Flow is the Opiate of the Mediocre: Advice on Getting Better from an Accomplished Piano PlayerDecember 23rd, 2011 · 89 comments
The Piano Player Confessions
I recently received a message from an accomplished piano player. Let’s call him Jeremy.
This is someone who majored in piano performance at music school, where he was one of the top two students in the major. He won state-level competitions throughout his college career.
Jeremy wrote in response to my recent article on the surprisingly relaxed lives of elite musicians. He told me that post agreed with his experience.
“I, and the other strong students in my department, did practice less than the weaker students,” he said.
He then went on to explain exactly what he and the other strong students did differently as compared to their less accomplished peers.
I reproduced his explanation below (I added the headings and edited the text slightly), as I think it offers profound insight into the difference between the type of work most of us do and what it actually takes to become so good they can’t ignore you.
As you read Jeremy’s strategies, ask yourself what it would mean to apply these same ideas to your livelihood, be it as a writer, programmer, consultant, student, or professor. When I performed this exercise I was embarrassed by the gap between what I should be doing (if I want to maximize my ability), and what I actually do.
Good food for thought as we roll toward a new year…
Jeremy’s Strategies for Becoming Excellent…
- Strategy #1: Avoid Flow. Do What Does Not Come Easy.
“The mistake most weak pianists make is playing, not practicing. If you walk into a music hall at a local university, you’ll hear people ‘playing’ by running through their pieces. This is a huge mistake. Strong pianists drill the most difficult parts of their music, rarely, if ever playing through their pieces in entirety.”
- Strategy #2: To Master a Skill, Master Something Harder.
“Strong pianists find clever ways to ‘complicate’ the difficult parts of their music. If we have problem playing something with clarity, we complicate by playing the passage with alternating accent patterns. If we have problems with speed, we confound the rhythms.”
- Strategy #3: Systematically Eliminate Weakness.
“Strong pianists know our weaknesses and use them to create strength. I have sharp ears, but I am not as in touch with the physical component of piano playing. So, I practice on a mute keyboard.”
- Strategy #4: Create Beauty, Don’t Avoid Ugliness.
“Weak pianists make music a reactive task, not a creative task. They start, and react to their performance, fixing problems as they go along. Strong pianists, on the other hand, have an image of what a perfect performance should be like that includes all of the relevant senses. Before we sit down, we know what the piece needs to feel, sound, and even look like in excruciating detail. In performance, weak pianists try to reactively move away from mistakes, while strong pianists move towards a perfect mental image.”
This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.
- Is Talent Underrated? Making Sense of a Recent Attack on Practice
- Perfectionism as Practice: Steve Jobs and the Art of Getting Good
- Complicate the Formula: John McPhee’s Deliberate Practice Strategy
- If You’re Busy, You’re Doing Something Wrong: The Surprisingly Relaxed Lives of Elite Achievers
(Photo by Kofoed)