Pianists: How To Avoid “Practice Paralysis”

Confused person, isolated on white backgroundDo you ever get so overwhelmed by all the things you “should” be practicing that you end up not practicing anything? If so, you’re not alone! The mere glance at a long list of tunes to learn, or a book of difficult pieces to master, is enough to cause many pianists to “go numb” and head for the TV or refrigerator. Don’t despair though, because there is hope. In fact, there’s a simple cure for what I’ve come to call “Practice Paralysis!”

I first became aware of this phenomenon in the mid-1990’s, when a teenage student came to me for a piano lesson. This young man was in a school music program taught by a good friend of mine (“Hi,Erik!”) and travelled a good distance to see me and ask for my general advice regarding his jazz playing.

At our lesson, this talented 15-year-old sat down and played some very nice jazz piano. When I asked him what his goals were, he surprised me by saying, “That’s just the problem! I have a big shelf of jazz piano books and I get so overwhelmed by the thought of learning everything in these books that I end up doing nothing!” (Sound familiar?)

Although I hadn’t encountered this before, I immediately understood what was going on. When I myself was first learning jazz, in the 1980’s, there were only a few published jazz piano books and the internet didn’t exist yet. In fact, I only had 4 jazz books: The Real Book, a collection of Oscar Peterson’s easy Jazz Etudes, and 2 of John Mehegan’s volumes. Each page of these books gave me the inspiration to practice for hours on end. I never felt overwhelmed. On the contrary, I craved MORE musical examples, which I found through interaction with the guys in my jazz/rock band and later, with piano lessons.

The “problem” (which can be also seen as part of a giant opportunity) is that many, many piano books have been published since the early 90’s. And although these books are packed with loads of good musical information, they tend to move through the material too fast for a student to fully assimilate the examples. We need time for things to sink in, and can’t resist the impulse to keep moving forward. (In the “old” days, a teacher simply wouldn’t demonstrate the next technique until the student was ready.) And the internet has thousands, if not millions, of “how-to” videos on every imaginable musical technique and song.

The information is there, but what’s missing is the discernment to know what we need right now; what our individual next step should be. (There’s also a great deal of wrong information out there, but that’s another story!) Since it’s obvious that no one can learn 500 tunes in all keys, complete with advanced chord voicings, walking bass lines, harmonic substitutions, both bebop and modal soloing, and Latin jazz styles all at once, we tend to become overwhelmed and give up completely. I now hear this almost every day, from people who email me about their playing.

So the question becomes even more important: what should you practice today, right now?

The key, ironically, is to let everything go and start where you are. What can you do, easily, right now. Start there and build upon that, slowly and organically. You can always go back to your books when the time is right.

If you want to learn jazz, choose a tune, like “Take The ‘A’ Train,” and enjoy what you can do with it. Maybe you know the melody. Good! Then simply play the melody a few times, experiencing it fully. Then add chords with your left hand. If you’re just beginning to learn 7th chords, then stick with those until they come easily. If you already know 7ths well, then use them for a few choruses and then work on playing rootless voicings, or a walking bass line. If you like to play rock, learn the G blues scale and jam on the fast section of “Freebird” every day for 2 weeks, until it’s second-nature. If you love Bach, don’t get overwhelmed by the sight of all 48 Preludes and Fugues in his Well-Tempered Clavier, but simply pick your favorite fugue and start with the main theme, or subject. Just using one hand. And memorize it. If you have fun and experience the it musically, you’ll get the motivation to learn a little more… and a little more… and a little more…

“Practice Paralysis” is a relatively recent phenomenon and was rarely or never experienced by the great musicians of the past. Bach, Charlie Parker and John Lennon didn’t experience it simply because there wasn’t as much available to them. Bach had to “borrow” his brother’s music notebooks at night, climb up to the roof, and hand-copy the pieces; just to have something to play on the keyboard! Charlie Parker only had a few Lester Young sax solos on record, but he sure learned those solos inside and out! John Lennon listened to Irish jigs because he didn’t have access to many American Rock and Roll recordings. The melodic charm of that music influenced everything he did, right up through his last recordings.

When I first started creating my KeyboardImprov.com video course, one of my main goals was to make it so step-by-step and engaging that people wouldn’t feel overwhelmed. But since the course has grown to include hundreds of video lessons, new students sometimes get so excited when they see the complete list of lessons that they want to learn them all at once. In these cases, I just ask them about their musical preferences and suggest one or two lesson series to begin with. After that, they simply learn the lessons in sequence and enjoy their gradual improvement.

Whatever method you’re using to learn piano, remember to go one step at a time, and thoroughly enjoy the learning process for its own sake. If you do this and stick with it, you’ll keep building upon your present skills and eventually play the way you’ve always dreamed. Good luck!

You might also like:
The Secret Formula For Musical Success
How To Get The Most Out Of Practicing Scales
The ‘Practicing’ Paradox

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