You’ve just been assigned a brand-new piece of repertoire, and you’re excited to get started on it, so you open up Youtube. You search the title of your new piece (a standard in the literature), and the first video has millions of views. It’s in 4K HD, and the piece is performed immaculately… by a 6-year-old.
Suddenly, your inspiration is replaced by shame, questioning, and reevaluating your worth as a musician. How have I been studying for years and can’t play like that? What does this kid have that I don’t? Have I just been wasting my time? You resolve to practice harder, dedicate more time to your instrument, and hope that if you keep pushing, you’ll make up for lost time.
This sequence of events is something I am far too familiar with. Though I can’t speak for all musicians, every adult piano student I’ve ever taught has shared this experience. Finding inspiration and value in your work as a musician can be difficult when it seems like musical skill and talent come so easily and naturally to everyone except you.
So, you lock yourself in a practice room, keep your head down in your music, and again, hope that if you just fit in enough practice today, tomorrow, and this weekend, no one will know that you’re behind—that you don’t quite have what it takes—that you’ll make up for what you’re missing with your passion for practice. After all, “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” right?
Throughout my nine years of university piano study, I have experienced this sense of urgency within myself and amongst my peers when learning new repertoire and progressing as a musician. I’ve seen pianists walk out of their theory class just to break into a sprint to claim a practice room over someone else. I’ve seen others set up camp in practice rooms, living in that room for hours (sometimes practicing, sometimes sitting on their phones…). But if we’re in the practice room, we’re worth something as musicians, right?
I’ve seen multiple ensemble performances, filled with skilled musicians, that were abject failures purely because their sense of urgency (either individual or influenced by a leader) pushed them to choose too difficult repertoire to learn in too little time. I guess they’re just not good enough, right?
If you said “wrong” to any of these things, I’d be the first to admit I’m guilty of all these offenses, so I know firsthand just how unhelpful and uncomfortable this mindset can be.
When I teach beginner pianists, one of our big goals is to have a successful first performance they feel confident about and proud of. There is no timeline for this—if a performance opportunity comes around and they’re not ready, they won’t be playing. This is because the most important thing to me about their first performance is how they feel about it. I want their relationship with performance to be one of sharing their hard work and love for music—not one of nervous-fueled uncertainty. It’s great to push our students outside of their comfort zone, but it’s necessary to weigh the cost.
Why is the importance of how we feel as performers so often superseded by a power deemed more valuable? This might be the prospect of getting another premiere under your belt, a masterclass with a famous musician, pressure from a teacher, or just a general sense that it’s what we “should” be doing by watching everyone else around us.
I am writing this to remind every musician at any level that there is no right or wrong timeline for your progress. I’m sure we all “know this,” but I’m not sure we always practice or model it for others. If you’re not ready, cancel the performance. If you need more time, take that time. If your teacher or conductor asks too much of you, please tell them. Your experience as a musician is important. I say this having been on both sides: I don’t want to watch or listen to a performance by a musician who isn’t confident and whose performance is fueled by self-doubt, urgency, and shame. So please, step out of the practice room, breathe some fresh air, and know that music will be waiting for you right where you left it when you return.