A year or so ago, I decided that I’d feel better if I was spending more time with music; so I started practing piano on a decently regular basis. I’d already been occasionally sitting down at the piano, pulling out a book of music, and trying to play through a few pieces (show tunes, usually); I liked that, it’s fun dipping into music, but it’s also fun (and rewarding) to go deeper.

So I decided to start at the beginning of Well-Tempered Clavier I. It’s music that I like; I enjoy and am good at playing fugues; having the preludes there forces me to not spend all of my time on fugues; and it’s something that’s familiar but that I haven’t seriously worked on for three and a half? four? decades.


This got me thinking about what I might mean when I say that I’m learning to play a piece of music. There are a few different stages that I might be at in that process:

  • Stage 0: Just Playing Around. In this stage, I’m actually not trying to learn to play a given piece of music: I’m just randomly pulling some sheet music off of the stack on the top of my piano and trying to play my way through a piece, without particularly worrying about actually getting it right.
  • Stage 1: Getting the Basics in Place. In this stage, I’m going through a given piece regularly (multiple times over the course of weeks or months), stopping at places where I’m really falling apart and isolating and repeating those bits until I more or less get them into my fingers.
  • Stage 2: Getting the Details Reliably Right. In this stage, I’m significantly raising my quality bar compared to Stage 1: getting a single note wrong or with the timing noticeably off is enough to get me to stop and work on that section some more.
  • Stage 3: Improving my Artistry. In this stage, I’m thinking much more about questions of phrasing and articulation, the broader structures in the piece, and so forth.


The reason why I’m writing this down is that, if I’m not careful, I’ll avoid Stage 2. I’ll play through on a piece of music, most of it will sound decent, but there will be some notes that I flat out miss or where the timing is off. And I’ll notice that, but there will be something in my brain that says “that mistake wasn’t a big deal” or “well, I should be able to play that right, I’m sure if I were to play it again it would be fine, so why stop now?”, and I keep on playing.

And it’s bad for me to listen to that specific voice in my brain! I’m not a total stickler for perfection: sometimes I just want to play through a piece of music without worrying about it too much, sometimes I just don’t have the energy to seriously work on a piece, sometimes a piece is at (or past) the limits of what my fingers can currently do. But, a lot of the time, when I listen to that voice, I’m not doing so for any principled reason: I’m just fooling myself.

In particular, whenever I think “I should be able to play that right”, I really need to face up to the fact that my evidence for that is generally not particularly strong! And, even if I were to play the notes correctly next time I go through that piece, I’d probably feel shaky while doing that, which isn’t a good foundation to build deeper musicality on.

So, if I’m serious about learning a given piece, what I should actually do is stop every time I get a note wrong, or even every time that I feel lucky that I got a note right, and go over that section repeatedly until I’ve figured out how I want my fingers to approach it and until I feel better about it. Sure, maybe play through the whole piece once at the beginning and/or end of my practice session, just to get a feel for where I’m at with it, and to get the pleasure out of listening to it, but if I’m serious about working on a specific piece of music, then I should act serious!

For whatever reason, I don’t have the same mental block when it comes to Stage 3. I enjoy working on the artistry of a piece of music in a way that I don’t really enjoy working on the notes; and I think it’s probably more immediately rewarding to work on the artistic aspects of a section? Whereas, if I’m working on the notes in a Stage 2 way, then it’s pretty frequent that I’ll bang my fingers against it ten or twenty times, at the end of that I’ll be playing it better but I’ll still feel shakier than I would like, and not super confident that I won’t regress the next time I practice.


This relates to another question I have: right now I don’t spend any time working on artificial drills (e.g. practicing scales), and I suspect that that’s a mistake? When I’ve been taking lessons from a music teacher, they’ve had me spend time on drills, and I’m certainly very glad that scales are decently well embedded in my fingers. It’s possible that I’ve gotten all that I need to out of that, but that seems pretty unlikely!


Tai Chi

I also spend a decent amount of time working on Tai Chi. And, actually, there’s a decently close analogy between the way I play piano and the way I do Tai Chi. When playing piano, I’m playing by myself, instead of as part of an ensemble, and I’m working on individual pieces of music where every note is written down, instead of improvising. And, in the main Tai Chi class I take, we’re mostly learning fixed individual forms, instead of doing partner work and/or free-form work. I’m not saying that that’s a better (or worse) way to do music or Tai Chi compared to other options — honestly, I would benefit from spending more time in other formats in both arts — but still, there is a direct analogy.

And, of course, that analogy extends to the stages with which I’m practicing a given Tai Chi form. If I’m at Stage 0 with a particular form then I’ll follow along with that form in class but I won’t even try to practice it at home. My Stage 1 forms are forms that I’m practicing at home but I’m not surprised if I feel like I’m doing something wrong in one of the moves, or if I have to stop for a bit to try to remember one part of the sequence. My Stage 2 forms are ones where I’m trying to get the details right, e.g. so that, if I were called on in class to perform them, I’d feel fine about that. And my Stage 3 forms are ones where I’m trying to go deep into them and figure out what that form is teaching me about the insides of my body.


The way the stages play out for me in Tai Chi is pretty different than in music. For a while, I didn’t distinguish clearly between Stage 0 and Stage 1: if we were doing a form in class, then I’d try to practice it at home and learn it as well. But that ran into problems: usually the first time I was learning a form in class, I’d have a hard time keeping up and actually getting to where I can do the whole thing at home. (With Tai Chi, I don’t have sheet music that I can look at while I’m going through a form!)

And, even if I did manage to keep up, we’d finish up that form and start a new one; now the time I’d budgeted for practice at home was consumed by the new form. While I’d occasionally go back and go through the earlier form, it didn’t take too many months before I’d realize that the earlier form had fallen out of my memory. So I’d have to wait a couple of years until that form came around again in class and hope that it would stick better the next time.

I’m doing better at that aspect of learning now, fortunately. I don’t try to learn more than two new forms at any give time: if my teacher is teaching more than two forms that are new to me at a given time, then I consciously treat the extra ones as Stage 0 instead of Stage 1. (Sometimes I even skip that part of class entirely.) I’ve got videos saved of all of the forms that I’m learning, which makes me more resilient to weeks when I have to miss class or where I hit a part of a form that I find particularly difficult. And I’m fairly well disciplined about running through every form I know at least once a week; I won’t say I manage that every week, but I manage it often enough that I’m doing a pretty good job of keeping the forms in my body, and of noticing when I’m starting to lose them and going back to videos to figure out the big gaps, so I can preserve my Stage 1 knowledge.


So that’s how Stages 0 and 1 play out for me in Tai Chi: make sure I have the scaffolding in place to bring a given form from Stage 0 to Stage 1 while we’re covering it in place, and make sure that I’m putting it the reps to keep it in Stage 1 during the time periods where we aren’t going through the reps. Stages 2 and 3 layer on more difficulties: when I’m playing a piece of music while looking at a score, I have a pretty good chance of noticing if I play the wrong note, whereas with Tai Chi, I can be completely unaware of problems like that! It’s not an unsolvable problem — I can spend time watching videos and being particularly aware of places where the performer does a move in a different way than I am, for example — but it does add a layer of difficulty. And I just don’t have well developed sensibilities for what it means to perform Tai Chi artistically, and for that matter I’m not convinced that performing Tai Chi artistically is the right goal for Stage 3?

Fortunately, my teacher is hugely helpful with those difficulties. For years, there was basically only one form (the Lao Jia first form) that I was really trying to get past Stage 1, and my teacher would give me detailed feedback on my form once every three months or so. His feedback is a mixture of Stage 2 (e.g. my left hand should go up more at the end of some specific posture) and Stage 3 (e.g. I should be more conscious of how I treat the space between postures), he does a great job of pointing out Stage 2 corrections that I wasn’t aware of and of giving me Stage 3 ideas that I’m ready to start grappling with and that will keep me busy for the next three months.

My Lao Jia first form has finally gotten good enough that I’m ready to dip my toes into Stage 2 and even Stage 3 considerations for other forms; still a long way to go, and I still need help, but I’m starting to make broader progress along that path. I’m even teaching a course this summer that’s all about some Stage 3 concerns that I feel like I understand well enough to be able to try expressing them to other people.


I mentioned at the end of my discussion of music that I suspect I should probably spend more time on isolated exercises; with Tai Chi I’m quite sure that I should, and in fact I am.

Part of the reason for this is that I’ve decided that, for me, Stage 3 considerations in Tai Chi aren’t so much about how something seems to an outside observer, they way they are in music: they’re about what I’m learning about the insides of my body. And sure, Tai Chi forms are a great road for understanding that; but isolated exercises, repeating a single movement for five minutes or standing in a static posture for 30 minutes, can be at least as useful in that regard. (It’s kind of amazing how the insides of your body and your perception of the insides of your body can change over the course of 30 minutes holding a static posture!)

And reason for this is that, over the last four or five years, I’ve added in Nei Gong (with a different teacher) to my practice routine; Nei Gong is a form of internal work that is more explicitly focused on internal transformation (“nei” means “internal” or “inside”), and the exercises that it uses to that end are much more isolated than Tai Chi forms. That’s given me quite a bit of exposure to isolated exercises, and I’ve seen the benefits of that kind of focus; so I want to get those benefits for my Tai Chi as well.

And, to be sure, my Tai Chi teacher has us spend quite a lot of time on isolated exercises as well: in his introductory course, he devotes almost half the class time to isolated exercises. So it’s an important part of his class syllabus, and I’ve got quite a few exercises that I can and do spend time on in that domain.



So what are the takeaways here, for music or Tai Chi or other areas that I’m trying to improve at? A few stabs at generalizing the above:

Pay attention to when you’re overloaded

This relates to the difference between Stage 0 and Stage 1: for Stage 0 stuff, I’m messing around with no commitment, whereas for Stage 1, I’m putting in sustained effort. Both are fine things to do; just don’t get so constantly excited by shiny stuff that you decide you’re going to learn everything, when you don’t actually have time (or want to make time) to do that, you’ll just get frustrated and burned out.

Raise your standards

If you’re serious about learning something, then don’t make a habit of settling for good enough: instead, periodically try to get things really right. Basically, operate in a Stage 2 mode instead of a Stage 1 mode; or, for that matter, a Stage 1 instead of a Stage 0 mode.

Go deeper

Don’t just follow the basic rules for whatever you’re learning: figure out what’s behind those rules, what’s missing from what those rules. This is Stage 3 versus Stage 2; maybe it manifests itself as improving your taste / artistic sensibilities, maybe it manifests itself as understanding underlying concepts, either way it’s important.

Effective practice sometimes looks quite different from the finished project

This might show itself as the difference between Stage 0 and Stage 2: constantly stopping to try to get a detail right instead of playing through an entire piece of music. Or it might look like spending time on isolated exercises (e.g. scales) that don’t look much like what you’re trying to learn (playing pieces of music). Either way, the most effective way to get better at doing X isn’t always (or even usually) to do X from start to finish: it’s often to dig into components of X (maybe parts of X, maybe skills that feed into X) and to focus on your capabilities at those components.

Post Revisions:

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