The Pianist’s Perseverance

January 2018 Reflection

January is, for many, a time of resolutions, grit and determination. Whether it’s a fresh commitment to healthy eating and exercise, or a renewal of discipline, setting aside time to practise the piano – this is a month where many make a decision to turn a new leaf.

I hope that as many as possible who make a commitment towards self-improvement in its many forms will succeed in their freshly stated aims. But what are the ingredients of perseverance which will foster that success? Here’s my theme for this month’s reflection!

And I will try to explain why I believe that Progress is a Process, and that perseverance is never simply a matter of grim resolve and self-discipline …

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The Pianist’s Anxiety

The Pianist’s Reflections

“Leave your thoughts in a place you will not visit …”

Most of the pianists that I have met are easy to describe as “deep thinkers”, and I would argue that an aptitude for analytical thinking is an essential skill for the advanced piano player.

But the jump from analytical thinking to overthinking is a small one. And here’s the problem. In recent years, we have become increasingly aware that overthinking any problem can break rather than solve it, and can often lead us to bizarre conclusions. Overthinking is inextricably linked to anxiety.

If we overthink an upcoming performance, this can undoubtedly contribute to performance anxiety. And in the same way, if we overthink life in general, this can have a significant and debilitating effect on our whole lives.

A growing body of research supports our suspicions that many physical health problems are rooted in the activities of the mind. Overthinking can be associated with anxiety, fear, paranoia and mental instability, all of which can have serious physical as well as social consequences.

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The Pianist’s Emotions

The Pianist’s Reflections

Emotions are an essential aspect of our basic humanity. But when they are out of balance they can become dangerous, with the potential to leave us feeling shipwrecked and adrift.

The Problem for Pianists

Of course this is true for everyone – but for piano players (and for musicians and performers in general) there can be some additional challenges, and the swing from over-excitement to terrible disappointment and back can become our daily emotional currency:

  • We are exposed – even for hours on end – to powerful and profound emotions, communicated wordlessly by some of the most creative people in history
  • To play well we must engage with our own emotions, those of the composer, and in performance with those of our audiences
  • We work often in solitude, with few alternative emotional outlets other than our musical expression
  • The touring of the concert pianist, and the long (often antisocial) hours of the piano teacher can put additional strain on our physical and social wellbeing
  • The piano world is a hyper-competitive one (often in my view, destructively so) leaving many players with low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy and a crippling sense of failure

We contend with all these issues as an added factor on our journey through life, which of course includes the same emotional challenges in our personal lives, family, security, and health that everyone else has to cope with.

It is little wonder that so many pianists sustain significant emotional damage and suffer from mental health problems.

A recent survey by The Stage reported 7 out of 10 musicians report mental health problems, while a study conducted in Australia by Entertainment Assist found that musicians are up to ten times more likely to have mental health problems than the general population.

What we need is “emotional wisdom” – the self-awareness that helps us keep our emotions in check, balanced and healthy.

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The Pianist’s Anonymity

The Pianist’s Reflections

As I write this, it’s been another eventful week in celebrity land, with tabloid headlines screaming the latest sordid news about Angelina, Brad, Jennifer, Jonny and others. There’s a common theme here: celebrity can be both a magnet for narcissism and unhappiness and a force that knocks lives off balance.

In the world of piano playing, albeit on a smaller scale, being well-known brings its own challenges, with exposure to conflict, malicious gossip and the envy of those who are less successful or unfulfilled.

So should we basically pursue anonymity? Can a wise balance be found?

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