Problem-Solving Series

You Have to Practice Playing

Nicole Dieker knows that she is using the word “play” in the way that other people might use the word “flow.” She has read Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow all the way through, twice, and thinks she might be referring to something slightly different. Let’s discuss in the comments.

On Friday, I played the first, second, and much of the third movement of the Mozart for L.

“That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen you do,” he said (and he’s seen me do a lot of incredible things, in case you’re curious). “You were absolutely captivating.”

“I was playing,” I said. “I was keeping my focus on the music and the moment and what I wanted to do with each moment.”

And then I said “It’s so incredibly hard.”


You would not think that you might have to practice playing.

Playing is supposed to come naturally, right? Something about spontaneity and freedom and not having to think about anything else but what you’re doing in the moment?

Well — you can already see what the problem is.

I don’t know at what age “not being able to stay in the moment” becomes a problem. I suspect it’s different for everybody, and it may have something to do with various intersections of nature/nurture, security/insecurity, household stability, maybe even birth order (I remember when I realized that part of playing with my younger sister meant monitoring the situation to make sure she was enjoying it too, for example).

It could also be that children don’t stay in the moment any more than adults do. We only think they do, because it seems like a pleasant thing to think.

But the idea that children know how to play and adults forget how is not a complete untruth. I remember playing the kinds of imaginative games, with my sister and my best friend, where it felt like the rest of the world fell away — you might remember me writing about it in The Biographies of Ordinary People, the idea that the bed was actually a boat and our dress-up clothes were actually princess garb and so on.

I also remember having that feeling when I played certain types of video games, mentally translating the 8 and 16-bit graphics into fully realized visions of Toroia and Narshe and Hyrule.

And, of course, reading. The easiest way to make the rest of the world fall away, as every bookish child knows, is by reading.

And then, at some point, the rest of the world gets complicated enough that it no longer falls away on its own.

But it can be pushed away — just out of focus, if you’ll forgive the pun — if you know how.


I still can’t always play — really and truly play — for the length of an entire piece. Either the mental load creeps back in (remember you need to take the salmon out before 4, remember you need to go down into the basement and see if you can find your frog box, remember you need to make copies of all of your tax documents) or I start evaluating my own performance, which is just as bad.

Which means that, in addition to practicing notes and articulations and fingerings, I am also practicing the very act of playing itself.

Building my focus, and training myself to quickly regain focus if it starts to drift. (You can daydream for a good 30 seconds without realizing you’ve started doing it — and I’d like to get that down to one second.)

Right now, the best way I know to maintain focus throughout an entire piece is by literally thinking about each note in turn. How do I want to make this sound? How does it need to connect to what’s come before it and what’s coming next? How can I make sure my audience hears every note in this trill as a distinct event, and not a blur?

It feels a half-step shy of playing (when you’re for-real playing, everything else falls away, including your active internal monologue) but it’s getting me closer.

And when I do manage to play a piece, in the way that I played for L last Friday, it is in fact incredible.

For both of us. ❤️

3 thoughts on “You Have to Practice Playing”

  1. I love this whole piece, but had such a specific moment of resonance with this idea about the playing of individual notes. The best piece of comics lettering advice I ever received was not to think about it as writing at all, but as drawing each individual letter. The letter itself becomes a picture, rather than a signifier. When I’m not being mindful while lettering, decades of training take over and I begin to write. My letters slant and run together, I move faster but with less clarity, and so on. It requires SO MUCH discipline to stay present with at one-letter-at-a-time experience! I love seeing that mindset reflected in your practice.

    1. OH WOW that is brilliant. Each letter as a picture, rather than a signifier.

      I am going to steal that when I think about music (and when L and I practice our drawing, since we are still determined to learn how to draw).

  2. Thank you for sharing the reminder as well. It reminds me of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi idea of entering the “flow state” which can feel so transcendent, but can also be a rare experience for the “busy mind.” Thank you for this share!

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