Verse 64 of Lao Tau’s Tao te ching contains perhaps the most famous line in all Daoist philosophy (quoting here from Solala Towler’s rendition):
“The largest tree grows from a tiny shoot.
The highest tower is built brick by brick.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.”
Preceding this great quote, and shedding further light on the philosophy of Daoism, we read in verse 63:
“Deal with the difficult while it is easy.
Create the large from the small.”
These words offer an important blueprint for how we might approach any task, including learning a new piece of piano music.
They also provide us with the ammunition we need in order to stop putting off our practice, and overcome procrastination.
Let’s consider each of these points in turn…
Dealing with the difficult
In order to “deal with the difficult while it is easy”, we need to break a piece down into manageable sections (or “chunks”, as they are sometimes called), realistically identifying the easily manageable and creating measurable goals.
I frequently find when teaching a player that they are unable to pick up a piece mid-section, and want to play from the beginning. An obvious deduction is that they always tackle the whole movement from start to finish, “practising” without correcting mistakes or addressing problems as they go. But this merely “bakes in” persistent errors.
Patient work on short sections is almost always more effective, but requires the player to recognise the chunks which make up the whole. These can then be practised in isolation, in order, or using a more random or creative design. Once carefully learnt, they can be sewn back together to create the complete piece.
It may be easy to manage learning a piece with one hand at a time, or even breaking down the individual voices. Sometimes, starting with both hands but at a super-slow tempo proves more rewarding. An alert teacher can advise on the best approach for a particular piece and player, and one size certainly does not fit all.
You can also discover a lot of useful practice strategies in my little book, How to Practise Music (find out more here).
The universal truth here is that we must identify the easy as our starting point, rather than trying to deal with the difficult.
If the highest tower is built brick by brick, it’s important to understand that until one brick is aligned correctly, we should not attempt to lay the next.
Faced with the task of learning a new piece, our initial enthusiasm might be laced with a sense that the task ahead is a daunting one. Overawed by the thousand-mile journey, we find ourselves paralysed to take the first step. Confidence dissolves, procrastination sets in.
Using Lao Tzu’s blueprint of looking at the difficult task and breaking it down into smaller components, however, we can begin to see those more manageable steps. It can be helpful to pursue this process until we find steps which are so easily approachable that we can achieve them in next to no time at all.
Completing a practice step which requires almost no effort is a “quick win” that brings encouragement, a positive feeling which generates its own energy and ongoing momentum. As we tick off the smallest tasks, confidence returns and we can see that progress is being made.
What music are you learning on the piano at the moment? Do you feel overwhelmed? Let today be the day to say “Goodbye” to procrastination. The first step can be taken, the initial brick laid; visible progress can be achieved.
Why not today?
Andrew’s essential handbook of practising tips:
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