As a way to get your attention from the outset, I would like to make an outlandish, potentially provocative claim against the reader which will more than likely be firmly rejected by many. Of course, I do not wish to invoke genuine conflict with any of you purposely so do please consider this a merely playful introduction upon which a very interesting and scientifically substantiated article shall develop.
"You don't always need a piano to be a truly great pianist".
It is certainly not uncommon that a pianist spend many years labouring away at the piano working on finger technique, repertoire growth and musical maturity under the guidance of a more-often-than-not excellent, dedicated teacher.
One cannot easily deny that progress, although sometimes quite rapid, is usually hampered by ego-related concerns, namely those of impatience, which results in unrealistic physical demands on the body, and self-doubt, which results in reduced motivation and a greater sense of struggle.
(Consider my new eBook: Water Pianism)
However, it must be acknowledged that such futile digressions exist in the mind, no matter the presence of a piano. Put another way, the fingers could not execute such and such a phrase on a wooden table just as they could not do so on a piano, and the individual partakes in self-doubt when both at and away from the piano.
This calls into question whether a piano need exist at all for an individual to improve both their technique and sense of positivity since a phrase is difficult just as much as an impatience for success is present both at and away from the piano.
Why, therefore, do pianists of any experience assume that they are only able to improve their skills when they sit before the keys and never anywhere else?
One research team demonstrated that, when the piano is played, "The pure imagination of the music performance activated the same network with the exception of the primary sensorimotor area in the left hemisphere and the right cerebellum.", meaning that the only difference to the brain was whether the fingers are supposed to move or not, not the lack of the ability of execution.
Another research team demonstrated that, when a leg stimulation exercises is requested, "...not only during actual exercise the heart rate and respiration rate began to increase, but also in the mental condition where no work at all was produced."
If I may take a final quote from some medical research before using once again my own wording (my bold highlights), "In sports and other physical activities, the learning effects of motor imagery (mental practice) are more extensively documented. A number of older studies showed that motor imagery enhanced physical proficiency (Vandell et al. 1943; Clark 1960; Corbin 1972; Noel 1980). Vandell et al. (1943) showed that groups of subjects who mentally trained basketball free-throws demonstrated an improved skilfulness that was similar to those who physically practised the task."
As per my Water Pianism philosophy, and just as is demonstrated in every piece of advice I give when the question revolves around an inability to execute a particular musical phrase or fingering requirement, one must Leave the piano.
By remaining at the piano, fuel is thrown on the burning fire of frustration and nothing but negativity ensues; a poisonous environment for progress, you may agree? Why not then leave the piano? Why not allow the fire to burn out and the air to clear, during which time you may still your mind, regain focus and spend time on your powerful and oft-time underused internal piano?
It cannot be stressed enough that the internal piano is exactly the same thing as your physical piano, the latter simply being a box upon which the fingers express what is already playable in the mind. As a quote in my Water Pianism philosophy goes, "The fingers can do what the mind can imagine them doing and the fingers cannot do what the mind cannot imagine them doing".
Alas, I am afraid yet delighted to inform you that you have been part of a great trick; an almost preposterous joke, a decidedly fantastic falsification of what it means to be a 'pianist': You never actually needed a piano at all!
What does that mean, anyway? A Pianist. After all, playing a lifeless, heartless, soulless box of strings and hammers is all rather... useless, is it not?
Well, left untouched, yes. But when touched, ...
That box we call 'a piano' is lifeless, heartless and soulless for a reason: it requires a human spirit to fill it with life and purpose; those of the performer, ideally. But, if that performer is unaware of their own Self, their own Musical Personality, reasons, passions, desires, loves and losses, memories, messages, etc., then what chance does the piano have to reflect all of this on its own?
You see, spending time on your internal piano is only different from playing the physical piano in the sense of touch; it is, of course and despite all of the above, necessary to actually touch the piano, but not for reasons traditionally provided, namely that of: Finger strength.
One's fingers already have the strength required to press the keys. If not, there are many exercises available to strengthen hand muscles (there are no muscles in the fingers) such as stress balls, spring-loaded tensioners which are very useful anyway, or simply opening and closing your fingers at each knuckle joint 100 times/day (without rushing or forcing).
You only need a piano to express what is already occurring in your mind, in your natural, true Self. If no piano existed, you would still be the musician you would become actually with a piano, it's just that nobody would ever be able to experience that uniqueness but you. It could be compared to somebody who is unable to speak due to some very unfortunate medical reason. Just because the sound is not produced, does not at all mean that no heart, soul or mind exist!
As the title of this article highlights, the piano is a great illusion; one onto which I have briefly attempted to shed some light.
If you have a particular difficulty, be it rhythm, timing, left/right hand difficulties, memory or speed, leave the piano and look inwards. You already possess the ability to achieve it, you just need to give it a chance to reveal itself on your internal piano, being sure that the body shall follow the next time you sit at your piano.
And in case you forget: Play You.