Piano and meditation: short, perfect, frequent practice

  • Practice multiple short periods over the day (10 minutes is ok)


  • Monitor your internal state when practicing, stop when it deteriorates


  • Go to bed early, after having practiced slowly and precisely





When I heard Mingyur Rinpoche, in a talk with Sam Harris, recommend a meditation practice of 5 minutes duration, I was incredulous. How can short 5 (five!) minutes be valuable?


And then I remembered the book "Fundamentals of Piano Practice" by the neuroscientist Chuan Chang. It contains profoundly valuable guides for mentally guided, intelligent piano practice.


The book came about as a private research project, triggered by Chuan's curiosity about the incredibly fast progress that his two daughters made with their old piano teacher Yvette Combe. When young, she had worked with Debussy. The book has by now been translated by volunteers into many languages.


It is remarkably generous that the online version is available for free. Of course, you can also buy a nicely printed and formatted edition. The free online instruction has improved my piano playing by leaps and bounds while bringing true enjoyment to practising.


Of course, as with everything of interest, there is some controversy around it.


I recommend trying some of the lessons out for yourself to see what you gain. I, for example, gained a lot from the chapter on practicing by"playing infinitely fast" through first tackling difficult run passages as chords rather than as runs.


So, here are two pieces of advice that apply equally to piano practice and to meditation (and, probably, to practice of everything):


  1. Practice in short and frequent bursts

  2. Protect the gains


Practising intelligently


Practice in short and frequent bursts

Here is what Chuan Chang says in the chapter on Post Practice Improvement (PPI).

During practice, monitor your progress and quit as soon as a point of diminishing returns is reached, which usually starts after about 10 minutes (sic!)." P 51

He recommends doing this frequently over the day. 2 hours per day should then suffice even for a professional pianist.


And Wangchuk Dorje in "Mahamudra: Dispelling the Darkness of Ignorance" 800 years ago:

"Leave [your meditation] when it is going well. Do short sessions frequently. It is important to train yourself by repeatedly resting in equipoise with vibrant clarity infused with enthusiasm, and then suspending [your meditation] before you become exasperated with it" (MoM p502)

Chuang's advice contains an additional element, that is implicit in Wangchuk Dorje´s text: the self-monitoring of the quality of practice.


Self-monitoring in meditation practice: meta-cognitive awareness

Monitor your progress correlates to the ability of metacognitive awareness in meditation. Culadasa usually calls it "meta-cognitive introspective awareness". It means: don't just practice mindlessly. Always be aware of the quality of your practice. As Daniel P Brown often quotes one of his teachers: "a log sits quietly for a long time, but it does not reach awakening. Don't practice like a log: sit intelligently." Here, "intelligence" is a term used for self-monitoring.


In concentration meditation, for example, check this:

  • the focus, the scope of focus, level of detail (intensity (Culadasa in "The Mind Illuminated")

  • the continuity of focus, and the degree of intensity (Daniel P Brown) with which you familiarise yourself with the meditation object.

In insight meditation, check this:

  • what is the current "base of operation" / view/ perspective from which "I" am - or awareness is - meditating?



Self-Monitoring in piano practice

In piano practice, it is for example important to monitor

  • my degree of enjoyment in practice

  • my degree of concentration (eg, are thoughts going elsewhere?)

  • the number of errors creeping in

  • my goals for the session - do I have some and how are they being met?


A lesson for parents

The previous guidelines point to one conclusion:

Teaching a child to recognize the signs of good practice may be as important as the practice itself.

Of course, this may require parents to let go of forcing the child to practice mindlessly for a long time for the sake of it. 30 minutes can already be too exhausting at times. Sometimes 5 minutes of highly concentrated and enjoyable work is better. Of course, this will not be the path to virtuosity. But it may be a path to constant enjoyment of the piano over a lifetime.


Protecting the gains

"Protecting the gains" is an important overarching principle for both piano- and meditation practice.


In meditation, the goal of protection is to stabilize the gains of each practice session and to speed up unimpeded learning in the next learning period.


Protecting gains in meditation practice

Daniel P Brown's "Pointing out the Great Way" devotes an entire section to Protecting (p. 184).


He uses the musician's practice to illustrate the idea.

"Playing a musical score perfectly one time does not guarantee that it will be played perfectly the next time. Playing it perfectly once at least ensures that the musician knows the proper way to play is to attempt to play it perfectly again. Likewise, the meditator who plays the musical instrument of the Mind perfectly once must then protect what has been learned to be able to do it again" (PoW pos 598)

Many of the specific protection instructions are highly technical; of which the following quote is a high-level summary. In Mahamudra's practice, it is of utmost importance to be able to take on a particular view/base of operation/perspective. A view, for example, is the view described in the ocean and wave meditation.


That is because ultimately, "the view is the meditation" - there is no extra effort in meditating once the view has been set up correctly and can be held uninterruptedly during the meditation session.

Protecting signifies a review period, though a particular kind of review. In brief, the practitioner goes back over the unit of practices, paying particular attention to the view of the mind inherent in those practices. First, the practitioner tries to nurture this view to bring it more into the direct experience in the unfolding mental continuum.
Second, the practitioner tries to protect the practice from going astray or becoming defective (TN, pp. 259–60) by comparing the immediate experience of the unfolding mental continuum to the view imparted by the teachings.

Protecting gains in piano practice: slowing down and sleeping

In this section, I will just name two "protection" practices: ending a practice session perfectly, and having a good sleep quality.


Ending a practice session perfectly: the recency effect

This advice is based on what is known as the "recency" effect of the brain: the brain will remember best what happened first and last. What comes in in the middle, will be more easily forgotten.


It is therefore absolutely important that the piano practice session ends with as much precision, the consciousness of what is being played, and error-freeness as possible.


To this end, one has to counter-act the intuitive approach which is: to start the lesson playing slowly, play faster during practice, and end as fast as you made it in this session. That is wrong advice, although it seems intuitive.


The problem is that playing faster will inevitably introduce errors. And these will stick when the lesson ends! Therefore, one has to play slowly and consciously before ending the practice, so that the mind can follow every detail of fingers and sounds.


Famous pianists are known to replay the repertoire of the evening still the same night, extremely slow, to mentally erase the errors that crept in. Even worse: they crept in during a state of emotional and nervous arousal, and are likely to reoccur next time in the same situation. This is the "state-dependent learning and memory" (SDLM) principle.


Getting enough sleep after practice: laying down the memories

The role of sleep for learning and retention has recently been researched thoroughly. One of the proponents of sleep as a cure-all is sleep specialist Matthew Walker.


Interestingly, Walker became initially aware of the role of sleep through meeting a famous pianist. This old pianist told him about the fact that his learning seemed to continue during sleep. That is something I can confirm. The next morning would inevitably show a better performance. The brain had continued to "practice and clean up" during the night.


This effect is grouped by Chuang under the term "Post Practice Improvement" (PPI), and essentially, his view is the same as that of the world expert in sleep, Matthew Walker.

Like magic, your technique will keep improving by PPI for at least several days after a good practice. The next day, you should be able to play better even if you made little progress during practice the previous day. PPI is the basis for claims by many respected teachers that, if done correctly, you do not need more than two hours of practice a day." (Chuang, Page 51)

The basic advice is, therefore:

Get enough sleep before and after practice

and,

Before going to bed, practice extremely slowly to give the brain the pattern to work towards.

Note: when I made Chuan Chang aware of the similarity of his sleep advice to the statements by Matthew Walker, his reply was:

On Fri, 18 Oct 2019 at 16:08, Chuan Chang <cc88m@aol.com> wrote: THX!!! this type of email helped me greatly to write my book.
 

Resources


Daniel P Brown

"Pointing out the Great Way" (PoW)

https://wisdomexperience.org/product/pointing-out-great-way/


Chuan C Chang

"Fundamentals of piano practice" (free online)

https://fundamentals-of-piano-practice.readthedocs.io/chapter1/index.html


"Fundamentals of piano practice" (printed)

https://www.amazon.de/dp/1523287225/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_glt_i_2NJ5H2TAPSP61CC8P812



Culadasa

"The Mind Illuminated"

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25942786-the-mind-illuminated


Tashi Namgyal

"Moonbeams of Mahamudra" (MoM)

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/40646266-moonbeams-of-mahamudra

This book also contains the quoted book by Wangchuk Dorje: "Dispelling the Darkness of Ignorance"


Matthew Walker

"Why we sleep"

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34466963-why-we-sleep


Voanews

Study shows that Sleep aids Memory

https://www.voanews.com/archive/study-shows-sleep-aids-memory


Sam Harris / Mingyur Rinpoche

Live at the Wiltern

https://samharris.org/subscriber-extras/waking-course-live-wiltern/

(Note : this is subscriber-only content, but you can subscribe free for a year)


Some random articles:


Voanews

Study shows that Sleep aids Memory

https://www.voanews.com/archive/study-shows-sleep-aids-memory


LA Times

Practice and sleep

https://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-xpm-2013-aug-20-la-sci-sn-sleep-music-20130820-story.html


A thought on...