All learning is done by means of the functioning mind and body as “the central instrumentality upon which all learning depends”. When this system works reliably, children will master skills relatively easily, and make continuing progress throughout their school years. Yet this system works unreliably in most children and, without an understanding of its design and control, many elements of learning are haphazard and left to chance.
Understanding how the body is designed to produce action makes it possible to gain greater control and mastery over the process of learning skills by, first, giving us a more accurate and developed kinesthetic measure for assessing the performance of actions and, second, enabling us to learn in a more organized and rational way based on an understanding of ends and means.
A key objective of the Institute is to develop more effective teaching methods and to provide educators with a means of re-evaluating existing methods, based on an understanding of how mind and body function holistically in activity. This includes exploring one’s habitual ways of doing and thinking, articulating principles that can help children and adults alike overcome learning difficulties, and helping the child achieve his or her full potential by learning to break skills down into manageable elements, removing harmful habits, and gaining mastery over the central element of learning: oneself.
To that end, here we discuss an emblematic case of skill, that of the student of piano.
The Thinking Pianist
Let us turn now to the case of a piano student who is trying to learn a complex piece and has become frustrated at being unable to master the difficult passages. When confronted by such technical problems, the student determines to practice harder by playing the difficult passages over and over, trying to get his fingers to perform the agile movements required. Closer observation of the student’s playing, however, reveals that he is playing sloppily and unevenly over the difficult passages, and that his actions are slightly rushed. Not having taken the time to think the passages through carefully, the student is essentially practicing his bad habits. In the process of pushing himself to play the notes, he is actually preventing himself from thinking clearly about what he is trying to do and is unable to execute his intentions.
The first step in helping the student overcome his difficulties is to break the cycle of struggling with technique and practicing errors, by getting him to step away from the piano and to give up trying to perform the passages correctly. With the help of a skilled teacher, he must then approach the instrument with an improved coordination, or reduced state of tension, and then see if he can play without indulging in his harmful habits. If, for instance, the student tenses his shoulders and tightens his neck to play, he must see if he can raise his arm to the piano without making these unnecessary actions. At first, he will not be able to control this tendency, because his actions are so instinctive and unconscious that he is unaware that he uses too much tension to play, and he reacts uncontrollably when he thinks of raising his arm to the piano. As his condition improves, however, he will be able to kinesthetically identify the tension as it occurs, which in turn will give him an increased control over the act of using his arms at the piano.
The next step is to help the student play a simple phrase, on only one hand, while maintaining this improved coordination and reduced level of effort. Before attempting to play the passage, the student must become completely clear on what he is doing by defining precisely what notes he must play, the exact sequence, and the fingering. First he must do this away from the piano, then at the piano at an extremely slow tempo, so that, instead of achieving the goal of playing the section quickly, he is giving himself an extremely simple goal and executing it with perfect control, precision, and clarity. Even when he has mastered this step, he must resist the temptation of seeing if he can play the passage more quickly, and stay true to the process the teacher is giving him.
The main difficulty for the student, at this stage, is in realizing what it means to clarify or think through what he is doing. When we are learning a piece of music, we think that if we have memorized it and can play it through, we know the notes. But when we are asked to perform something in a way contrary to our habit—by executing the action without our usual tension or at an extremely slow tempo—we realize how little we really understand what we are trying to do. In order to truly understand the notes, the pianist must clearly and precisely define to himself not simply what notes he is trying to play, but how each one follows the previous one. He must examine, in painstaking detail, the notes in the passage until he is completely clear on the challenge in front of him, until the passage becomes so straightforward, so simple, that playing it slowly is no more difficult than simply raising his arm to the piano.
When the student has mastered these two elements, his next step is to isolate and define other difficult passages, on the right and left hand separately and then the two together, until he can play all of these as easily as the first. At some point, the student may find that his playing has improved, but he must continue to resist the temptation to play the passages quickly until he has put all of them together and, by mastering each element in turn, can play the entire piece with perfect clarity. The student will now find that he is able to play the piece more quickly, but effortless control not speed should continue to be his goal. The only way to accomplish this is to make a conscious decision not to play quickly, and then to break the piece down into minutely detailed steps to be played at a very slow tempo and with total control.
Two elements, then, are required to master the piece. The first element (to reverse the above order) is to think about, to clarify, what one is trying to do. The student must ask himself—often by moving away from the piano—to imagine what notes he is playing, and in so doing, commit this knowledge to memory. He must also break down difficult sections until they are absolutely clear in his mind. It is this clear thinking that then helps to coordinate the activity of the fingers, hands, and arms. This thinking, this grasping of the "content" of what is to be done, controls the actual performance and therefore represents the "positive" component of the process.
This thinking, intangible as it may appear in comparison to "doing," is a key element in his performance. The problem may appear to be how to get the fingers to perform an agile feat, but the organizing factor in complex playing is the clarity of thought behind the movement. Most piano students, when they are attempting to master a particular piece of music, often have an imperfect understanding of the piece of music they are playing and respond to difficult passages not by trying to understand better what they are attempting to do, but by playing the piece over and over again. They continue to try to execute something, without knowing what that something is.
The second element is the breaking of old habits. The student thinks his failure is due to not having mastered the complex movements necessary to execute the passage, and that therefore his problem is that he hasn't found the right way to do it. But his attempts to play the notes—even when he is clear on what he intends to do or tries to play in a new way—are stimuli to ideomotor responses—habitual, ingrained patterns of behavior that actively prevent him from executing movements that do not fit in with his habit and therefore interfere with his playing. Clear thinking coordinates the activity of the fingers, but the student’s preexisting habits are positively aimed in another, wrong direction, actively pushing into the old ruts to which they have become accustomed.
These habits, we have seen, occur as a pattern of tension that interferes with the muscular system. When this system is restored to its natural or more lengthened condition, this makes it possible for the pianist to kinesthetically perceive these tensions and, in turn, to prevent these wrong patterns of action that interfere with his playing. This eliminates the positive impulse in the wrong direction and enables him to establish new, better-coordinated pathways. There is no longer a conflict between what he would like to do and his existing habits; the breaking of the habitual pattern creates the space within which he is free to do something new, allowing his thinking to serve its coordinating function, unimpeded by old habits.
Notice that, in approaching the piece in this way, the student’s problem now shifts from the physical challenge of being able to play the notes to the mental challenge of attending to himself while he does it. The reorganization of activity through thinking is in this sense only part of a larger reorganization that involves replacing old habits with actions consciously performed. The prevention of the old habits, and the reorganization of his perceptions through thinking, are continuous with one another, the two together constituting the new, consciously thought-out process of mastering the piece. Studying how he plays is not about "doing" but about thinking and awareness: he is quite literally replacing brawn with brain.
In the previous cases we have looked at, the student was required to think in a new way in order to overcome his difficulty: the driver needed a structured environment within which she could safely learn the various elements of driving; the tennis player needed to observe and experiment and, finally, to reconstruct her own action; the singer, to learn to "inhibit" wrong activities and to understand the process of vocalizing. "Doing," as it has been portrayed in each of these examples, really refers to unclear, inefficient thinking, which had to be rectified first by stopping and then reexamining what the problem was. But perhaps no skill more than piano illustrates the central importance of thought in coordinating activity, for the simple reason that there is so much to think about.
At first, this approach to learning a piece of music seems tedious, but the student soon learns that this attention to detail is the source of real intelligence in approaching the instrument. Until now, the student has been focused entirely on results. He gets upset if he can’t learn something, and failure to learn only makes him work harder and use more repetition. He now learns that the primary function of practicing is not to strengthen, repeat, or mechanically perform complex motions, but to break problems down and think out the component steps of difficult passages until they become easy and manageable. The true purpose of practicing is not to get things right, but to clarify what one is trying to do and to find room for the application of intelligence to one's playing. Practice becomes a process not of overcoming difficulties with more effort, but of making what is difficult easier.
This new approach to playing implies an entirely new attitude, a desire to study oneself and achieve greater excellence, not to try to get to the goal. It also requires self-examination, since one cannot approach the instrument in this way if one is driven by crude ambition and competitiveness and has no higher motivation for playing. If the student is willing to undertake this process, he is no longer caught up in long-term ambitions and struggles, but begins to take joy in the process of learning itself. Practicing becomes more focused, precise, and rewarding; the student finds that he no longer becomes obsessive and overinvolved, but is focused and detached. He has achieved an attitude of disciplined patience.
This new approach also helps to bridge the apparent gulf between technique and musical interpretation. Initially, the student will have to translate the notes as they are written on the page to the keyboard itself, seeing how they relate to one another and in what sequence. After he has mastered the particulars of the piece he is working on, he will no longer have to think about the music in terms of the notes to be played on the keyboard, and will then be able to direct his performance with his "inner listening”—with his musical ear. These two stages roughly correspond to the two stages of learning to type, in which the performance is initially guided by the knowledge of where the letters are, and later by the words and thoughts one wishes to communicate. This, of course, is the whole point, since musical expression (or, in the case of typing, communicating ideas), not the skilled activity of hitting notes on the piano, is his goal. Just as the "technical” aspect of his playing is controlled through "knowing” the notes and their relation on the keyboard, the interpretive aspect of the music is controlled through his musical imagination.
For the classical musician, who does not create new music but brings other composers’ conceptions to life, this approach becomes the source of new creativity as well as enjoyment, because it taps the player’s true sense of expressive purpose. Instead of struggling with the physical challenge of trying to play difficult passages, and then trying to infuse the notes with musical intention, the process of thinking out a passage and musically interpreting it are married, since the notes one is playing and the musical idea these notes express are both controlled by the same intelligent function. Interpretation is superseded by real musical intention—so much so that it can become the source of an even higher form of creativity than the most abandoned or spontaneous improvisation or composition.
And since both technique and interpretation are functions of clear thinking and freedom from rigid habit, technique and musicality are—or should be—continuous with one another. The thinking that coordinates performance is a form of imagination just as "inner listening" is, and both are forms of intelligent control. The dichotomy of technique (on the one hand) and musicality (on the other)—rigid practicing to acquire technical proficiency, and trying to put "feeling” into the notes to make one’s playing musical—is a spurious one. Ultimately, technique should heighten sensibility and never be mindless and dull; the process of learning how to technically master a piece of music, instead of dulling the performer and the performance, should awaken one’s potential and inform one’s musicality.