School of Just-Do-It

My thumbs are the wrong shape – my knees wobble – I’m too nervous – I never learned how to do that – it’s too hard … and so on go the student excuses.

In such cases I invariably use my standard sympathetic, most helpful reply – “Just do it!” And the amazing thing is that that is often (ok, not always, but often) all it takes to overcome a technical problem.

Some examples (here we go … )

Taishiro (Japanese name meaning ambitious boy, and so he is) complains his fourth finger is too weak to play smoothly a particularly awkward passage. Now the difficulty has nothing to do with the strength or otherwise of his fourth finger. It’s all to do with his thinking that’s where the problem is, and so he stiffens up, creates tension, and hey presto – lumpy passage! Refuse to worry about the passage, let go the tension, and JUST DO IT. And you know what? It works

Blaithin (Irish, means little flower) claims her hands are so small there’s no way she can reach those left hand Chopin arpeggios – and up she comes with amazingly creative (but not exactly authentic) ‘alternative chords’. Well yes, she does have small hands – actually so do Vladimir Ashenazy, Alicia de Larrocha, Maria Joâo Pires, and even Liszt apparently did – but it never stopped them playing Chopin just as he wrote it. No, the trick here is to believe it’s possible, loosen up, and JUST DO IT

Then there’s Malina from Poland (apparently it means raspberry) who says it’s impossible to trill with her third and fourth fingers and goes through extraordinary contortions to avoid doing so. Once again, the real problem is that she doesn’t actually have a problem, she only thinks she has – and so she stiffens up, creates tension, and hey presto, can’t trill. Forget that you can’t do it, let go of the tension, and JUST DO IT. Now is that a beautiful trill I hear or what?

And finally we have Frances (it means from France, but she’s definitely a Brit) who keeps missing left hand octave leaps – because she thinks she is going to miss them, and gets all tense and silly. This really is an easy one. All she has to do is relax, banish that thought of hitting the wrong octave, take it for granted she will hit the right one, and (just like Yuja Wang does), JUST DO IT

Anyone spot a pattern here?

Maybe I exaggerate just a tad, but the principle holds. More often than not, a technical problem is more in the brain than in the various parts of one’s anatomy one uses to play the piano, which when all said and done, is an inherently unnatural and unergonomic thing to ask your body to do. Even so, pretty well anything any composer asks you to do, you very probably can already do, if only your conscious didn’t get in the way and send inappropriate (!) signals to those anatomical bits.

One of the very most difficult things for a pianist to learn is how to release unwanted tension (some tension is good, but that’s another post, coming later). I would have to say, in my experience, one of the best ways to avoid unwanted tension is to refuse to believe there is a physical/technical problem and – you guessed it – JUST DO IT.

Just try it