"Beethoven would surely have forgiven us for not reaching an apotheosis of performance in his piano sonatas – the question is, can we?"

Applying the concept of mindfulness to the piano, author Mark Tanner explores the crucial connection between mind and body: how an alert, focussed mind fosters playing that is more compelling, more refined, and ultimately rewarding. In this excerpt from his book The Mindful Pianist, Tanner considers the ‘curse’ of perfectionism and how pianists can move past this restrictive mindset…


The curse of perfectionism

"It is always worth considering the following question as we set out to learn or relearn a piece: just how good does it need to be? This is not a facetious question or one designed to build in a let-out clause even before we have started. The answer surely reflects the end goal – is it to perform in a high-profile recital, to succeed in an exam, or perhaps simply to enrich our own personal grasp of a particular style, with no immediate performance outlet in mind?

Surely the answer to this question should be allowed to influence what happens next. Let us start with two extremes. A concert performance of a piece is (in most eventualities) the opposite of a sight-read through it – the former will require endless hours of thoughtful work, while the latter amounts to an immediate seat-of-the-pants experience in which there is hardly any time to learn from mistakes, let alone correct them. When we sight-read something tricky we expect there to be imprecisions galore – we shrug our shoulders and accept them with a smile, or at least partly, as we have come to recognise that a broad survey is not only acceptable but in many cases inevitable.

We do not permit ourselves this degree of largesse when we perform of course, and I am not suggesting we should. However, the time it takes to achieve an acceptably solid performance of a Mozart Sonata will for most of us be only a tiny percentage of the time it would take to achieve a recording or live performance of the same piece1. The choice becomes starkly simple: within a comparable timeframe we can either achieve partial success with a dozen sonatas or excellence with perhaps one or two. If we take account of the fact that leaving a piece for a few years can itself produce nothing short of miraculous results – the gestation period may itself have caused our playing to improve – then the trade-off between striving for perfection now or being patient and leaving a piece ‘unfinished’ is less cut and dried. If, on the other hand, we take the wholly opposite, indeed conventional, stance and insist on regarding every putative performance as equally important, then we ignore the palpable truth of a life teeming with other priorities. Attention to detail amounts to so much more than tunnel-vision perfectionism; it should be about piercing the surface of the score and daring to inject into it our own confident personality.

A good solution to this is to make a mental note of the stage currently reached with the learning of any particular piece: ‘busk’, ‘sight-read-plus’, ‘half memorised’, ‘performable (apart from the coda)’, ‘in the bag’, etc. As time is fixed, while our ambitions usually are not, we need to learn how to allocate our practising optimally. This may require us to leave some of our learning incomplete, unready for public consumption – perhaps forever.

If we can be compassionate with ourselves, accept this minor transgression and move on in our lives, we will have turned an important corner in determining our position in the musical world. Beethoven would surely have forgiven us for not reaching an apotheosis of performance in his piano sonatas – the question is, can we? Perhaps we have become so accustomed to thinking in terms of failure or success in learning pieces of music (I am thinking about exams and the other ‘measurable’ benchmarks) we cannot abide the thought of leaving unfinished business. But unless you happen to be John Lill,2 the likelihood is that you will never have a vast library of concertos at your fingertips for a performance at the drop of a hat, so perhaps it would be better, on balance, to learn to live with this reality, rejoice in the two-and-a-half concertos you can play acceptably well, and resolve to be calm about it."


1 It is not uncommon to encounter pianists whose sight-reading ability is excellent, but whose ‘final’ performances never seem to get appreciably better; any tendency to over-invest in certain areas seems likely to result in a deficit elsewhere.

2 John Lill’s concerto repertoire apparently stretches to beyond 70. Lill is a British pianist, born 1944, who performed Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto aged 18 under Sir Adrian Boult.