POST PRACTICE IMPROVEMENT

1. There are several levels to PPI. Piano playing at its most basic is movement and co-ordination. It is not intellectual work. So people above (and Chang) concentrate a lot on the “brain” – and by that we immediately assume it is the intellectual brain. But remember that we have several “brains”.

For instance, when you eat, one of your brains (who definitely has a degree in biochemistry) regulates to the minutest amount how much acid must go in your stomach; how how much of which hormones must go into your blood at any given moment. It determines how your heart will beat. How much your pupils will dilate in accordance to the amount of environmental light. And so on and so forth.

Don’t you think this is an amazing “brain”? Even though our “intellectual brain” may have no knowledge of biochemistry, physics or maths, somehow our “instinctive brain” (that is what I have decided to call it) knows about all those subjects. In fact it knows far more that what all our scientists have discovered so far, since all the time we surprise scientists by doing things that according to science at a given moment should be impossible (acupuncture comes to mind – until the 60s was considered superstition at best and charlatanism at worst. Now it is more or less accepted and still not understood). However, for piano playing the “instinctive brain” is of little concern (unless it is not working properly, in which case you die ).

2. Level 1: purely physical. Now I am talking about the sensations and movements. Yes, there is a “brain” that deals with this. And it is not the “brain” in your head. I call it the “motion brain”. It makes sure we move correctly. That we perceive sensorial data through the sense organs and that we act on these sensations. Many animals have only instinctive and motion brains. And they function perfectly well within these limitations. This is the brain that controls typing, driving a car, physical exercise and of course piano playing.

Many people get confused with the instinctive and the motion brain. There is no need. They may seem similar on the surface , but there is a huge difference: The instinctive brain learns nothing. It is born knowing everything it needs to know (think about it: If you had to learn how to make your heart beat you would be dead before the lesson even started). The motion brain on the other hand must learn everything from scratch. It knows nothing. This may surprise some of you, but we have to learn how to see, how to hear, how to taste, how to smell and so on. But because we learned this stuff at a very very young age we get deluded into thinking that this stuff is instinctive, that we were born knowing it. [Here is a side thought: This means that prodigies are not born. They have to learn the stuff]. The motion brain also has a specific way of learning, it will not learn in any other way. It learns only by imitation. Did you hear this piano teachers? It is pretty useless as far as learning to play the piano goes, to have deep intellectual discussions about the meaning of music, or to endlessly analyse the harmony of a piece. This is certainly fun and will add to your understanding of the piece and it certainly must be done, but it will not further your progress in playing one single micron. For a student to learn to play the piano, s/he must have a model to imitate.

But I am digressing.

Back to PPI.

Physically PPI works in a very straight forward manner. Consider bodybuilding. You will not build muscles while exercising. You will build muscle when you are resting. The reason for this is simple. When you are lifting weights, you are not simply exercising the muscles. You are ripping them apart (just look at the faces of the guys). It is painful. However, the muscle gets rebuild in time (it takes 36 hours), and when it gets rebuilt, it gets bigger and hence stronger. So a basic principle to grow muscle is “no pain, no gain”. No pain means that you are not ripping the muscle. And if you are not ripping the muscle, you will not rebuild it.

If you look at pictures of Mr Universe in the 50s they are skinny fellows compared to today’ guys. Part of the reason for this increase in size is the use of anabolic steroids. But part of the reason is that in the 50s sports physiology was not at all well understood. So people were going to the gym every day and they would exercise the same muscles everyday. They were ripping the muscles all right, but they were not giving time for the healing and rebuilding process to happen. They would get injured.

Then it was discovered that this process took 36 hours. So now, a body builder still trains everyday, but he has a rigid rota of muscles to be exercised, so that there is always a 36 hour period between sessions devoted to specific groups of muscles. So he might do legs on Monday morning, but then he will rest the leg muscles until Tuesday afternoon. Meanwhile he will do arms on Monday afternoon, and only go back to arms again on Wednesday morning. Once body builders started to do that in the early 60s, the results were astounding.

So, from a muscle point of view, PPI simply means that you do not get strong while you are exercising, but while you are resting, since it is when you rest that the muscles get rebuilt (=stronger and bigger).

From Pianostreet.com 
There is always a smart alec who concludes from the above that in order to get big muscles you should therefore rest and never exercise. No, the exercise is very important, because if your muscles do not get ripped, there is no reason for them to get rebuilt, duh!

But this also shows how important it is to have the correct procedure. Without this information (muscle must be ripped to grow – it takes 36 hours to repair ripped muscle), you will never stand a chance of progress.

So it is with piano practice. The guys who are progressing (both in body building or in piano) either know this stuff, or are following the correct procedure by pure chance (which might be a much better explanation why there are so few good pianists – instead of the usual one that you must be a prodigy).

Now, piano is done with muscles. But most of the movements in piano playing are not movements that we normally do in daily life. Muscle that is not used atrophies. Most adults who start playing the piano from scratch have atrophied muscles (for the necessary movements). Hence the beginner’s clumsiness. As with any physical exercise, muscle will grow with repeated use. So in the beginning repetition of the basic, important movements is essential.

It takes 3 – 6 months for muscle to grow. So this is the worst period. A teacher can be really helpful at this period if s/he knows which movements should be repeated, and if s/he can ensure that daily repetition of the correct movements is enforced. On the other hand a teacher who does not know about this stuff can add years to a student learning and ensure that the student will never be able to progress. So this is the muscle story: PPI is simply the rest period in between training sessions when muscle ripped by the exercise is allowed to repair itself and grow (36 hours).

Now do not get the wrong idea here. Although I have used bodybuilding as an example (because it is extreme), muscle building in piano playing is not this extreme ever. Think of a baby. Why does it take a baby one year to start walking? A good percentage of this time is simply growing the leg muscles (and other) that will allow the baby to stand up. Even if the baby “knew” how to walk, it would still take 6 months for the necessary muscles to grow. You can see that in people who have been in bed for a prolonged period of time (e.g. coma patients that wake up after 4 – 5 years). They know how to walk, but they cannot, because their muscles have wasted away from lack of use. However they will recover quickly, since they know how to walk and their attempts to do so will rebuild the muscles much faster than a baby who does not know how to walk and therefore wastes many movements “experimenting”.

Likewise in piano playing, we need first to build up the necessary muscles – not to the point of a body builder, but to the point that will allow a baby to walk. And just like walking is all the exercise a baby needs to develop the necessary muscles for walking, playing the piano is all the exercise one needs to play the piano.

But to start with you will not have the muscles, so it will take 3 – 6 months. During this stage the main PPI at work is the 36 hour period for ripped muscle to repair itself.

The practical consequence: beginners must have a 36 hour period in between practising the same movement. Please understand this clearly: It does not mean that you should space your practise 36 hours. You must still practise everyday (just like a body builder) but you must have a rota: B major scale on Monday morning. Repeat only on Tuesday afternoon. Chord practice on Monday afternoon. Repeat only on Wednesday morning. Practise piece on Tuesday morning, repeat again only on Wednesday afternoon. You get the idea. The student does not have a clue about all this, and I strongly suggest that the teacher should not spend too much time explaining it. What the teacher must do is to spend as much time as needed to create a schedule for the student and make sure they stick to it. This is the greatest advantage of having a parent who is a piano teacher (assuming they know this stuff): they will ensure that their child sticks to this sort of program, and if they do, in five years time you have a “prodigy”.

Once muscle is built, it will only increase and get stronger if you keep ripping it. Otherwise it will stay at its level for as long as you keep it to the same physical demands. This means that after 3 – 6 months, you do not need to worry about the 36 hour period anymore. The muscle is now adequate for the work required of it.
Now comes the second stage (these things do not happen one after the other – they are all happening at the same time, but I have to write about them this way). Now we will be dealing with nerves and nerve control.

This is the really crucial step in piano playing, not the muscle stage. Everything will hinge on this, and yet few people have any awareness of this level. It is all unconscious and taken for granted. This is really important, so listen carefully.

A lot of piano problems (including injury) results from trying to deal with technical problems with muscle, rather than with nerves. There is something called nerve inhibition that is often confused with muscle tension .

You often see that in beginners. They are clumsy, and one aspect of such clumsiness is sympathetic movement. You ask them to put their five fingers (RH) on the keyboard over CDEFG and keep the LH on their lap. Then you ask them to keep all fingers on the keys and lift only finger 2 several times. Typically all the fingers will move in sympathy. In fact, if look at their LH on their laps, they are moving too. One of my students would even wiggle her toes when trying to move finger 2 in isolation. When you point this to them, they try to stop sympathetic movement by tensing the muscles involved, and it will work. The problem is, if they are allowed to go on, soon they start tensing as a matter of habit, and this can now get in their way for years to come.

So they must learn to stop sympathetic movement by nerve inhibition. Since for a muscle to move a message must be sent via the nerves, one must learn to inhibit the nerve carrying this message. If the message is not delivered, the muscle will not move. And there will be no tension involved.

How do you teach that? I cannot tell you. All I can say is that we all already know exactly how to do it. If I tell you: lift your arm, how do you do it? It is a huge mystery! No one knows how volition actually works. But we all do it. We all can do it. Remember, the motion brain learns by imitation. So imitate what the student is doing, and then do it yourself by nerve inhibition and let the student imitate you.

This is a completely new level. To start with, we had to build muscle. But now that the muscles have been built, the whole task of piano playing becomes the task of ingraining specific sequences of nerve inhibition. This is a completely different sort of PPI. Like with muscle building, it requires repetition, and I must qualify this term: correct repetition. And I must qualify it again: correct conscious repetition.

The student must repeat, and he must be fully aware that what s/he is repeating is a sequence of nerve inhibitions that result in a sequence of movements. This is the stage at which very slow practise over two or three finger movements will pay dividends. This means slowly lifting and lowering the five fingers over CDEFG in order to observe nerve inhibition versus muscle tension as a way to control sympathetic movement. And once you figure it out you never need to do slow practice ever again.

I hear of people talking about doing extreme slow practice on advanced repertory and I have to laugh. This people do not have a clue. The learning of nerve inhibition should not take long. In fact it starts passing to subconscious control almost instantly. So the teacher must be watching like a hawk for any signs that the student is using muscle tensing rather than nerve inhibiton to control sympathetic movement so that only the correct thing gets ingrained in the subconscious. From this point on, PPI is a night’s sleep.

Once muscle building and nerve inhibition have been achieved the next step is co-ordination. This involves two steps. First co-ordination of the whole playing apparatus (shoulder girdle – arm – forearm – hand – fingers), so that the motion starts at the shoulder girdle and transmits to the fingers (and not the other way around), and finally co-ordination of the two sides of the body.

Externally this is achieved by working on the pieces/exercises, first with HS and then with HT and there are several ways to go about it (which I have discussed at length in other threads). Internally the whole process is guided by sound (remember, when I said that the motion brain controls not only movements but sense perceptions as well?). This means that the student must have an aural image of what he is trying to accomplish with his/her movements. If the hearing is detailed enough, the fingers will comply and produce the desired sound. Most people forget this and get increasingly obsessed with the minutiae of movement. It is not necessary. Hearing should always take precedence over movement obsession.

So now we are having increasingly complex sets of co-ordinated muscle actions and nerve inhibitions, for which many times there is only one or two sequences that will work optimally for a given passage in music. A great part of practice has to be devoted simply in figuring out what these sequences might be, and then ingraining them in the subconscious.

Fortunately patterns in music are fairly limited, and with an appropriately designed program, the student should have mastered pretty much all the patterns in a couple of years (by the way this never happens because no one seems to be able to follow a program to the letter).

Such complex co-ordinations of muscle actions and nerve inhibitions cannot possibly be done by the conscious mind, so the task must be performed by the subconscious mind. Like muscle needs 36 hours in between exercise in order to repair itself and grow, the subconscious mind needs a night sleep between conscious practice of complex sequences of muscle actions and nerve inhibitions in order to incorporate those. So again PPI at this level is one night sleep.
From Pianostreet.com 

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