Play like no one's listening: learning to practice without performance goals

It wasn’t until the pandemic shut the world down that I realized I’d not practiced the piano without a performance goal since the age of 6. Weekly piano lessons, recitals, exams, competitions—all these gave me goals when I was a student.  Once I became a professional musician, gigs, concerts, and the occasional recording gave me incentive to get to the piano every day.  And then the pandemic struck, my recording sessions were cancelled, and I made the decision to retire from music and focus on my writing.

Cue disorientation and restlessness.  After a lifetime of priding myself on my motivation I learned that a great deal of it was extrinsic and that I was the proverbial “good student” who liked structure and goals.  Now, with unlimited freedom to choose what I wanted to play (and no consequences for not practicing) I had to learn how to access my intrinsic motivation.  I had to learn how to structure my practice time as an amateur, not a professional.  And above all, I had to learn to strive for artistry when no one was listening.

One thing I learned quickly was that my old way of doing things didn’t work anymore.  It didn’t matter that I excelled at setting long and short term goals; what I needed in the brave new world of performance-free piano playing was an intuitive approach.  But the thing about intuition is that it is rarely linear and orderly and it can’t be rushed.  Intuition is the enemy of the ego, rigid thinking, and (I’m learning) the word “should.”  Intuition laughs at all of that and then calmly throws a “crazy Ivan” into the middle of best-laid plans. Sometimes it feels aimless and lazy, but when I’m patient enough to trust the process, intuition always leads me to the piece I need to play.  

Another challenge of practicing without performance goals is knowing when the piece is learned.  Again, I’m trusting intuition.  Every pianist knows the feeling of having a piece of music learned so securely that the music is freed from the mechanics of producing the sound.  That’s my finish line—the place where I know I’ve been privileged to birth something beautiful into the world, even if it’s a time-based art form that disappears as soon as the notes fade away.

Ultimately, playing without a performance goal is teaching me to fall in love all over again with the process of playing the piano.  I play the piano to create beauty, to “converse” with the composer, and to express myself at a level deeper than words.  I play because without that daily encounter my life would be infinitely poorer.  I play because it brings me joy.  These things are available to all pianists—professional and amateur; the absence of applause doesn’t spoil the joy of playing from the heart. These are things amateur pianists have always known.  It took “going amateur” for me to learn this for myself.