Over 35 years of teaching experience in private piano lessons has given me a front row seat to a laboratory of human behavior. The question for me is always how do I empower this child to experience success during home practice. This leads to another question. What is success at piano practice? Experience has taught me that the ability of a child to develop the necessary skills to become a fluent pianist is rooted in the development of two fundamental elements of well-being: Emotional Cohesion and Cognitive Resilience.
Emotional Cohesion is my way of describing the facility of a person to recognize the effect their emotions have on their ability to discern feelings and guide their thinking and behavior to self-manage and adjust to achieve one’s goal.
Cognitive Resiliency is the ability of a person to 1) recognize potential, 2) recognize the obstacle that denies access to that potential, 3) utilize known and necessary processes to overcome the challenge that threatens their goal.
For the purposes of this essay, I will not unwrap the details of Emotional Cohesion or Cognitive Resiliency except to point to the very real assertion that studying classical music develops these two elements of well-being most powerfully. They do so if they are called upon to learn to to “think slowly”.
Johann Sebastian Bach said, “It's easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.” The most basic element of teaching a child to play piano is to give them the tools to “play the right note at the right time”. Of most importance here, however, is that musical time is a function of velocity or speed. The speed at which we choose to play the right note at the right time is one fundamental tool of our ability to develop the emotional and cognitive capacity through which success can be achieved. We must choose to play slow in order to think slow.
A few weeks ago, I heard a YACM Teaching Artists working with a student. The student was playing very fast. A few of the passages were reasonability well executed, while others were simply abysmal. Our teacher encouraged the student to play slower. The teacher’s intent was to provide the student with a process by which he could stop making so many errors. These errors articulated his inability to play the “right note at the right time”. The student’s response was to say, “but it’s easier to play it fast”. WOW! What a perfect example of the perils of playing too fast. Playing too fast is a result of thinking too fast. Thinking too fast IS easier.
Daniel Kahneman, the author of best selling and Nobel prize winning book, “Thinking Fast and Slow”, talks about two systems of thinking. After years of research on learning and cognitive biases that frame our choices, Kahneman identified System 1 as fast, instinctive, and emotional, and System 2 as slow, deliberate and logical. In a quote from his book “A general law of least effort applies to cognitive exertion. The law asserts people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action”, Kahneman asserts the reality that people will not naturally pursue hard work. When a student practices fast and plays fast executing error after error, he has become blind to his failures because he has not developed the capacity through slow, deliberate, and logical thinking to recognize the truth of how he has squandered his potential. Kahneman also writes, “acquisition of skills requires a regular environment, an adequate opportunity to practice, and unequivocal feedback about the correctness of thoughts and actions.”
Our student above, who thinks it’s easier to play the music fast is correct. It IS easier, but it is not better. It IS easier to switch on the auto-pilot and play the mistakes that are now instinctive without doing the hard work of thinking slowly. But I and my YACM teaching colleagues are not here to help a child find comfort in what comes easy. We are here to develop the ability of a child to think slowly, deliberately with intention and conviction. Only in practicing, playing, studying, and thinking slowly can an artistic musician and a successful adult be formed.
What can you do as a parent to help your child think and practice slowly?
Attend the lessons so you can understand his challenge.
Understand the practice goals set by the instructor.
Ensure they can practice daily and not rushed.
Personally guide their practice and encourage them to play as slowly and evenly as possible.
Ask them to explain what is challenging so they can become more aware of their obstacles.
Encourage their successes.