The Little “Secret” That Professional Pianists Rarely Talk About

Hey Improvisers,

Since having a healthy mental attitude is such a big part of playing piano, I thought I’d share a perspective with you that we rarely hear about. If you can embrace this, you’ll be a happier pianist and play at a consistently higher level as well.
Here it goes: Have you ever sat down to play piano and found yourself frustrated because you played better “yesterday?” Or, that the music seemed to flow much easier the last time you played?
Well, here’s the “secret:” It happens to the greatest players in the world too. (Congratulations – you’re in good company!)
Since it happens to everyone, the big question now becomes: “What are you going to do about it?”
Unhappy piano players, whether they are beginners or world-class professionals, let themselves become frustrated and bemoan the fact that they can’t recreate the effortless, joyful feeling they felt in the past.
Happy piano players, on the other hand, realize that this is an unavoidable fact of life. They have learned how to “let go” of yesterday’s mountain and begin climbing a new one today.
That’s it: just smile and move on. Besides being in reality the only we can do, it’s a huge opportunity. We learn how to adapt, start over, and find something new. Every wondrous day.
This happened to me recently when I was practicing a jazz standard in order to make a video, and I’m smiling right now as I think about it. While I was practicing, I almost got caught in the trap of fruitlessly trying to recreate “yesterday’s magic” at the expense of “today’s miracle.” (Incidentally, this concept is as true when playing written music as it is when improvising.)
The day before I made the video, I had reached new heights of improvising over the quasi-modal harmonies in the particular tune’s chord progression. My improvisation was flowing effortlessly and it sounded like a cross between Gil Evans’s arrangement of “Moondreams” and the end of Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms.” Pure bliss!
Fast-forward 24 hours to when I sat down to make the video and of course I had expectations of the same thing happening again.
But…no such luck!
The music still sounded OK, but it felt nothing like it did the day before. Luckily, this had happened to me countless times before so I knew exactly what to trust. I took a deep breath and began listening to the melody and experimenting with chord voicings. I followed the flow of the music and began building upon that. Soon, the music began to sound good again, although different from the day before. This is exactly the point: it’s today’s music, not yesterday’s.
We don’t hear people talk about this kind of thing very much, but I once read an interview with Herbie Hancock where he mentions something very similar. Herbie was recalling the famed Live At The Plugged Nickel recordings he had done with Miles Davis in 1965. He recalled that although saxophonist Wayne Shorter played extremely well at those live performances, Herbie himself didn’t have a particularly good week. But rather than denigrate his playing, he said something along the lines of “that’s all right, because I was searching.”
Maybe Herbie Hancock is Herbie Hancock not just because he’s a highly accomplished pianist, because there are in fact thousands of highly accomplished pianists out there who we’ve never heard of. Instead, maybe Herbie Hancock is Herbie Hancock precisely because he doesn’t get upset when he’s not playing at his peak. He’s willing to let all of his expectations go and start over, searching for where the music will bring him today, while not trying to recreate yesterday’s musical triumphs.
The interesting thing is that when I later watched my video, I realized that it sounded fine. All of my worries were in my imagination, and I realized that once we get down to the business of playing music instead of playing memories, we begin playing the piano as we deserve to play it. Today.


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