Nicole Dieker has been a full-time freelance writer since 2012 and a full-time problem-solver since she was old enough to watch Mathnet. She’s been working on Mozart K332 since August 2020 and has just now gotten the first and second movements to the point where they could be performed in public. (The third one ought to go a little faster, now that she’s got two new techniques to incorporate.)

Yesterday I wrote about the ways in which problem-solving is the process of going from guessing to knowing — and, as promised, today I am going to share two problem-solving techniques that are helping me get to “knowing” a little more quickly.

At least at the piano.

(L thinks they could apply to the rest of life as well.)

These two techniques can technically (pun intended) be categorized under the same header and/or umbrella:

Avoid passive learning.

(You can reframe that as “learn actively,” if you’d rather focus on the positive.)

Here’s the first technique I’ve been using to solve piano problems:

Every time you repeat something that isn’t currently working, decide what you want to change on your next repetition — and then evaluate whether or not you actually changed it.

I initially wrote “improved” instead of “changed,” but switched it back because not all changes are necessarily improvements. You might think that the reason a particular piano passage is still unspecific/unsecure/uncertain is because you’re using an inefficient fingering, for example — and maybe the first alternate fingering you try isn’t an improvement at all, so you try a couple different ones until you find something that works for the passage you’re trying to learn.

Or, maybe you try a few different fingerings and then decide that you’re pursuing the wrong solution to the problem.

You get the idea.

(L swears all of this is applicable to more than just piano.)

The part where you have to ask yourself “did I actually implement the change I said I would” is also important. Especially when you’re working through something over and over and over. It is so easy to get into a kind of dogged repetition, where you tell yourself that if you just do the thing enough times, it will improve on its own — and it’s also easy to get into the kind of automatic repetition where you play something five times in a row and then think “wait, wasn’t I going to focus on making sure I didn’t switch to the second finger at the end of that chromatic run” and realize you completely forgot to do that.

So.

If you are able to change, improve, or reinforce something every time you approach a section of whatever piano piece you’re working on — and I don’t mean “every day,” I mean “every single time you play it” — the entire learning process accelerates tremendously.

Which is good, because the kind of sustained focus required to make these decisions, adjustments, and evaluations is difficult to maintain. I have to actively work at avoiding automatic repetition, and although I’m getting better with practice (pun intended, again), there are still plenty of times when I stop myself and say “Nicole, you played those last two repetitions without thinking about them at all.”

On the plus side, focusing on what you’re repeating often leads to fewer repetitions. That is, you can clarify and specify a section of music after five or six actively focused passes, rather than twenty-five dogged repetitions that might yield some low-hanging-fruit improvements but might also reinforce sloppy playing or generate a bunch of uncertainties and incorrectnesses that you’ll have to unlearn later.

Essentially, you’re spending the same amount of time at the piano but less time, like, touching it.

Instead, you’re putting that time into thinking about what you’re going to do next.

And when I decide what I’m going to do next, I write it down.

This is where L and I differ — he argues that part of strengthening your memory is holding all of that stuff in your memory, and I argue that the only way I’ve ever remembered a thing is by writing it down first (even though I nearly always memorize it immediately afterwards).

I mean, I literally had that sentence written down in my notebook as part of the outline for this piece (even though I didn’t need to refer back to the notebook when I was writing the blog post).

But that was going to be the second technique I was going to tell you about, and although “write it down (if you’re into that kind of thing)” seems much less impressive than “every time you repeat something that isn’t working, identify a change and then identify whether you were able to successfully apply the change,” I stand by my initial statement that both of these problem-solving techniques are helping me expedite the process of going from guessing to knowing.

At least at the piano. ❤️

(Now I’ll finish reading this to L and wait for him to tell me that it’s really about everything.)

One thought on “Two Problem-Solving Techniques That Might Be Applicable to More Than Just Piano

  1. L is wise (he partnered with you, didn’t he?). The principles you laid out here, slightly more generalized, are part of what I learned in project management class back in the 1980s. And project management principles (not what software to use, not what ISO standards to implement, not what letters come after your name) come down to “What is the problem we are trying to solve; how do we solve it; have we solved it yet; is it still solved, or do we even care anymore.”

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