As a piano teacher with an abiding interest in numerous subjects from business to psychology and human potential, from time to time I will explore the connections between these other fields and piano teaching. This is the first of a series of posts about the ideas of George Leonard, a human potential pioneer and author, and how they relate to learning the piano.

George Leonard’s book Mastery is a fascinating exploration of human potential and certain principles that can help us realize our highest potential in any area of life. His ideas are as relevant to piano lessons as they are to aikido lessons, an art that he uses throughout the book as an example of attaining mastery (among many other things, Leonard was an aikido teacher).

“The master’s journey is both arduous and exhilarating. You will never reach a final destination.”

Most piano teachers and professional musicians know this at some level. Even with goals – and big ones – we know that a greater level of attainment is always possible. But consciously recognizing this truth – and helping our students to recognize it – allows us to stay more present-moment focused. In the moment, we can enjoy and appreciate the fruits of our practice and skill rather than disdaining them with our plans for world domination tomorrow. I do not believe – as many musicians seem to believe – that dismissing or criticizing one’s current skill level is essential to sustaining the motivation to become a better player. If we cannot be satisfied and enjoy our current skills, will we ever be satisfied no matter how good we become? And if we aren’t, what is the point?

“Long plateaus are normal in the development of mastery.”

This is so important to realize, and to help our more advanced students realize (plateaus occur more often the more advanced we become). We may practice the same piece or exercise for weeks or months with little discernible improvement, even despite a perfect application of the Golden Rule of Practicing! When this happens, we are in one of the plateaus that are normal in the development of mastery. As Leonard says, “you must be willing to spend most of your time on a plateau, to keep practicing even if you seem to be getting nowhere.”

“Practice primarily for the sake of the practice itself. Learn to appreciate and enjoy it just as much as you do the upward surges.”

Once again, what’s the point of playing and practicing if we never appreciate and enjoy what we can do today? Yes, we all know that there are teachers – we may have had one or become one – who are so future-focused and goal-oriented that they condition their students to never really enjoy what they can do. Yet playing even the simplest piece can be satisfying, if we are willing to allow ourselves to enjoy it.

In Part Two of this exploration of mastery, I discuss three personality types and how each of them approaches the effort involved in attaining mastery.

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