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Advice on Getting Better from an Accomplished Piano Player (2011) (calnewport.com)
492 points by davesque 34 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 156 comments



Some of this advice echoes that in Fundamentals of Piano Practice by Chaun C. Chang.

https://fundamentals-of-piano-practice.readthedocs.io/en/lat...

Chang precisely recommends the same thing: don't just practice by going through pieces from beginning to end repeatedly. Being a scientist, he quantifies that with efficiency arguments, which are along these lines: if a five minute piece contains two-bar difficult passage, then you can only practice that passage twelve times in the span of one hour. If the passage is only ten seconds long, you can practice it twelve times in just two minutes, which is 30 times more efficient.

One tools is to use a metronome to find the stress passages in a piece. Without a metronome, we hide the stressful passages by slowing down subconsciously.

Set the metronome at a baseline rate at which you can play everything. Then gradually crank up the speed. Then the stress points show up: passages where you fumble.

Chang makes astonishingly clever observations about speed. Basically, speed has two extremes that are easy: very slow, or super fast. It's just as hard to slow down from high speed playing as it is to speed up slow playing. The initial argument he makes is that there is no faster way to play three notes than to just hit a three note chord with three fingers, which is easy, and "infinitely fast". Moreover, it is basically easy to slow down from that "infinite speed" a little bit; if we hit the chord so that the fingers are staggered slightly, we will play a fast arpeggio. A really fast run of notes is like that: hitting groups of notes in this manner, and changing the hand position in between those groups.


One tools is to use a metronome to find the stress passages in a piece. Without a metronome, we hide the stressful passages by slowing down subconsciously.

It's striking how one's self-perception can be faulty this way. I've had this sort of thing pointed out to me by a bandmate, years ago, using a tape recorder and a metronome. It's like I was in a Sci-fi time-distortion, not because the tempo change was that large, but because it was so invisible to me without the recording and metronome!


Effects of metronome are quite insane. Even physically, as a faux drummer, playing with a stable time reference allows for so much more regularity you can be physically efficient, meaning more relaxed, less exhausting music playing (basically energy optimization). Then there's the mind massaging from perception of time .. Having a metronome is almost like a trance device.


Tempo is also one of the best expressive devices for performance. The mind massaging works in reverse! Lots of great choruses bump the bpm significantly, and the prevalence of recording and performing to click tracks has made it rare to have the kind of fluidity that you can get without them. You want to be able to manipulate your internal metronome expressively. I'm not a drummer, but definitely something to work on for every musician.


the prevalence of recording and performing to click tracks has made it rare to have the kind of fluidity that you can get without them.

Performing to a click is not nearly as lifeless as a hard-quantized MIDI production without live instruments. Sure, it may not have drastic tempo changes like a drummer who isn’t listening to a click, but it still has human variation. Making MIDI programming sound convincing and realistic is not an easy task


" Sure, it may not have drastic tempo changes like a drummer who isn’t listening to a click, but it still has human variation. Making MIDI programming sound convincing and realistic is not an easy task"

Not knowing anything about music at all I've wondered about this a few times. Isn't it just a matter of adding some stochasticity from an appropriate distribution? What is it that makes human imperfection different from machine generated imperfection?


At the best of my crappy math abilities, the way we feel about movements (let's say music is a movement) is full of layers of continuity. Simple randomness won't fit the bill IMO.

When I play I think about diffeq and nurbs .. but that's a highly subjective analogy.

Think about what makes a groove or feel. You can play quarter notes that feels heavy metal or funk, just by altering the impact and accent. Also I believe that our ears perceive a lot more than discrete events. A single hit has a duration and is more like a tiny bell curve than a zero width line on a chart. Same for singing, if you hit the right note at the right time nobody will like it, it's all in the way you get there in between, even if you're off a little, the subtleties are there to make it pleasing to our ears.


That is beyond my level of math understanding, haha.

In addition to differences in the performance data (MiDI) versus an audio recording of someone playing a real instrument, I find that MIDI instruments do not sound as realistic as a recording of someone playing acoustic drums or a real piano. Perhaps that is because VSTi plugins usually sample perfect hits and close-miced drums; while a recording of someone playing live drums might have many more imperfections and room noise... I don’t know. It’s certainly possible to program realistic parts with MIDI, but they always sound much more polished to me than real recordings.


https://samplesfrommars.com/products/grooves-from-mars (Free midi groove templates "sampled" from drum machines)

>It's no secret that every drum machine has its own vibe - whether analog or digital, they rush, drag, swing, shuffle, and funk like no other. Some are extremely accurate, and others are completely off the grid. An MPC60 will sequence your sounds like a band is playing them, and the LM1 (responsible for the first sequencer shuffle of all time) will give you that incredible early 80s Prince feel. Whatever the machine, they all have a unique groove.


There are ways similar to what you've described and certainly doesnt even have to be that clever. Just adding a small random offset using uniform white noise helps.

People go to immense ends to get their programmed drums to sound good though - and the techniques that are coupled with this go beyond a statistical approach.


i recommend this article if you're interested: https://www.ableton.com/en/blog/james-holden-human-timing/

tldr: there's been some research into it – turns out that if you have a few parts (instruments), the randomness you add to each of them needs to be correlated:

> "The first [example] has had completely random timing errors inserted [...] with no link between the errors in different parts. The result sounds unmistakably unmusical and inhuman."

someone built a "humanizing" plugin for Ableton Live based on that research.

here's some quotes i liked:

> "[...] the timing of each individual note is dependent on every single note that both players had already played – a minor timing hiccup near the start of a piece will continue to affect every single note after it, up to the last notes. And when you play a duet every note your partner plays affects your playing, and every note you play affects your partner [...]"

> "[...] if everything is recorded together in the same take then quite large variations in timing are no problem – they don't sound like errors, just the natural movement of the music. But if the parts are multi-tracked, or sequenced parts are mixed with human parts, then the timing errors are glaringly obvious, they sound wrong because they are unnatural, and our capability to identify the uncanny marks them out as unpleasant and undesirable [...]"


About the correlation between musicians. I don't know if you ever played drums in a band. But there's such a weird coupling between everybody when the rhythm is solid. A few ms off from the drums and everybody in the room will have a hiccup.


Not related to the content of your comment itself, but congratulations on owning the unique Hacker News comment whose numerical ID corresponds to the YYYYMMDD date of its posting:

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20190615

This is most likely the first and last time this particular fixed point will occur.


I feel so blessed. And proud.. that says something about my ego.


Congratulations! I feel privileged to have witnessed this moment.


Still trying to recreate an os from scratch in a basement ?


For sure. https://gitlab.com/kragen/bubbleos is the current set of OS fragments, but I haven't done anything on it in a while; for the last few months I've been focused on importing my unpublished notes into a book called "Dercuano." You can snarf a copy of the current release at http://canonical.org/~kragen/dercuano-20190610.tar.gz if you like.


Amazing

How did you notice this? Were you expecting that to happen soon or something?


I noticed that the comment IDs were past 20190000 and after that it was easy to find the comment whose ID matched the date.


i think i know the feeling! though i played guitar, not drums


Isn’t this similar to what a groove map in Ableton does?


> Lots of great choruses bump the bpm significantly

Would you mind sharing some examples?


A classic example is Roxanne by The Police. ~132bpm verse, ~138bpm chorus by my rough measurement. You can really feel the rhythm section wind down after the first chorus, which wouldn’t have worked if the guitar hadn’t waited two bars to come in and resolve the shifting tempo with precision jabs right as the band hits the original pace. Great moment.


A copeland example on HN, what a nice day :)


I’ve been watching Rick Beato’s “What makes this song great?” series on YouTube. Highly recommended.


I recently switched to using a metronom when I play live with my band and it changed everything.

When you play live, you are always rushing a little bit, the louder you play, the faster you play.

Now when we play according to our own tempo from our recordings, I really have to concentrate not to start rushing again - but it is so worth it, everything sounds much better in a precise way.


My guitar professor in college would have me pick up from random points in a piece of music at speed.

Another reply on this thread suggested that practicing slow is categorically bad. This isn't true. There is value in not locking in bad habits by being deliberate at low speed.

I had never heard this about playing fast, though. Subjective as it may be, I always abhorred the "shredding" set, because it felt like a cheap trick rather than skillful playing.


I agree that practicing slow is helpful. Certainly helps my drumming quite a bit.

And not only mixing up slow/fast, but loud/soft, too.


Chang claims that slow practice is valuable, just not so slow that you change the "gait" of your motions.

Walking isn't the same motion as running; we wouldn't practice running by walking. But not all running practice is a sprint.

He says that it's a mistake to learn pieces too slowly and try to speed up from there precisely because of this "gait" issue.As you speed up, you have to unlearn the wrong motions that do not work at full speed and replace them with different ones.


I find it helpful to play the big phrase choreography—the shape of a phrase, making it a physical gesture with big muscles, actual exact notes be damned. Then add in notes, making it gradually more precise. But for anyone to say that slow practice is a mistake ever is just nuts! Slow practice is how we find hand and arm shapes and angles, how we listen to the sound- esp. for a non button instrument like cello. A musician who really stretches themselves toward greatness tries all the gaits at all the speeds and all the choice emphasis and every wacky thing they can think of to find something of truth in the music. Sometimes we improvise something harder and easier. A great musician is their practice- they are as fascinating as their practice methods- and the practice should be fascinating. The thing is to find one’s own method, not to do anyone else’s method. If one reaches for artistry in music, their practice must be innovative, stylistic, nimble and responsive to everything: training for flexibility. Training for facility is more like what is mentioned here- not bad, but if you want computing, computers are better suited!


As you speed up, you have to unlearn the wrong motions that do not work at full speed and replace them with different ones.

I don't know about piano, but at least in my experience with electric guitar the key to playing fast was to decouple the "gait" from speed by reducing wrist movements and using the elbow more.


economy of motion works wonders, but even then sometimes there are positions which have the same economy but may be dramatically easier at speed, and you need to play closer to tempo to learn that.

Sometimes it's even better to trade away lots of small adjustments to avoid one big one, because you can't hit the big one at tempo.


a lot of drummers are particularly atrocious at low tempos. me included.


Hah, that is an excellent book. I remember it pissed off one of my friends who claimed that slow practice is the best way to learn. Glad I didn't listen to him, I use these techniques when learning all kinds of stuff.

Glenn Gould practiced by playing fast: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=qB76jxBq_gQ


Glen Gould also practiced by playing slowly and very slowly and so on. He practiced by singing and not playing, and yes by playing at speed and as has been mentioned as something bad... he practiced pieces sll the way through for hours on end


How can people find these stress passages in skills that are more mental and have less discrete external feedback?


I would guess that e.g. in writing, for example, you'd have to find a way to iterate quicker (attempt writing short articles as practice rather than longform), and set bounds on yourself that induce strain (limiting yourself to not edit anything at the first pass until you finish, having a draft worked on for a very long amount of time?) and reviewing every pass you make to see where you could have improved.

I may be wrong though.


Can you unpack this for me?


Like an activity that isn't playing piano. Chess, maybe. Or writing. How do you find a "stress passage" in writing?


Easy. What sort of writings do you put off the most? Do you fail to write replies to text messages but find yourself easily jumping into long threads on message boards? Or do you put off formal documentation in favor of a series of short notes? What are you not doing? That is what you should focus on, by deliberately going out of your way to put yourself into situations that require you to do it more.


Guitar virtuoso Shawn Lane offers another approach, where you attempt to learn very difficult passages by jumping right into it at the correct speed.

The idea here is that, by slowly speeding up, you end up using low-speed mechanics on high-speed passages and it doesn't always work. It's not for the faint of heart, but if you find yourself struggling it's certainly worth trying.


Yes. Good music teacher will highlight passages to practice, rather than asking students to keep repeating the full length.


> If the passage is only ten seconds long, you can practice it twelve times in just two minutes, which is 30 times more efficient.

Your example timing makes me suspicious that this is a theory you haven't actually tried to put into practice yet.

Ten seconds is an eternity for a drill of a difficult passage. For an amateur, that's almost guaranteed to be too much music for them to isolate the difficulty. That means instead of a success rate of 100% on the drill they'll get something considerably less. For an amateur, "difficulty" usually means they were already playing it wrong before they began drilling it. So any mistakes in the drill help reinforce the initial muscle memory for that passage. That makes it extremely likely that they'll repeat the same mistake when you add an audience and nerves.

Drilling passages that are too long does at least decrease the chance of the player losing their place-- they have practiced starting at various spots that aren't simply the beginning. But they are only "30 times more efficient" at playing the piece with an unnecessarily high error rate.


A fast arpeggio is a complete different motion than playing single notes and also completely different motion than playing a chord.

Therefore a chord or arpeggio is not a fast scale. He is comparing apples and oranges.


The guitar games use these metronome training methods and are very effective.


What an amazing resource. Thank you for sharing.


Looking at it again, I'm taking more notice of the piano tuning chapter which I totally forgot about. I've done some piano tuning not long ago; I will re-read that in the light of my experiences.


My experience is that the choice isn't "playing for fun" vs "deliberate practice" it's "playing for fun" vs "not playing". If practice is fun, I'll do a lot of it and get better. It's not especially efficient practice per hour, but since I do a lot of it it helps a lot. If practice is not fun I just don't play, and I don't get better.

The advice in the article is probably right for people who want to be the very best, but probably wrong for most people who might read it.


> If practice is not fun I just don't play, and I don't get better.

But what if your goal is to be one of the greatest pianist alive? Then we have to dissect what is "not fun". There are moments of neutral practice, or "monotony", which is what I think the article touches on. The idea that sometimes, practice can feel more like a chore than a pleasure. The article speaks about in this context, you have to push through the negative (or apathy) to continue practicing.

Last year, I had the privilege to attend a seminar in Aikido where two individuals were awarded the rank of godan (5th degree black belt). In our organization, the minimal amount of time required to be eligible for the rank is just over 18 years (and the requirements are increasing next year). One of the individuals spoke about how Aikido and training was much like a marriage - sometimes you enjoy coming to class, sometimes you hate it, and sometimes it's neither feeling; however, much like a marriage, good times or bad, you have to continue working on it.

I've spoken on here before as well about the element of discipline/perseverance/grit in terms of improving oneself. Angela Duckworth has studied the effects of grit across multiple fields, one in particular was grit in cadets at West Point. Higher levels of grit were more likely to complete the program and good leaders were more likely to have higher grit scores.

"Fun" is still a loose, ill-defined term. You can have fun being pursuing a task for leisure or for mastery.


In piano notes by Charles Rosen, he has a different viewpoint. Professionals should be those people who physically can not stop themselves from the act of playing. If you aren't obsessed with the act of touching your instrument, in his view you won't have what it takes to continue drilling and technically improving. For Rosen, who I'd say is a tad over serious, fun doesn't matter to professionals.

After playing 20 years myself, I must say I'm not nearly as obsessed as the 5 or so pianists I know who play for a living. I play folk and pop, classical I'd say is merely a hobby to me, therefore I'm a scientist in my day job.


great musicians always enjoy practicing- it is like making something new when done properly. If they arent enjoying it, they know they must get creative about it— otherwise it’s mindless.


True, though I'd still say the individual day-to-day practices can sometimes become dull. As you mention, this is where I think a lot of "fun" activities form - experts looking to spice up a particular activity. I like to train some kata by going as slow and precise as possible, then as fast and reckless as possible, THEN settling for normal speed.


This is not the argument this article is making.


I think you may be forgetting point in your history where you needed deliberate practice to get to where you are now. If you only ever choose between not playing and playing for fun, you will never get better. The transition to playing only for fun is the point where improving is now left to chance—not that you completely stop growing, but you become more entrenched in your existing practices and your skills crystallize at their current level.

The saying goes “practice makes permanent”.


This feels alien to me. As I play for fun of course I try new things, and keep expanding what I can do. That's how I've always learned music. I think I've even done my fastest growing while playing live for dances, which is probably the most "fun" and least "deliberate practice" there is!

You're speaking in very strong terms, as if we really understood how people become good musicans, but I think we really don't understand it and people take many different paths.

(My background: I started on guitar at about ten, switched to mandolin at about twenty, have always dabbled in other instruments, and at this point my main one is probably piano. I play in two contra dance bands, https://kingfisherband.com and https://freeraisins.com , and mostly play for dancing.)


Piano skills are specially not permanent.

Some stuff remains for sure, but you lose a lot after a couple of years of not playing.


Really? Never heard of this even it makes sense. But could they come back like cycle skill?


I've heard this from a couple of concert pianists in my family, and I've dabbled a bit myself too. Basically lost my 3-4 years of playing after a while. I can still play scales and chords, more or less, but I've tried learning again and struggle even with basic pieces.


I am way better at practicing things I wanna do. I stink at learning shit I am not enthused about. Here's a thought I had earlier today...

I hate going to the gym. I just don't like it, and that makes it hard to get good at it. I can make myself go, that lasts 1 to 3 months, I eventually hurt myself because I was to cheap to invest the resources necessary to learn proper form, I take a couple weeks off, lose all my progress, and get stuck on the fact that the same cycle is gonna have the same outcome, and I just stop going.

I love going to handstand classes. I see the same small group of people most classes, I know most of them by name, and for some reason I like working towards handstands. It have been taking these classes for 6 months, and my progress is slow for reasons (discipline, bi-lateral radial head replacement, weak starting point), but I love going. I spend the time necessary to learn the body awareness I need, and I get private lessons when I get stuck on learning something harder.

I highly recommend not bothering with exercise choices you think you have to do, and seeking those you wanna do.


if the practice is not fun, in the sense that it’s compelling like a great book or a great game or a great conversation, then 1. it isn’t effective practice 2. you wont want to do it- great practice is for everyone


“I, and the other strong students in my department, did practice less than the weaker students,” he said.

This is quite misleading. -Locally-, it might be true that weaker students practice more than strong students, to compensate for their weakness. But on average, great piano players practice much more than mediocre piano players.

It's easy to find examples, but I'll name two that I found in my first two Google searches:

Lang Lang (virtuoso classical pianist) - 6 hours a day Oscar Peterson (virtuoso jazz pianists) - 6 hours a day

I'm --certain-- this is the norm, not the exception.


Agreed. I simply do not believe they practiced less.

I know a couple technical folks who are smoking good at their instruments, and basically said:

"Look, I spent time in <strong musical program> as an undergraduate. One group "has it"--they're the elite. I'm in the second group. I'm practicing my ass off, and I'm not deaf. I'm gaining some ground on the best in the second group, but it's REALLY slow as they're practicing their ass off, too. Maybe I can reach the bottom of the elite group after 4 years. Maybe."

"Or I can get a CS degree. And still play my instrument. And get amazing gigs simply because I am more than good enough and am always available when a cool gig comes up since I don't have to worry about money."


Maurizio Pollini still practices like crazy- lots of hours. More than I do! (he is way better than I)


Sviatoslav Richter has some amusing comments on this, even though he did not intend to be amusing. He states in his notebooks that he never practiced more than three hours a day and that he kept accurate records of his practicing, which clearly demonstrated this. He then added that (of course) travel days in which you don't have access to a piano, sick days, etc. all need to be made up for. So, while he practiced more than three hours, on average it was not more than that.

There then appears a footnote in the notebooks by the editor stating that even with this correction, his friends', colleagues', and the editor's own experience of Richter suggest he practiced way more than that.


Perhaps he delineates between practicing and playing? Maybe his friends conflated the two?


Indeed, Al DiMeola is another example. I used to do 6 hour practice sessions with some regularity. What you practice during that 6 hour session matters, however. If you "play" for 6 hours, you can't call it practice. They're quite different.


6 hours a day is plenty for a professional working musician, since they’re going to be performing, dealing with students etc. Serious students will do up to 10 hours a day tho.


>10 hours a day

I would hope they are spending many of those hours reading instead of doing the physical exercise.

In my experience playing, after only a few hours, I stop getting any better. I need sleep to solidify my understanding. Although I'm a 15 year amateur music player.


I don't know if I would say "avoid flow" but "working on what does not come easy" is definitely a thing I found important in my journey from "kid who likes to draw" to "ex-animator". Whenever someone asks for advice on breaking art block one of my suggestions is to go draw something they hate to draw.

This attitude became ingrained enough that when I was taking pole dance class later in life, my instructor noticed that, unlike most beginners faced with a new move they were having difficulty with, I'd make myself spend time experimenting with it instead of falling back to refining earlier basics I was more than good enough for at that stage of my practice. It's a good one to have, IMHO.

And I sure as hell have found ways to complicate my work as time goes on. Constantly doing stuff I can knock out in my sleep gets boring; challenge is fun.


> "kid who likes to draw" to "ex-animator"

There is an interesting book in there somewhere.



That's one very unfortunate connection, I read that article before. Ugh.


Good advice for getting better at playing classical piano. The kind of practice described in the post is really good for honing precise technique. I question the extent to which it's applicable to creative work generally, as the post claims.

The kind of piano playing described in the post doesn't actually leave much room for creativity. You're playing someone else's music. You have a bit of freedom to vary emphasis and tempo, but good luck winning competitions while getting creative with your own melody, harmony, etc. If we treated painting the way we treat classical music, we'd have competitions to see who's the best at paint-by-numbers.

If you want to become a better writer, composer, painter, programmer, etc., technique is relevant but not the same thing as getting more creative.


Doesn't every creative endeavor require some technical proficiency? This advice is about how to most efficiently acquire that proficiency. Until you do that your creativity will be constrained. As Clark Terry said: "Imitate, assimilate, and innovate."


Yes, but the case is wildly overstated. You don't get to be Bukowski or Palahniuk by reciting Shakespeare over and over.

EDIT: Or to put it in the article's own terms, is there any reason to believe the top piano student at the university is doing better creative work than those other students who were playing their songs start to finish? For all we know they were composition majors, and they'd already achieved the technical proficiency they needed to express themselves creatively. The kind of practice advocated in the post is very narrowly focused on very specific technical excellence that's way past the minimum you need for creative expression.


Hunter S. Thompson wrote of "writing Faulkner" and other authors he admired. He'd sit at his typewriter and copy entire passages from books. He felt it helped him understand the writer's thinking, their rhythm and creation process.

If you want to be a great improvisational musician, you still (especially) need to be studied in music theory and common works, to know how good music is constructed, and what people expect to hear.

If ever there is a great musician or other type of creator who says they are not familiar with and have not studied the works of their contemporaries and lineage, they are lying.


Did he figure out the most difficult passages for them to write, and the accompanying pause and stare into the uncompleted page?


I agree with this view. Technical precision only goes so far, and it's very easy to tell the difference between a performance that is technically precise but essentially lifeless, versus one that is also technically "precise enough" but "works."


It's specifically about practicing/drilling. Which is definitely important to musicianship. The article doesn't even suggest musicians ought not to enter a "flow" state when performing.

I'm not sure how important it is to programming. While I know some younger coders who "practice" and "drill" programming problems, this is pretty foreign to how I've learned to program (over a couple plus decades). I've just... programmed. No shade, whatever works. But as a kind of aside, I'm curious how many programmer readers of HN do "practices" or "drills" of programming (and what stage of your career you are at; even the most expert musicians have to keep practicing and drilling. I think expert programmers just... produce programs).

(But I did find this article enlightening and I predict useful to my amateur musicianship! It's not a bad article at all. I'm just not sure how applicable it is to computer programming -- which it does not claim to be, but I assume is why it was posted on HN -- I think they are very different skills and practices. The muscle memory/physicality aspect of musicianship just doesn't apply to programming I think).


I think being a musician and programmer both require practice. As a musician, I would practice a lot of mechanics - producing the desired sound in a specific way every time. When practicing programming, I personally (and suspect most) would practice certain elements of mental recall. In some cases that would translate into a mechanical memory (vim and tmux key-strokes in particular for me). But I sometimes also force myself to not use IDE shortcuts (or copy-paste) when I am trying to learn a new library or other programming paradigm. For example, I thought learning how to do "Pandas Python" after being fairly proficient in normal Python (and general programming) was hard in making that mental model shift. But I would learn ("practice") by forcing myself to type things that I could have copy-pasted. I think the key is to be aware of what you personally require to become proficient at something. My programming practice methods might not work for everyone, and I know a lot of people who seem to instinctively "get" a new programming process. As you say "I think expert programmers just... produce programs" - this is the best place to be in! You are subconsciously "practicing" but it is wrapped up in your daily life that whatever worked to become an expert has become a habit and is no longer the burden of "practice."


I definitely agree with avoiding copy-paste. I always type tutorials - I guess it's part muscle memory, and partly because you have more time to think, but it definitely sticks better when doing that. And you usually get to see a few new compiler errors on the way :)

In a previous job I was transcribing letters from a requirements document into a program to generate nicely formatted PDFs. Officially, we were meant to copy and paste them to avoid typos. Unofficially, I always typed them and picked up a lot of errors that the clients were happy to fix. And they usually looked fine when I was just reading them with shallow focus.


The programming equivalent of "just playing" is watching conference talks on youtube, or writing code in a language/framework that you're already super comfortable with. These things are good for you, but they won't accelerate you as quickly as learning a new language, working through a challenging book, etc.


I find it highly applicable when you're approaching a new domain or skill you're not proficient or even familiar with, or when handling complex systems that you shouldn't mindlessly touch without forethought.

You don't deal with those by just winging it, there's a deliberate process you apply to get yourself into these things, and more often than not, these deliberate processes are not your state-of-flow stuff (e.g. heavy research on a subject matter, writing documentation before working on a large feature, etc.)


If I’m working on a specific algorithm, I’ll drill it. Setup a test rig and test my assumptions. I’m often wrong about a lot of things, and playing around with something in isolation is great practice.

For example, when learning ant colony optimization, I started with a naive approach. Then I tried to see if I could estimate an ideal termination condition. Then, researched known methods and refined my approach. Then looked at ways to optimize, refactor, specialize for different use cases. The hours I spent would be considered excessive to some, but far more effective than writing something that works and moving on.

As a result, I’ve used ACOs to model NPC swarm behavior for ground troops that respect mutual collisions, multiple openings, and group behavior that looks very convincing with minimal computation cost. It never would have occurred to me if I only saw it as a graph path optimization technique. I can also with an ACO from memory.

I do similar things when learning new languages. Start with something and focus on interactively refactoring it to be as idiomatic to the language as possible. For hybrid languages like Scala & Ocaml, I try different approaches and try to solve in as many ways as possible.


The only time I've ever "practiced" or "drilled" was when I was getting ready for interviews. This was as much as anything so I could get used to writing code on a whiteboard (although I actually typically just wrote out on paper).

Definitely do some serious practicing when I'm trying to learn a difficult piece of music, though.


When I was a student, I'd practice writing various search/sorting algorithms by hand to remember them in my free time (even after the tests) but reality set in where I don't need to be able to actually code these on the fly, so I stopped.


the author invented a definition of "flow" which is different from another common definition which roughly means "getting in the zone" and the result is dangerously clickbaity imo

i do my best work when i'm in the zone and it has nothing to do with whether the work itself is challenging or not. in fact, the more challenging something is, the easier it is for me to stay focused if i feel like i'm making progress


I don't think this contradicts what the author is saying.

The claim boils down to this: you will do your best work in a state of flow, but you will improve your capabilities faster outside of it. Flow is great for productivity but not for changing how you do things.

At a handwavy level at least, it seems to be true in my experience. It is certainly true that not all practice is equivalent, and you can put a lot of hours into "practicing" something without making any real progress in your skills.


Flow requires difficulty that correctly matches skill. If it's too easy, it isn't a state of flow. Rather, it's just coasting on autopilot. Flow usually equates to deliberate practice.


   flow usually equates to deliberate practice.
I don't believe this is true at all. If it's too easy, sure, that's not flow. But same is true if it is too hard. Deliberate practice intentionally and introspectively focuses on changing your approach. If done correctly, I think this will easily break flow.

Deliberate practice is never relaxed - but flow can be.

To reference the OP, there was discussion of intentionally focusing on and making the difficult parts of a piece harder as a form of practice. That doesn't bring flow, but allows the flow state later when you play the piece "for real". I think this generalizes well.


No, the kind of state of flow you're mentioning lacks the necessary consciousness for it to be deliberate practice. The emphasis on deliberate: you can either focus on executing over a period of time (flow) or focus on being mindful about how you're executing things (deliberate practice). Sure, there's an overlap, but I think the concerns you'd have to deal with each are completely separate from each other.


What do you mean when you say “flow”? I think your idea of flow might be quite different to mine.


What you're describing is more aligned with the thesis of the book "Flow"...namely, that flow occurs when we are at the outer cusp of our capabilities. In other words, when the task is difficult enough to be challenging but not so difficult as to become frustrating.


I can't speak to the relative merits of flow vs. (what's the opposite? self-consciousness?), but I can testify that the vast majority of musicians practice dumb. They just recite, or jam; they don't target the hard part, or new ideas, although they might say they know they ought to -- and more cerebral work like ear-training or learning the combinatorics of music theory (mapping the possible chords and scales, and ways to combine them in serial or parallel) aren't even on the radar.


My partner is a professional pianist and she very definitely repeats the hard parts - over and over and over - until they're fluent.

This isn't rocket science, and it is something professionals are taught to do.


I think there is considerable value in the "dumb" repetitive mode of practicing a musical instrument. In my experience, it's pretty much the only way to commit guitar scales and shapes to muscle memory. This is particularly vital to playing fast or improvising. My guitar instructor (who was a phenomenal player) talked about playing blues licks over and over again "to get them into your fingers."


While I agree that it has its place, I'm opposed to over-reliance on muscle memory. I believe it restricts you to what you've drilled, even to the exclusion of very close neighbors.

But I'm also not trying to play extremely fast. If my goal was recital rather than composition, I would use it more. My recordings[1] are mostly total improv, free jazz, with a vocals track (later deleted) that states what chord changes are coming up, and then improvise over the first instrumental track while listening to the chord announcements.

https://soundcloud.com/jeffrey-benjamin-brown


I'm nothing more than an amateur musician but I had the chance to study with Charlie Banacos and one of the things Charlie emphasized was avoiding relying on muscle memory.

All the exercises I received from Charlie forced me to be consciously engaged in the act of playing- never outsourcing things to muscle memory.

I think that largely this was to avoid falling into mechanically playing over changes and to be actively engaged in thinking about the music at the moment it was happening and responding to it creatively.


> what's the opposite? self-consciousness?

Flow (as defined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi) is between frustration and boredom because either the activity is too difficult or too easy.


As a musician myself I must say that flow isn’t important for practise, much more important are breaks

Going at something for 3 times half an hour with hours in between is more effective than going for hours straight. And this kind of focused time method also works well for programming. With programming it is harder to decide where to put the break.

Breaks don’t mean you have to do nothing, you just have to do something that is mentally different. When I take a programming break, making music, soldering or reading is quite a good programming break.


As a distinctly mediocre, lazy and easily bored amateur pianist, I've found that selecting the right pieces for building up technique makes all the difference. I only play for my own enjoyment, not to perform a specific repertoire to a concert standard, so I cannot bring myself to practice scales, arpeggios, Hanon/Czerny and the rest. The best suggestion I've ever found is just playing the Chopin etudes (and the Godowsky transcriptions of them, if you can). They are just the right balance of being of immense technical value while still being musically interesting, lovely to listen to and cover almost the entire range of piano technique that exists. Furthermore, each etude is targeted at a particular aspect of technique, so it is easy to pick something that suits your particular needs. For instance, I'm learning op. 10 no. 4 right now [1] in order to strengthen my left hand and improve wrist flexibility at speed (the curse of small hands), and the improvement is palpable, even with very limited practice time.

The other thing I would say is that it really helps to have a goal to drive you. I quit playing piano for a decade and the only reason I came back to it, built up what little technique I had and persevered was because I really, really wanted to play a particular prelude by Rachmaninov, even though it was way out of my reach at the time. Finally learning it after a year or two of fairly hard work was very rewarding.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_eyiPKPO2U


As a (jazz) piano student myself, I am happy to see "To Master a Skill, Master Something Harder."

Pianist and YouTuber Nahre Sol has a great set of exercises based on modifying passages of Chopin etudes, which serve as excellent material to study both as a template and in their own right. [1][2] She varies harmony and rhythm, and takes the exercise through all 12-keys. Much harder than just learning the passage in the original key, but that's the whole point.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xYfgJVm1Ns [2] https://flatfiv.com/products/piano-technique-intensive


Anyone apply deliberate practice to software development? I would be interested to hear applications.

I can imagine data structures and algorithms and coding competitions, but I've always struggled with the concept of drills for improving skills as a software developer.

Would love to hear ideas from others.


Old time programmers often wrote everything down before inputting it and engaged with their code instead of with tests and the debugger. Not to say tests and the debugger don't have their place. Here's the handwritten sheets for the Algol 58 compiler that Don Knuth wrote in assembly for the Burroughs 205.

https://archive.computerhistory.org/resources/text/Knuth_Don...

He's famous as a programmer who got things right the first time. And that's been consistent over his career. A lot of what's in there is obsolete, but notice that even in 1960 he was doing something on paper like the literate programming that he developed later.


That's just because you had to program on punch cards and run your progran over hours to see if it worked. Now its faster to just run the tests and see how it went rather than spend ages reading the code trying to spot issues.


A lot of novices think that, but it turns out that there are many problems that are easy to find by code reviews that are hard to find by testing. (And vice versa — testing is very valuable, especially with things like Hypothesis.)

I'm skeptical that the scope of things you can get working at all by mindlessly banging on tests without thinking about the problem is very large, and when you add other aspects of the software development lifecycle, your prospects seem very slender indeed. If reading your code takes "ages", how are you going to figure out how to extend it next week when you need to change what it does? How are you going to debug it when it crashes once you put in production?

I have written compilers in a somewhat test-driven fashion, and I am especially skeptical that you can purely TDD a compiler. Certainly I've never seen it done. I'm far more skeptical that you could TDD a compiler written in assembly language that achieves the kind of performance this scenario implies. (But tests, especially regression tests, are extremely valuable for writing compilers.)

The particular compiler we're talking about here was one Knuth wrote during a summer-long road trip for US$5500 (roughly US$120 000 today). So the situation was actually considerably more extreme than you're imagining — not only did he not have punch cards when he wrote the compiler, he'd never seen the computer. So he had to spend a few months debugging it after he actually finished driving to the other side of the continent where the computer was.

https://github.com/kragen/knuth-interview-2006#27---writing-...


In 2019 you could build a compiler in your free time for free so that probably says something about modern development practicices.

I have been working on my current codebase for almost a year now and still haven't seen half of it. There is no just read over it because its massive. Tests are the only thing that makes it manageable. When I want to change something I can find the part that needs to change but I have no idea what features I don't know about that depend on that feature doing something. Tests allow me to very quickly automatically scan the code base to show what things changed.


Knuth had previously built a couple of compilers in 1957 and 1958, as you can read in the interview I linked, but it's sort of ambiguous as to whether it was "in his free time" — his job gave him and his friends access to a computer but I don't think writing compilers was declared to be part of their responsibilities. It wasn't for free, though. I think what that says about modern development practices is that we have cheap computers.

I agree that tests are very valuable for the reason you describe, as well as for other reasons. What codebase are you working on?


I take a deliberate practice to improving my programming abilities.

I improve my typing speed with http://www.speedcoder.net/

Every time I hear a concept I don't know I make a flashcard and quiz myself daily. I also have a collection of problems to keep myself challenged, some are interview questions and others are common patterns.

Here are public decks for Python: • General Python - https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/1394656023 • Coding challenges - https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/223286091


Anki! Terrific little program.


I think the small problems in something like hackerrank type of websites can be great practice - if you can find good ones!

I used to do regex crosswords, which really helped me cement my reading ability of regexes and in term writing ability.

I think programming is closer to writing than playing piano. The types of exercises that writers do to get good are to rewrite, reread and rewrite.


Whenever I code something moderately challenging, I come back and do it again, and maybe again until it’s good and proper. I love history rewrite in mercurial.

The code gets better, but the business outcome remains unchanged so it may look like waste. But it’s not waste - the micro skills acquired in the exercise accumulate.


I do this with cooking, kinda, let me know what you think.

1. Make the thing from a book, verbatim, change nothing

2. Synthesize a new recipe from 3-5 recipes, changing stuff at will, but within the range for each ingredient

3. if excellent: goto 2; else: goto 4

4. Continue to make this dish, using this recipe, from feel until the output consistency is always delish

Being good means being creative and then being able to consistently hit the required output quality.

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times.” -- Bruce Lee


It makes sense to me - you get both deliberate practice and creative practice. I don't know if it's the best, perhaps someone who is good at cooking can provide a more informed opinion.

I was also told that cooking from good ingredients is easy, the hard part is figuring out what to cook given the ingredients you have on a given day.


The code gets better, but the business outcome remains unchanged so it may look like waste.

Herein lies the issues for many of us in the corporate world. Unless I am get the rewrite done in the current testing (assuming the feature I'm working on isn't already test complete), convincing the testers to re-test is basically impossible (to say nothing of the project/product managers).


It's waste for the business but good for you


I think I've gradually developed something like deliberate practice as I go along, in that I increasingly approach greenfielding with an "idiomatic muscle memory solution" like "write approximately this style of loop", or "make approximately this data structure", and then start adjusting the outcome of that to fit the true nature of the problem, because that gets me through at least two iterations, while if I just sit at a blank page thinking, I produce code that is usually not really better and still needs adjustment. For some things architecture planning does help, but a great deal of it can be written as a pseudocode comment where i list the idioms i plan to use to address the problem. Often I do that, spot the flaws, and get in another iteration that way without having to go to the compiler. When I'm really stuck I go back to basic philosophy-of-truth reasoning and look for "a set of ideas that are coherent with each other" - one idea being the problem being solved, and the remainder being techniques to apply. Often this process reveals a need for research into unknowns, and hence another source of iterative feedback.

And so if I were to codify all the types of common idioms as if they were scales - which I haven't done - I would be able to drill those, but I suspect that there's a lot of them that are different between different domains of programming, and that's a major source of expertise.

Likewise my approach to naming has seen some iterative improvement, and it's definitely a thing I am training as I go. Names are like comments: you don't really want too many of them in your program, because they can obscure other information. Standardized variable names are great, and dense code is great when you can get it without sacrificing much readibility. I spent a little while evaluating what length of variable is sufficient to avoid collision and maintain readability while getting good density where needed:

1 letter - fine for local variables using detailed mathematics, where each variable is necessarily used in a dense, non-obvious way and it would be reasonable to have an explainer comment.

2 letters - hard to use well. As abbreviations they tend to collide too often to be recommended, and they are hard to recognize.

3 letters - a sweet spot for density and low collision rates, but still often unreadable.

4 letters - sufficient for most abbreviations and many full words.

5+ letters - at this point a majority of single words you would use will fit, and so you may as well consider this as "I am spelling out a whole word", with the next step up being multiple words and phrases, and at that point code density is the main tradeoff being made.

A common naming idiom I practice is labelling array-like values such as min/max bounds numerically, e.g. an axis-aligned box defined with x0, x1, y0, y1. For a while I used "result" as the variable for all returned values, after seeing this idiom in Pascal. Then I realized that I could use "ans" (answer) instead and get much denser code in a lot of instances. It's little things like that, which add up to a pleasant, lower-friction experience.


A little discussion from 2017: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14712361


Interesting, that with the original title, "Flow Is the Opiate of the Mediocre: Advice on Getting Better" the discussion centered more around people getting defensive about Flow.


Yes: titles are by far the most influential initial condition on a thread. It's shocking how deep that rabbit hole goes.


For anyone who wants to get a more in depth look at how to improve at something by one of the leading researchers in the field, check out the book Peak. Anytime I read an article like this or anything on how to improve, the concepts are explained in depth in the book.


This shows that by using cherry-picked examples, you can prove anything.

Elite musicians are all super relaxed and chill? Some are, some aren't. For every story of a relaxed musician, I can find you a super successful one that would literally run from gig to gig on weekends. If you're willing to ignore all evidence to the contrary and willing to use a single study to confirm what you already believe, I guess life becomes a lot simpler. Probably helps sell more of them books, too.

Working on your weaknesses can be good if that's something you've avoided doing and doing so would help you advance your skills. What a weird, confrontational way Cal Newport has of getting a reasonable idea across.

It's one of the infinite number of things that are neither necessary nor sufficient to create "success" or be "elite", because those are largely in your own mind and based on how you feel about what's happened rather than what has happened.


> This shows that with using unrepresentative, hand-picked examples, you can prove anything.

True, but the pianist in the article still makes good points.

> "The mistake most weak pianists make is playing, not practicing." as I understand it, means that the pianist found repeated confrontation with difficult parts was beneficial versus sessions repeating the music in full from beginning to end.

What he says is about seeking mastery first. To be a great musician, first you need to have taste, that cannot be downplayed. If you have the right taste and an idea of what the music should sound like, then there are mostly technical traps you need to tackle to achieve a great performance. The pianist doesn't mean to say that once you have done the hard parts you shouldn't enjoy playing the music in full—that's would be stupid. No great performer ever stops in the mid of a piece and get along with it being great. But it is much easier to find "flow" or whatever you call it, once you have mastery. And one is not exclusive of the other, that's maybe Cal Newport's interpretation or simplification to match the goal of his article.

> "Weak pianists make music a reactive task, not a creative task."

and

> "In performance, weak pianists try to reactively move away from mistakes, while strong pianists move towards a perfect mental image."

ring particularly true and are useful tips.


Exactly, these types of reads are inspiring to people but they mislead people into thinking there is some special "formula" to becoming successful.


The first strategy I completely agree with. Growth happens outside of your comfort zone.

The second and third strategies I don't completely relate to. If it works for you, great.

The fourth I would somewhat disagree with. You need to know where you're going before you start playing but "moving towards a perfect mental image" is just silly. Is this piano player trying to be a robot? There are countless ways to play certain pieces and a lot of the time it depends how you're feeling that day. Play like a human being. This quote by Beethoven is apt, "To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable." I would say the most important thing is to play with passion and to try to stay true to the spirit of the piece you're playing.

Source: my personal opinions after playing classical piano for 14 years.


I've known /met a lot of serious students, some from living next door to Manhattan School of Music, and they all had different advice on practicing. Some had very structured allocations of time, recording all practices and journaling their progress, some said they put their entire being into practicing one tune at a time.

I recommend reading Kenny Werner's Effortless Mastery, which is probably in your public library if you're in a big city, and also the interviews in Wernick/Trischka's Masters of 5 String Banjo, currently going fore absurd asking prices on Amazon and hard to find unless you know a banjo player.


I like this article for what to do in the moments of practice, but for a more complete plan this post that was nested in the OP is pretty important in describing how often and in what manner you should do this.

http://www.calnewport.com/blog/2011/11/11/if-youre-busy-your...


Interesting perspective. The author's basic point is that you should, to quote the article, "Avoid Flow. Do What Does Not Come Easy". This is in the context of playing piano, so it might be a pitfall there. In my experience though, "doing what does come easy" is a reasonably foolproof and enjoyable way to enter flow; but you can still maintain that state subsequently while meaningfully challenging yourself. Your mileage may vary!


I think Malcolm Gladwell or maybe someone similar called this "deliberate practice". The idea is that you can't become an expert by just doing 10,000 hours of practice. The practice has to be pushing you forward for it to count.


Goes back to Heidegger at least if you trust Hubert Dreyfus. Maybe more.

Heidegger at its core is an "antiplatonism of lived experience". I really can't recommend enough reading two very different interpretations of him, namely "Tool-being" by Graham Harman and "Being-in-the-world" by Hubert Dreyfus.

Books are cheap. Get these. Most Netflix shows are bad. Read these books instead for two or three weeks.


I assumed this was going to be about avoiding flow while doing actual work, but this is only in the context of practice and training.

I can see the argument for avoiding flow and focusing on your weaknesses when your goal is self-improvement (and to take the jump from there that it's important to set aside some time to focus on self-improvement), but that doesn't apply when your goal is actual output, which is the majority of the time when it comes to most of our jobs


This is a good point where professional musicians and other performers are in a bit of an unusual position, their ratio of practice to "productive" is pretty unusual in other fields. I suppose (professional) athletes would be another example.


This was a really interesting read, though I would interpret its message more as 'avoid flow during practice and work on the hard things, so during your performance you can focus on your vision instead of constantly thinking about avoiding mistakes.'

It's an interesting counterargument to the 'train how you perform' philosophy.


My piano teacher from Yale recommended me to practice piece backwards and go measure by measure until it's all perfect.


What was the reasoning behind that? Does it help you to play the original piece?


I think grandparent's idea was to first play only measure N, then measures N-1 to N, then measures N-2 to N and so on. Not literally play the sheet music backwards.


Yeah exactly. If you learn a song "traditionally" you have to play gradually longer passages until you hit the part you haven't learned yet. This will make you very proficient in playing the beginning of the song but you will usually always stumble towards the end. If you learn "backwards" then for each new measure you learn, the rest of the song will be easy, since you've already learned it.


To make sure I force myself to practice all parts of the song with the attention each measure needs and complete the piece only if all measures were mastered "perfectly" (i.e. as good as my level at that time allowed).


I was both happy and sad to see a comment by Terry A. Davis in the linked post. For those who don't know or remember, he was the guy who created single-handedly created TempleOS which, like he says in his comment, was inspired by God.

Interesting character, and a shame that he couldn't get the help he needed.


The has sort of mirrored my experience as a guitar player. It took a large initial investment to comprehend the vocabulary and develop the finger dexterity, but now I can learn a complicated guitar solo by focusing on the hard parts with scheduled, deliberate, and focused practice.


Semi-related: Does anybody know any good online tools/apps for learning piano scales and chords?


Although it doesn't have a web browser interface, GNU Solfege is lightweight, comprehensive ear training software. It has scales I'd never heard of, like the Hungarian scale.

Actually using scales or chords is something else again, and the best approach is probably just repertoire - Bach's Goldberg Variations, Bartok's For Children cycle, transcribing Bill Evans, Liszt's concert studies, etc.


I treat playing piano as a creative outlet these days as a small hobby, not profession. Not much different than say, playing video games. I actually have very little interest in becoming better these days, mostly due to forgoing lessons / daily practice long ago.

That said, I’ve created compositions that are really cool on occasional boredom, which is probably something many “accomplished pianists” don’t even do. And that is a lot cooler than performing challenging pieces, if you ask me.

I also don’t think that more challenging pieces actually necessarily sound better / distinct. There are beginner level songs that are surprisingly good.

My music teacher also told me that there’s good and bad practice. If you continuously do bad practice / habits, you get worse, not better.


> To Master a Skill, Master Something Harder.

I like this. It can definitely be applied to programming. For me, my goal at getting much better in JavaScript and Go has taken me to mastering C.


meh, this is called "deliberate practice" which is discussed extensively in the book "Talent is overrated"

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Practice_(learning_method)#Del...


Nice. I'm going to look for some ways to apply this tomorrow.

I hope we see more articles like this.


I have struggled to learn piano for a very long time, and I think that learning to play pieces written by other people is overemphasized in piano (and music in general, with the exception of drums, guitar, and bass) education. Music is like a language, and we owe it to ourselves and our students to learn more about the language of music rather than just reading and regurgitating notes on a page. A better approach is learning words (chords), and grammar (chord scales, chord progressions) or music.

As a shameless plug, I am developing a site to help me learn piano[0]. It's still pretty early; the paywall is there so I can control initial users a bit better (feel free to pay though :P). If you're interested in such things, shoot me an email (check my profile). I'd love to learn more about how I can help the world be full of better music (i.e. helping you be a more awesome musician)

[0] https://musicianship.studio


Yes; improvisation should be taught more, but learning and deconstructing pieces by other people is an excellent way of doing it, in the same way that learning a language is often best done by listening and deconstructing what native speakers have said and written. The key difference is that we should be encouraging people to learn and /understand/ pieces written by others, rather than just blindly learn the notes.


I've played piano over 40 years. By the time I was 25 I played most of the piano repertoire, all 32 Beethoven sonatas etc. That said, let me offer my since advice on how to climb to the top of piano performance. Anyone can do it and this method works but you won't hear about it much and I'm unaware of anybody promoting this method. OK.. Here goes.... I love playing easy pieces. There is so much excellent low laying fruit which everyone should pick. Here are some examples... 1. Bartok - Mikrokosmos (all 153 pieces - play them all, you can do it!) 2. Prokofiev pieces for children. 3. Schumann 43 pieces for children. 4. Bartok 20 pieces for children. 5. Bach 15 inventions and 15 sinfonias. 6. Bach little fugues. 7. The easiest Mozart sonatas e.g. K282 etc. 8. The first 10 Haydn sonatas (partitas). 9. Well tempered clavier - Bach. etc. 10. Select pieces from the French and English suites. ... well you get it.

The whole point is to start small, learn pieces quickly, but most importantly musically. Make music with them. Learn to read from the score comfortably. After a while reading things at sight isn't such a big deal.

The important thing is to learn music is a way that solid skills are acquired. You certainly can focus work on a Beethoven sonata for several months like at a conservatory but I believe this method of learning vast amounts of music quickly is absolutely indispensable. There are a TON of excellent first rate compositions by the best composers, you have no excuse for not mastering them.

The gap between being able to play Haydn sonatas and the Well Tempered Clavier fluently and say being able to work on the "big pieces" is much smaller than you think.

Don't skip anything. Nobody needs to charge in and start playing Beethoven's sonata op. 57 The Appassionata before they've played at least 20 of the easier sonatas.

The other bit of advice I have is to constantly work your memory. Again with simple pieces learned quickly. Most pieces don't need to be memorized and memorizing everything will hamper your development. You do however need to memorize easily and efficiently. It really helps in developing speed and accuracy. Chopin studies mostly need to be memorized in order to practice effectively. That said, I firmly believe you can learn MORE technique playing finales to Haydn sonatas but with a whole lot of energy and spark than slaving away on virtuoso etudes.

One last thing, practicing without pedal (often but definitely not always) is very helpful. It has been for me.

Oops. One more last thing. Play by ear and improvise in any style you like. You'd be surprised how many super advanced classical musicians there are who can't play Happy Birthday at a moments notice without knowing the song at all just to make a group of children happy. This is a symptom of the lop sided skills not to be able to play songs people like whether it's Carol King or Arcade Fire. You should be able to fake something.

TLDR; Picking all the low laying fruit you can find is the one way to success. You get to focus on enjoying the process of actually making music than to struggle with passage work that always comes on its own anyway.

Good luck.


If you can learn one easy piece every day for the next three years, that's over 1000 pieces. If you start small with Bach and play his easiest compositions and play even 1 page per day, in not time flat you'll be playing the entire WTC or art of the Fugue. Obviously, this advice does not suit raw beginners but the "advanced" players I hear struggling with Beethoven and sounding bad, this is exactly the advice I'd give. I'd tell them to play all the easiest Beethoven pieces, pick lots of Haydn. Maybe bring a handfull of these pieces to performance quality but to absolutely be able to play them ALL at least acceptably. Struggling is a bad policy. It leads to stiff unnatural technique. Also, things like trills don't need to be fast. Play trills musically. leave ornaments out the first day when playing a new piece. Add a few in at a time. Make everything sing and dance at the piano. You should NOT be struggling too hard on anything. Also, I can play all 32 Beethoven sonatas but I haven't played op 106 or op 111 in front of an audience. It isn't necessary to do so. I play all the Chopin etudes... at home for myself, to build my chops. It isn't spectacular, but I play them pretty good. Save your best for audiences and only things that are very comfortable. Scarlatti composed 555 sonatas. There is more than enough there to keep me busy and you should you take up my "method".


>I love playing easy pieces.

Yes. And playing easy pieces well enough that other people want to listen is still hard.


I wish more developers wrote code with a mute keyboard.


The title is catchy, but I don't think it exactly fits the article.


Ok, let's try the subtitle.


Answer is simple practice for hours, days, months, years. Have the passion in you.

Personally the desire to express myself through music playing or writing songs drove me to finally get serious about learning/semi-mastering the piano/learn how to play by ear.

The guitar is a much easier instrument to pick up then piano.


Missing from this post is anything about whether the piano player is enjoying the process. The subtext seems to be that we should force ourselves to do hard stuff, whether or not we like it, so that other people will admire our skill.

When I'm doing something I really enjoy, I don't have to make myself do it in a way that's harder -- I already feel driven to add complexity and constraint. If I don't want a task to be harder, that probably means I don't enjoy it, and the best move is to try to get out of doing it.




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