance requires maturity and experience. We need to cultivate patience, planning and timing. We build our resources even when circumstances seem to be against us. We don’t neglect anything we have set in motion. If we nurse our plans through good times and bad, our plans will eventually succeed with the inevitability of fish caught in a net.”

Drawing on our strengths

The image of The Well is one of the hexagrams of the I Ching, China’s most ancient wisdom text. The Well is the place of constant replenishment, and it’s vital not simply for our success, but for our survival.

The chinese word for The Well is jing, a word also used for our essence. We might well ask ourselves, what reservoirs, what energy can we draw on, what is the essence that enables us to achieve our aims?

The I Ching expert Hillary Barrett writes:

“You can transplant your centre and change everything about your life, except for the source you draw on to sustain it all. You cannot own this source, nor carry it with you; wherever you move, you will need first of all to dig a new well to reach it.”

Hilary Barrett: I Ching – Walking Your Path, Creating your Future (2015)

When moving forward with new piano goals, how about asking ourselves:

  • Are my essential core skills strong enough? How can I develop them, and build on them in order to fulfil my resolution?
  • What are my favourite aspects of playing the piano?
  • Are there specific songs or pieces which I would love to add to my repertoire?
  • What aspects of piano playing do I excel at?

In answering some of these questions, we identify our own Musical Soul, which as I explain elsewhere is one of the foundations for becoming a three-dimensional pianist. It is essential that we draw from this wellspring in order to build on our strengths and advance at the piano.

Have you noticed that many great pianists focus on performing the music of just a handful of composers, the essence of whose music they have deeply imbued and most strongly identify with?

It is good to try a new direction, but also to play to our strengths.

Those of us who are privileged to be teachers should also look to identify the musical essence of our students: the composers, styles and works in which their playing comes alive, apparently drawing from deeper, invisible resources.

As Hilary Barrett goes on to observe:

“You need never doubt that you have these resources, or that they are enough. The real question is whether you have the means to reach into such depths, and a steady hand to bring the water up into the real world without loss.”

It’s here, perhaps, that a sensitive teacher or piano buddy can offer much in the way of guidance and support. But drawing from The Well must mean, among other things, being true to our essential nature, interests and ability.

Seeds of change

At the heart of daoist philosophy lies the yin-yang symbol, now as familiar to the Western world as it is in the East:


This symbol is rich in meaning, but at its most basic it illustrates the truth that change is a perpetual cycle. Making a resolution to change can be powerful, but is not change itself. The change itself does not instantly occur.

Change is a Process...

As Yin energy (dark, earth, cold, passive, feminine) reaches its peak, it gives way to Yang energy (light, heaven, hot, dynamic, masculine). But even at its height, the seed of the one is contained within the other.

The cycles of change can be genuinely terrifying, as can be the hiatus of taking on a new challenge or fresh resolution. But we can determine to persevere, to go with the flow and roll with the punches, always understanding that the seeds we plant will surely geminate in the fulness of time.

Progress is a Process...

This is why it is so important, when faced with discouragement or delay, not to abandon our aspirations, goals and resolutions. Change is inevitable, progress will come, but importantly, it is not always for us to dictate the timetable!

An effective resolution is never simply a pretence that change has already happened, but rather an ongoing decision to plant and water seeds of change until they grow to fulness.

This, I believe, is the ultimate key to our success.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.