Focus vs. Feelings

I want to share two videos with you.

In both videos, I’m playing the second movement of Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts. This movement is titled “Allegro,” which means it could go fairly quickly if you wanted it to — but in the first video, you’ll note that I ended the movement by saying, spontaneously, “that’s way too fast.”

Pretty much everything in that performance was spontaneous, from my decision to start the piece over from the beginning (because I moved too fast and played a wrong note) to my decision to leave out a few of the notes at the end (because I was moving too fast to play them all).

I’m calling that one the “feelings” version. More impulse than control, as it were.

Here’s the focused version:

I told L that I took this one 20 percent slower, but I think it’s actually 40 percent slower if I did the math correctly; the “feelings” version took 50 seconds and the “focus” version took 70 seconds. Both still count as allegro, which translates more towards lively than it does towards fast.

But really, the tempo at which I took the “focused” version doesn’t matter at all. The tempo at which I took the “feelings” version only matters because I played the piece too quickly to play it accurately — which had everything to do with the fact that I wasn’t focusing on playing it accurately.

I wasn’t focusing on anything, really.

I was just playing. Feeling. Being!

Isn’t that what we’re all supposed to want? To let go and play and feel and be?

Well… go watch those two videos again.

(I’ve watched them several times.)

In the “feelings” version, I am clearly dissatisfied with my performance — and say as much, at the end. During the performance, I am physically tense; my fingers get stiffer, my wrists get tighter, and my neck (though you can’t see much of it in the video) gets a whole lot scrunchieder.

This is a beautifully presented example of how guessing takes more effort than knowing. “Letting go,” in this case, involves a whole lot of hanging on.

In the “focused” version, my fingers, wrist, and neck all remain relatively relaxed. I am in control; my whole body is saying “I’ve got this.”

And I do. It’s a clean, competent, musical performance.

Here’s the question: Does the “focused” version suffer from a lack of “feeling?”

I really want to know your answer — because mine is no, it doesn’t, but my opinion might be skewed.

It’s also worth noting that any feelings associated with the “feeling” version were along the lines of “wheeeeee!!!! whoops!!!!!! wheeeeeeeeee again!!!!!! wait wait wait it’s going too fast!!!!” It wasn’t like I was creating any kind of significant emotional experience to share with an audience; the feelings, as they were, were entirely self-directed and self-absorbed.

That said, there were zero feelings associated with the “focus” version. All of my energy was directed towards playing the piece as accurately as possible. I wasn’t trying to communicate a specific emotion, nor was I absorbed in my own emotional response to the piece.

I was, ironically enough, just playing.

And this pure, focused play might give an audience what they need to ascribe their own emotions to the piece, rather than getting stuck in “wow, she looks tense” or “wow, she’s taking that really fast, it almost seems like it’s out of control.” (It’s worth noting that when L and I watch a technically-accurate pianist on YouTube, we start talking about how the music makes us feel; when we watch a technically-inaccurate pianist, we start talking about how that person could have done a better job of problem-solving.)



So go watch each video a dozen times and tell me exactly what you think.

You know I can take it. ❤️

(also, clever readers will notice that let this post run ALL DAY LONG before I realized that I had mistakenly labeled this particular Stravinsky movement “VIVO” instead of “ALLEGRO”)

(vivo is a totally different movement)

(I’ll play it for you later)

On Weak Spots

The reason I started playing Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts again — well, the reason doesn’t really matter, but in the interest of transparency I’ll tell you that I was thinking about entering an amateur piano competition that I knew was totally pay-to-play (that is, the “competition” aspect was much less important to the event than the “money collected from every entrant” aspect), and L and I had talked about avoiding pay-to-play stuff and only focusing on events/conferences/competitions/gatherings that were associated with the pursuit of excellence, and I was still considering entering this competition because it would force me to produce/polish/record a certain amount of repertoire by a specific date, and I figured I could quickly produce/polish the Stravinsky because I used to pull it out as a showpiece when I was in high school — anyway, I recently started playing Les Cinq Doigts again, and it made me think about how much work I did to learn the piece twenty years ago and how much work I didn’t do.

Because each movement has at least one “weak spot.”

A problem that I never got around to solving because I didn’t know how to address it; maybe because I tried a few ways of addressing it and none of them worked, maybe because I was in a hurry and the rest of the piece was good enough, maybe — and very likely — because I was able to articulate the passage accurately 7 out of 10 times and I was willing to play those odds.

The first movement of Mozart K332 had a weak spot that I spent much of last week attempting to solve. There are a few weak spots in Ravel’s La Valse that I am currently working through. I will diligently apply everything I’ve got to the weak measures in the Stravinsky, because the best time to learn a piece of music is twenty years ago and the second best time is now.

But that’s not the point of this blog post.

If it were as simple as saying “well, just practice those weak spots extra-hard and extra-disciplinedy,” then we’d all do it. I mean, if all it took to learn the most complicated measures of a tricky piece was an extra half hour here and there, those measures would get learned. (Even high-school-aged Nicole understood that half hours were currency that could be exchanged for results.)

The problem is that the weak parts, even after you think you’ve done what you need to do to learn them, don’t hold up under pressure. Even though I think I’ve “solved” those 16 measures in the first movement of the Mozart or the one tricky left-hand bit in the seventh movement of the Stravinsky, I know that half of what I’ve tried to solve will fall apart the instant another problem presents itself. The weak spots are the first to go when you’re tired; when you’re stressed; when you’re distracted.

When you don’t practice them every day.

When you don’t give your biggest weaknesses a bit of specific, focused attention before playing the entire piece.

(You’ve probably figured out that “the point of this blog post” has nothing to do with Stravinsky.)

It absolutely astonishes me that I continually forget to be mindful even though I spend part of every day literally practicing mindfulness.

With, like, practice charts, and a reward system (even though I know that the reward for an all-green week is feeling really good all week long), and time built in to reflect on what I’m doing and how I could do better.

It’s just that no matter how much I want to change certain behaviors, I still find myself in situations where I get going too fast — and I stop thinking about making the best choice in the moment and I just start reacting to things.

This happens all the time when L and I play La Valse together, except when it’s music you can say “hang on, let’s go back and take it a little more slowly” and when it’s the rest of life you have to say “I’m sorry, I spoke more hastily than I intended to.”

L has said — I mean, many piano teachers have said — that once you really know something you’ll be able to access it in a variety of suboptimal scenarios. This isn’t the same thing as “you’ll be able to play it perfectly no matter what;” it just means that you’ll have this knowledge to draw from even while other parts of life (ringing phones, sleepless nights, the realization that you and your duet partner are playing this particular section of La Valse a little faster than usual) are attempting to draw you away from it.

Which means I haven’t really learned how to be mindful, not any more than I’ve really learned Les Cinq Doigts.

I can make the kinds of choices I want to make 7 out of 10 times, which is certainly better than 5 out of 10, but reacting instead of acting is still a major weak spot. (There’s a reason why I’ve written three separate posts on overcorrection in the past two weeks.)

And I wish it were as simple as saying “hang on, I want to take this a little more slowly,” and maybe it is, except the problem is that I always say “wait wait wait I need to slow down and think” right after I do the thing that I didn’t want to do (or re-make the mistake that I thought I had learned not to make anymore).

I have just now gotten to the point, with my piano practice, where I stop myself when I’m going too fast even if I’m playing everything well enough so far — because I know that weaknesses always optimize for speed, and because I know that I won’t be able to solve the problems I want to solve at the tempo I’m currently taking.

I want to learn how to do that in the rest of life, too.

And that’s the point of this blog post.

It may be the point of this entire blog. ❤️

Chopin Work-Showing

Turns out making that to-do list yesterday was a very good idea… I’ve already memorized the two pages of Ravel, polished the 16 measures of Mozart, studied my grandmaster chess game, and recorded a bit of Chopin to show you what I’ve been working on lately.

As a point of comparison, here’s the last time I recorded the Chopin (on February 15):

I need to write more about everything I’ve been doing re: practice techniques, but I don’t have time at the moment.

Luckily, I put “write about practicing” on the to-do list yesterday — which means I’m going to try to make it happen later this week. ❤️

On Overcorrection, Part Two

I promised you a second post on overcorrection, so I feel like I ought to come up with one —

And I was almost going to tell you this story about an overcorrection I had been making, and then (thanks to my own thinking and writing about the subject last week) decided to no longer make, and the problem resolved itself with awareness+gentleness+time (as I knew it would) rather than the quick fix, better-WORSE-better-WORSE swings that would probably have happened had I tried to overcorrect in the way I usually do.

Except that story involves my bowels, and nobody wants to read about my bowels.

But you might want to read the response that writer and lawyer Pia Owens sent me after the first overcorrection post went up: “I was hoping you would say don’t worry about overcorrection, it’s normal and you’ll overcorrect in the other direction and eventually come to an equilibrium.”

I do agree that overcorrection is either normal or typical, even though I dislike using both of those words in this situation because I’d like to imagine a world in which overcorrection is not the automatic and/or expected response.

Because I don’t think that overcorrecting in one direction, and then overcorrecting in the other direction, eventually gets you to an equilibrium — I mean, it might, but it won’t be the equilibrium you want.

Figuring out how to go from unspecific, impatient, results-based swings to specific, patient, solutions-based adjustments is what gets you to the correct equilibrium.

It’s really the “problem solving is the process of going from guessing to knowing” thing again.

So personal finance, since that is the easiest example to start with:

Overcorrection looks like this:


*cutting all discretionary spending forever reveals itself to be completely unsustainable*


Yes, the two overcorrections do in fact cancel each other out and you will eventually reach what you might call an equilibrium.

Except that kind of equilibrium just puts you back where you started.

The kind of equilibrium you’re looking for requires a change — in your habits, in your behavior, and quite possibly in the way you think about yourself and the world around you.

A long-term, sustainable change that helps move you closer to the goal you’re trying to achieve — or the person you’re hoping to become.

Here’s another example.

There’s a tendency, when two people approach a situation that they know might lead to conflict, for a push to be followed by either a push back or a pull away.

You can visualize this one, especially if I tell you exactly how to visualize it:

Two people, standing in front of each other and staring eye-to-eye.

One pushes, and the other pushes back — or maybe one pushes, the other pulls away, and the person who pushed reaches out to pull the person who pulled away back into the discussion.

Either way, these two people swing precariously back and forth, overcorrecting in one direction and then another. They might do the whole anger-anger-anger-anger-“let’s agree to let it go” thing. They might do the anger-apology-resentment thing, which will no doubt lead to a rehash of this argument a week or so down the line. They might even do the anger-apology-“let’s agree to let it go” thing, which sounds like it’s a winning scenario because you end up reaching equilibrium, but it’s an equilibrium that puts you right back where you started.

Your problem hasn’t been solved; it hasn’t even been addressed, not seriously. Your relationship hasn’t grown; not in the way it could if one or both of you agree to stop glaring at each other and start, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it, “looking outward in the same direction.”

Or, as I put it earlier this year: The only thing that is real between two people is what they create together.

That kind of co-creation requires awareness, time, humility, openness, and a shared agreement to look for solutions rather than results.

It’s the correct path, not the overcorrect one — and it will lead to an entirely new equilibrium, if you let it.

When I read the first draft of this post to L, he said “they’re going to think we’re fighting.”

We’re not. Our days are pretty much golden, from beginning to end. (I often joke “Time for the best part of the day” whenever we switch from something we love doing, like drinking coffee and tea together, to something else we love doing, like playing the piano together.)

But we are working, both of us, on figuring out how to get to the truth of things — which is almost as important as getting to the truth of things.

Tonight, for example, we’re going to talk about when (or how often) we should play through the piano duet we’re learning (vs. practicing, woodshedding, solving problems). Does playing before you’re ready reinforce mistakes that you’ll have to unlearn later, or does it give you the opportunity to do a high-level assessment of the piece and take notes of the parts that need the most work? Is it a good way to practice listening to each other, or does the fact that part of your brain is stuck on “I’m still guessing my way through this section” make it impossible to listen to each other?

We don’t see eye-to-eye on this, which means we’re probably not looking at the same thing.

And I am delighted to see what we discover together, because we’re probably going to come up with some way to change what we’re doing that will get us closer to both “our goal of learning La Valse” and “the musicians/duet partners we want to become.”

(I’m also delighted that I found an example of correct vs. overcorrect from my own life that had nothing to do with my bowels.)

It makes me wonder if choosing the correct path (vs. the overcorrect one) is easier when you’re working with someone you trust and/or love.

Maybe I’ll write about that later this week, after L and I have taken some time to test the theory. ❤️

Monday Morning Meditation

There are two difficult things about practicing, which is to say that there are two difficult things about problem-solving.

The first one is when you don’t know how to address the issue in front of you.

The second is when you do, but for whatever reason — lack of focus, laziness, the desire to take shortcuts — you do something else instead.

Often, with the piano, the “something else” is “playing it over again, exactly the same way you just played it, and hoping that it will get better without your having had to try to make it better.”

Without your having had to put in any work, as it were.

Except playing something over again feels like work, it is worklike — and, because guessing takes more effort than knowing, actually draws something out of you.

You’re trading your energy without getting the results you want.

And, often, without asking yourself whether it’s a fair trade.

Knowing what to do, knowing the actions and choices that will lead you in the direction you want to go and then choosing and taking them, is harder.

First because you have to know what those actions and choices are, which is a problem-solving issue in itself.

Then because you have to take them. As they stand — that is, as they have been proved to work — without trying to shortcut or overcorrect (which is in itself a shortcut, since you’re trying to get more result than the time/action/choice allows).

It requires a level of awareness that is difficult to sustain, unless you are simultaneously doing the work of sustaining that awareness in the rest of your life. If you make choices that you know will lead to a night of indigestion or poor sleep, for example — or if you fall out of sync or sorts with someone you love because you’re not paying attention to what the two of you are creating together — it will make the next day’s work that much harder.

It also requires enough awareness to know when it’s time to try something new. To go back to the question “do I really know how to address the issue in front of me?” and see if you come up with a different answer.

You know that none of this is just about the piano, of course.

It could very well be about personal finance.

It could — and absolutely is — about love. Not to say that “love is problem-solving,” because I don’t believe that shows up anywhere in First Corinthians, except no, wait, it does, “love rejoices with the truth,” and if there’s one thing about being aware and present with someone you love, it’s that it gets you as close as possible to the truth of things.

L will like that part, when I read it to him.

I’m going to write about overcorrecting on Tuesday, since that seems to be the issue that is most likely to get in the way of my addressing other issues (at least right now).

Until then, I’m going to leave you with this — which is to say that I am going to leave me with it, like a meditation that I will carry with me when I do my yoga and have breakfast with L and sit down at the piano and then sit back down at my desk.

Stay aware, my love.

You know what has been proved to work and what has been proved not to work.

You also know that there’s always the possibility of proving something new — to either work or not work — which means today could be interesting.

Or, as I will tell L when I read this to him, “it already is.” ❤️

Dancing Through the Day

Nicole Dieker will award 10 Art History Points to anyone who can successfully identify the sculpture in the header photo.

I didn’t actually skip Tuesday’s blog post.

I mean, I am technically writing a blog post on a Tuesday.

It’s just too late in the evening to publish it today.

Here’s what’s been going on:

I’ve been spending the past — I was going to say past week, but it’s really been most of March — trying to figure out what my circadian and creative rhythms actually are.

In part because I want to know when it makes sense to eat and write and play and rest and practice.

In part because I want to figure out how to fit everything I want to do, and everything L and I want to do together, into a single day.

In part because L and I have started seriously digging into La Valse, and the time for that has to come out of somewhere. (All of the water in Archimedes’ tub has gotten displaced, as it were — but at least we know that what we’re working on is gold.)

But also — but most importantly? because I want to start thinking and acting like a peak performer.

(As in Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.)

This is actually something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Every morning, when I start filling out my Daily Spreadsheet, I ask myself the question I borrowed from James Clear: What do I want?

On September 9, 2020 the first day I added that question to my spreadsheet, coincidentally enough I wrote “to train myself like an athlete.”

I think what I really meant was to take care of myself in a way that allows me to do my best work.

Which really means to take care of myself in a way that allows me to be my best self.

The nap stays.

The coffee can stay because it’s too good to set aside, but only half a cup.

The wine stays sharing wine with L is one of my favorite things but only half a glass (which is all you’re really supposed to pour in the first place, something something aeration and noses and legs).

If freelance work gets frontloaded to the very beginning of the day, it goes not only faster but better. My writing is considerably stronger at 10 a.m. than it is at 2 p.m., which means I shouldn’t waste a pre-lunch word on anything that isn’t a paying gig or an absolutely essential email.

I also shouldn’t waste a second of my piano practice time on anything that isn’t direct problem-solving, using the methods that L and I have discussed and that are known to work. (More on this later.)

I need time spent without the influence of other minds, as Cal Newport puts it, but I also need to bring other people’s thoughts into my life. Mostly through books (fiction and non-fiction) and in-person conversations. Otherwise, as it turns out, I get overwhelmingly self-absorbed.

If the food thing, the sleep thing, and the exercise thing are all balanced, I’m not only a better writer and musician, but also a better person. The goal of self-care, after all, is less indulgence than it is equilibrium.

And maintaining this equilibrium isn’t just for my own sake. I want myself to be the most important thing so it can also, simultaneously and paradoxically, become the least important thing.

So that my life becomes play, instead of work.

And that I am able to play, and be present, with everyone and everything around me.

L and I were talking, the other day, about the similarities between what I am trying to do with my life and what we are both trying to do at the piano. It really comes down to the process of going from guessing to knowing, in both cases; understanding, for example, that a good meal for me is roughly 1 cup carbs (fruit, homemade bread), 1/2 cup protein, 1 cup vegetables, and 1/4 cup fats (cheese, nuts, chocolate).

Veer too far over or under those amounts and I don’t have the energy I need to be present. I start thinking about myself and my discomfort (too hungry, too full) instead of everything else I could be paying attention to.

Now I’m trying to get to the point where I know when to write and when to work and when to rest and when to connect. The same kind of energy balance, only with activity instead of food.

Like any learning process, there’s a lot of work that has to be done until you understand what’s going on so well that you can start playing. To dance through the day, as I said to L earlier this evening, instead of keeping one eye on the clock.

This is actually what we were trying to do at the end of last year, if you’ve been following the blog for a while.

This time, we may be more successful.

I should write, sometime, about learning to dance with L.

As creative collaborators who spend nearly every evening discussing how to improve our writing, our music, our freelancing, and our teaching; as pianists playing La Valse; and as partners who are building a home together — both for ourselves and to share with the people we love.

The thing about dancing is that it goes so much better when you know the steps.

The other thing about dancing is that you can’t really learn the steps unless you learn them together.

So when I say I want to take care of myself in a way that allows me to be my best self, I’m also saying we should take care of us in a way that allows us to be our best selves — and our best us.

And it took us a hot minute (as the kids say) to figure out that we’re much better at playing La Valse together in the afternoons than we are in the evenings — and we’re much better at curling up in our respective chairs and writing our respective insights into pedagogy and discipline and specificity at the end of the day, when we’ve already learned what we need to write down.

Which is why I’m writing this on Tuesday and giving it to you on Thursday.

And, by the time you read this, I’ll have already written what’s coming next. ❤️

Ravel’s La Valse, 22 Days of Practice

Here I am with 22 days of practice on Ravel’s La Valse (the Garban four-hand arrangement, prima part).

This represents not-quite-22 hours of work, since I’m also using my morning practice sessions to learn Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 12 in F major, K. 332 — but I’m also counting the time L and I are putting towards putting the duet together, so just-under-22 hours is a fair estimate.

Everything you hear me play is memorized, though I’m pretty sure I’m taking the piece more quickly than it ought to go.

By “pretty sure,” btw, I mean one hundred percent sure. Trying to play a piece at tempo is one thing, but now I’ve done that thing and I need to go back to my detailed, disciplined problem-solving work.

Which is where I’ll start on Day 23. ❤️

On Peak (the book) and Creative Peaks

Nicole Dieker has already reconfigured and improved the schedule she writes about below. Go read this update.

I’m writing this post a little later than usual.

About eleven hours later, give or take — because when I look at the clock in the corner of my laptop, it reads 9:08 p.m., and I generally write my blog posts between 11 and noon on weekdays.

(I mean, it’s still a weekday.)

The reason I’m writing this so late in the evening is — and part of me wonders if you even care, if it even matters, if I even ought to tell you, and the other part of me knows that I have to tell you because it’s going to be a huge part of what L and I do next — the reason I’m writing this so late in the evening is because musicians work evenings.

So do writers, although they don’t have to. Plenty of writers are early-morning types, and when writing was the only thing I was doing I trained myself to be up at dawn and at my desk at 7:30, with a full hour of personal writing done before I started my freelance work.

It was a schedule much like the one that Valerie Reed Hickman wrote about, yesterday — except I didn’t read poetry before I started writing, and I probably should have.

I’m not reading poetry per se at the moment, though L and I have been reading Shakespeare aloud to each other. In fact, I had a whole thing on Shakespeare and specificity that I was planning to share with you today (by which I mean tomorrow, when you’re reading this) but I’m sharing this instead.

Because I’ve also been reading Peak.

As in Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise by K. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.

This is my second time reading Peak, and it’s a completely different read after you’ve spent half a year putting its principles into action.

The principle that I am currently putting into action — well, there are two of them, and one of them comes up every time I teach my How to Develop a Writing Practice class (btw, I teach writing classes, you should take them).

It’s time your creative work to your creative energy peaks.

If you’re a morning lark, see if you can get in an hour of writing before you start work. If you’re a night owl, see if you can get in an hour of writing after you finish everything else that needs to be done. If you’re one of those rare birds who is most creative in the late afternoons, see if you can squeeze in some writing between your workday and everything that comes after.

It’s interesting that so many of us are at our most creative precisely when so many others of us might want to be sleeping — which brings me to the second principle I’m putting into action.

The one that never comes up during my How to Develop a Writing Practice class.

It’s musicians take naps.

Technically, it’s the best musicians take naps. Ericsson and Pool have data on this.

There are two reasons why musicians take naps. The first is that musicians work evenings; often very late into the evening. The reason why the best musicians take naps, however, is because sleep helps to move knowledge from local storage into long-term storage.

And if you sleep twice in a 24-hour period, you get two chances to store what you’ve learned.

You also get two chances to practice and learn something new.

You can, obviously, practice twice without taking a nap in between. It’s better with the nap. But since your choices limit your choices (which is still one of my favorite blog posts, go read it) taking a nap means reconfiguring your schedule to accommodate the nap.

In my case, it means practicing first-thing-in-the-morning, then completing all of my freelance work, then napping, then practicing again.

Then going for a walk and/or lifting weights.

Then having dinner with L.

Then doing something relaxing and restorative with L, like watching YouTube videos or reading Shakespeare to each other.

Then sitting down with L and having a third practice session, this time the two of us together, because we’re learning an eleven-minute piano duet and so far we only really know about thirty seconds of it. (We still have a lot of work to do before the entire piece goes from guessing to knowing, starting with learning and memorizing the entire piece.)

Then writing this, which is what I’m doing now.

I know that it seems like I change my schedule all the time, because I do in fact change my schedule all the time. If you went and read that piece I wrote about how your choices limit your choices, you might notice that two years ago I went to bed at 9:30 p.m., earlier than it is right now, so I could get in a creative writing session before my freelance workday started.

But musicians work evenings, and writers (thank heavens) can do their best work in the morning or the evening as it suits them.

And it suits me just fine to write at 9:30 p.m.; I mean, I wrote nearly all of The Biographies of Ordinary People during that time slot, and of the three novels I’ve written in the past five years, Biographies was the only one that got published.

The other two, the ones that were written at 7:30 in the morning, got trunked.

That’s a data point worth considering — perhaps my true creative peak wasn’t when I thought it was — but it’s late, and I’m going to go kiss L goodnight, and I’ll see you all tomorrow.

By which I mean today. ❤️