The Music Corner for Piano Lovers

Knowing When It's Time To Move On—Getting Past the "OK Plateau"

28 Apr 2015 News

This weekend I started reading an amazing book: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. While the book is mainly about developing our memories to superhuman capacities, Foer's research into memory development has led him to also delve into the strategies that facilitate the development of expertise in any field.

It may be both fascinating and a relief for you to learn that it's not so much innate ability that separates the experts in any field from those who are merely average as the strategies experts—or those who wish to be experts—use. "Top achievers," Foer says, "tend to...develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice..." That is to say, these people don't perform on autopilot once they reached a desired level of proficiency or fluency at an activity. To put it another way, they—if they happen to be pianists—avoid playing from muscle memory.

What do these people do? They force themselves to stay in what psychologists refer to as the "cognitive stage," the stage we all inhabit when we are learning new skills, and therefore paying attention to those skills, and actively trying to figure out ways of performing with proficiency.

I was particularly struck by the passage I've quoted from a chapter entitled "The OK Plateau" in Foer's book because it reminded me of a post I wrote on avoiding muscle memory last November:

If you're preparing to perform at a concert, a student musicale or recital, or an exam, playing a piece until you can play it from muscle memory is, I've always thought, the absolute worst thing you can do. Muscle memory not only fails you when you need it most, it's also quite likely to prevent from thinking on the fly to avoid or cover up any mistakes you're likely to make. That is to say, treat any performance like an exercise in sight reading, or performing at sight as I prefer to call it, and you're more likely to excel at your performance.

This is one of the reasons that selecting a few difficult passages to play over and over again until the very day you have to perform the piece is as troublesome as playing a piece repeatedly from beginning to end. There comes a point at which even those "trouble spots" get committed to muscle memory.

In my post from November, I discussed a number of strategies to avoid moving into autopilot when you're practicing a piece. There comes a time, however, when you quite possibly need to move on from a piece—for a short period, at least, if you're committed to performing it. For a much longer period, if it's just a piece you're learning.

If you're bored with a piece or think you play it reasonably well, you're really not going to make much of an effort to improve no matter what your teacher or anyone else thinks. At that point, it's probably best to move on to a different piece—one that perhaps presents similar challenges but in a different form, a different melody. You're more likely to acquire whatever technique or skill it is you're attempting to master by moving on to a different piece than by playing the same piece endlessly.

So, there is a real advantage to playing a number of short pieces, and learning them until you're reasonably fluent before moving on to the next. You'll find that when you return to that very first piece you were trying to master, you're quite likely playing it better than ever before.



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