The Primary Colors of Practice

Did you know that happiness is an important factor in improving the effectiveness of your piano practice? Below I’ll discuss the three types of happiness, and how they all work together to help us become not only happier people, but better musicians.

I’ve met plenty of musicians who don’t consider happiness to be an important factor in their practice. They say to just work hard and you’ll get there, no matter how you’re feeling.

Well I disagree with that for two reasons: 1) If you enjoy your practice time, you will practice more, and be more relaxed when you do. This in turn will overall make your playing easier.

And 2) Science shows that you actually learn better when you’re happy. This is because happiness and positive emotions create dopamine and serotonin, which are both linked to improved memory and the brain’s ability to assimilate new information.

From the link above: “The chemicals increase the brain’s capacity to make connections and make connections faster. That way they make you more creative and improve your problem solving skills.

Not only do happiness and positive emotions increase your information processing skills, they also help you memorize the new information, and help you access it faster in the future.

Sounds like happiness is very important to practice indeed! But most of us can’t just flip a switch and decide to be happy. So how do we do bring happiness into our piano practice?

What got me thinking about happiness and practice was a book I was reading recently called 101 Essays that Will Change the Way You Think by Brianna West. In one of the essays she mentioned another book, Resilience by Eric Greitens (now on my books-to-read list), that talks about the “primary colors” of happiness.

Greitens names three different types of happiness that color our world, just like the three primary colors, and that each one is needed in order to complete the rainbow of our experience. The three types he talks about are the happiness of pleasure, the happiness of grace, and the happiness of excellence.

As I was reading about these three types of happiness I couldn’t help but apply it to piano practice–It makes so much sense, and each one truly helps make our practice more successful.

Below I’ll discuss each type of happiness individually, and how each one supports and improves our piano practice.

The Happiness of Pleasure

The happiness of pleasure is perhaps the easiest type to attain. It’s about the small pleasures in life–Enjoying a sunset, eating something delicious, sharing a warm hug, listening to a wonderful piece of music.

There are several ways to find this type of happiness in our piano practice. The first step is to make sure you’re playing music that you enjoy. Just hearing those wonderful notes as you play them can be extremely pleasurable, and is probably the reason many of us started playing music in the first place.

The other type of pleasure we can derive from our practice is the physical feeling of playing the music. Have you ever played a piece or an exercise you know well and simply enjoyed the physical experience of it? Just like we can enjoy the feeling of dancing or running or playing a sport, the way we use our bodies to play the piano (or other instruments) can be very enjoyable.

But in order to experience the happiness of pleasure from our piano practice, we have to be in the moment, watching for it. If you’re in your head, beating yourself up about wrong notes or wondering why you can’t play it better yet, you’ll miss it. And as mentioned above, by missing this opportunity of enjoyment you’re actually making your practice less effective by inhibiting your brain’s ability to take in the new information.

Now you might be thinking, “But how am I going to improve if I’m not focusing on what needs to improve while I practice?” Here are a few steps you can try:

  1. Make it a habit to relax when you sit down at the piano. Observe your breath, feel your body, and be still for a moment. Do this any time you start noticing yourself getting worked up during practice.
  2. When you notice a mistake, do your best not to have any negative feelings about it. Instead, bring curiosity. Why did that wrong note happen? Is it a fingering issue? Am I playing faster than I’m ready to play? What can I do to improve this next time?
  3. If you’re finding that you get consistently frustrated when playing, change something. Practice in smaller sections. Play more slowly. Pushing ourselves only increases the frustration, so instead see if you can figure out how to make this feel easy. Maybe you need to practice just two notes at a time, very slowly. That’s ok! Making it feel easy is the first step to overcoming a difficult piece or passage.

Also be sure to notice whether you’re bringing negative feelings from other aspects of your life into your piano practice. It’s not unusual to get frustrated with our practice when really we’re frustrated with some other aspect of our lives. If you notice this happening, you’re in luck because piano can also be a wonderful way to soothe these frustrations. But it won’t work if you’re playing music that is too difficult for you.

For this reason it’s a good idea to start a collection of repertoire that you know well. Many pianists, especially those in the earlier phases of learning piano, tend to learn a piece, then forget it as they move on to the next one. But they’re missing out on a huge opportunity by letting those pieces go. If you have a collection of pieces you know and like that you can play at any time, you can bring them out when you’re having trouble accessing that happiness of pleasure in your playing.

This is a great way to calm yourself if you’re having frustration with a new piece, or with anything in your life. After you’ve played something relaxing and enjoyable for a while, then you can go back to the difficult piece, bringing a calmer, more open mind to it. And remember to make it feel easy!

I’ve also written an entire article on this subject, How to Make Piano Practice More Fun.

The Happiness of Grace

The happiness of grace is about compassion and gratitude. If you’ve read any books or articles about happiness you’ve likely come across the idea of gratitude improving happiness. According to Harvard Heatlh: “Gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.”

You can probably already see how this overlaps with and supports the happiness of pleasure. By being grateful for what we have, we’re more able to experience it with a positive, open mind. Perhaps you’re grateful that you have time to sit at the piano, or that you have a piano to play at all.

You can also incorporate gratitude into your practice by looking back at how far you’ve come. What can you do this year that you couldn’t a year ago? Two years ago? Be grateful to yourself for putting in the time and effort to make those improvements. You’ve come much farther than so many people who simply wish they could play an instrument, but never do anything about it.

The other side of the happiness of grace is equally important, and that’s compassion. When we’re compassionate of others, it helps us be more understanding, forgiving, and loving. It helps us get along with others and refrain from harboring unrealistic expectations that inevitably end in disappointment.

Now turn that around toward yourself. In our piano practice, we must be understanding, forgiving, and loving of ourselves. We must recognize when we’re harboring unrealistic expectations and instead be present with what our abilities are right now, and what we need in order to foster improvement.

When we maintain self-compassion as we play, everything I’ve discussed so far becomes easier. It’s easier to be present, it’s easier to avoid frustration, and it’s easier to recognize and attend to our current needs.

The Happiness of Excellence

The happiness of excellence is likely the other part of what made you want to start playing music in the first place. This is what urges us to go beyond the status quo, improve ourselves, learn new skills, accomplish goals.

When you looked back with gratitude at how much you’ve improved over the last year or two, you also experienced the happiness of excellence. It feels good to make progress, learn, and improve.

This is also the type of happiness that helps us stick with something that may not always be comfortable. Playing just two notes of a piece at a time, very slowly, is not always very fun or comfortable. But when you’re motivated by the happiness of excellence you’re willing to do it because you have a goal in mind and this is how to get there.

The happiness of excellence is also about setting and achieving goals. This is where practice plans can come in handy as we experience a little bit of joy from checking off each successful day of practice.

Make Practice Time Easier By Planning Ahead!

Hands playing piano keys with a metronome and pencil nearby

Learn how to plan exactly what you need to do each day to accomplish your goals. Then all you have to do at practice time is sit down and play!

The Piecewise Practice Planner will help you make meaningful progress every time you practice, even with as little as 5 minutes per practice session.

Best of all, it’s completely FREE–to opt in, click the button below!

Putting It All Together

Now that you’ve read about the three happiness types, you’ve probably noticed the way they blend and support each other, much like the primary colors blend and create the rest of the colors of the rainbow. If you’re missing just one, you miss out on an entire spectrum of color.

If you’re overly focused on just one and lose sight of the others, your practice suffers. For example if you’re only practicing for pleasure and not making any goals for improvement, you’re less likely to make much progress in your ability. Alternatively, if you’re only focused on improvement and don’t allow yourself to experience the joy in the moment, you’ll end up banging your head against the wall of frustration.

I hope you found this article helpful and start applying it to your own experience. Do you find yourself focused on just one of these happiness types more than the others? Is there one you can tell would be particularly helpful to incorporate into your practice, or your life? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Heidi has been involved in music in one way or another for most of her life. She studied music composition in college, has taught piano, voice, composition, ear training, and guitar, and has worked as a piano tuner and technician. Before the pandemic she loved playing concerts at retirement communities, bringing the joy of music to those populations. She is currently working on learning more about the connection between music and healing.

Related Articles:

How to Make Piano Practice More Fun
How to Improve Mental States by Playing Music
When Piano Practice Doesn’t Go Well

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