In today’s video, I want to discuss some mind-frame stuff – the mind-frame of assuming you’ll become a piano master. I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately on mental attitudes and adjustments, and wanted to explore some of those concepts as they relate to the piano.

Today’s idea that we’ll explore: Instead of assuming that you’ll eventually be pretty decent at piano if you practice hard, what about assuming you’ll become a great master? What might that change about the way you practice and approach music?

Let’s get started.

My life example: Learning how to cook

Let’s start this off with an example from my own life, so I can show you what a difference this mentality can make.

In my early 20s, I didn’t know a thing about nutrition or cooking. My cooking repertoire was basically ramen noodles and sandwiches. A pasta with jarred red sauce was getting seriously fancy.

Then I had an epiphany. I realized that cooking is a basic life skill, like cleaning and paying bills, and not knowing how to feed myself was kind of crazy. If I didn’t know how to vacuum a carpet, would I just never learn how to vacuum, and thus let the carpet get disgusting and filthy?

But instead of deciding that I wanted to learn how to cook, I decided that I wanted to become really good at cooking. I wanted to become a great chef! This is a very important distinction.

The first option, simply learning how to cook, means that I would likely make a few recipes casually, but not try too hard or take it too seriously. I’d probably become reasonably competent at some point in time with this approach.

Cooking Master: Deciding to be really good at cooking

But deciding to be really good at cooking required a much more focused approach to learning. Instead of casually trying recipes at random, I listed out 5 recipes each week that I would try. When I first started, I had no idea how to even make a basic soup, so I stuck to really simple recipes that used minimal equipment.

I followed recipes to the letter, even following typos when I didn’t know any better. I remember making a marinade that called for “apple cider”, and hunting all over the store for a packet of apple cider mix. Of course, now I know that the recipe almost definitely meant “apple cider vinegar”. I thought the end result was weirdly sweet, but didn’t know any better.

And I didn’t do this for a week or two. I stuck to this schedule – 5 recipes a week, with a very specific grocery list each Sunday – for well over a year (and probably much longer). I didn’t know how to learn to cook, so I figured the best way to learn would just be to do it a whole bunch.

The road to mastery

I made some really bad meals. Not all recipes are trustworthy, and I hadn’t yet developed any kitchen instinct. You know, the instinct that tells you “this needs more salt” or “that’s way too much garlic”.

But I also made some pretty good meals, and started noticing patterns. Most recipes started with sauteing some onions, and then adding minced garlic in for a minute. Many soups used a base of onions, carrot and celery. And to make a soup with 4 servings per person, you generally needed to add about 4 cups of broth or water.

I could have stopped there, but I had decided to become really good at cooking.

So I spent a month in California taking some cooking classes that really interested me. I started a food blog which I maintained for many years. I taught some free cooking classes at the library. I studied nutrition to supplement and enhance my knowledge of cooking. I tested recipes for a cookbook author. And eventually, I spent an even longer stint at a culinary school in Texas.

Mediocrity vs. Mastery

Those are things I never would have done had I not decided that cooking was something I wanted to master. I wouldn’t have diligently tried 5 new recipes a week, I wouldn’t have gone to school or pushed myself to teach classes. None of those things would have happened, because I would have just been content with mediocrity. I never would have pushed myself.

The funny thing is, it’s not about becoming a master. That was my inspiring idea – to become really good, to become a great chef. But it wasn’t important that I actually become a master. What was important was how that goal changed my entire way of thinking and learning.

So am I a grand master chef now? Of course not. I’m really good when I want to be, though. Mostly I just cook simple food, which is so easy now because I’ve mastered the basics. I know how to make a great sauce, or what flavors and seasonings tend to work well together. I could make a good soup, chili or curry in my sleep.

While I’ll probably never be on Top Chef (nor would I ever want to be), I’ve reached a skill level that I would have never achieved if my attitude was, “I want to learn how to cook”. It was the attitude of, “I want to become a really good cook that changed everything.

Become a piano master

Hopefully you’re starting to think about how you can apply this mental shift to piano. I’m embarrassed to say that, though it seemed so obvious to approach food in this way, it never occurred to me to approach music this way until recently.

Part of that was starting music at a young age. It was easy to choose cooking in my twenties and say “I want to master that”, since I was a completely blank slate and starting from scratch. But I never approached music as a child with the idea of becoming a master.

And later on in life, in my teens and twenties, I suffered from the realization that I would probably never become a piano master, one of those great pianists performing in big concert halls. I would probably just always be pretty good, but never great.

It’s not the destination

What a defeatist attitude! This kind of thinking becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The reality is, it doesn’t really matter if I ever perform in Carnegie hall – what matters is that I want to achieve mastery, and that I play piano in accordance with that vision.

Here’s where that old adage becomes very true: It’s not about the destination. It’s the journey that matters.

It’s not about becoming some great and world-famous performer. Just like with food, it was never about becoming a celebrity chef whose life revolves around food. I don’t even want a career as a famous performer.

Become a piano master: Big, hairy and audacious goals

But it’s beginning with that end in mind. It’s exciting to think about becoming a piano master. “Learning how to play piano” is a lame goal. It’s not exciting. When did learning something to competence or mediocrity ever fire anyone up?

But “I want to become a piano master” is big, hairy and audacious. It seems like it might not be possible. When I was boiling my ramen noodles, the idea of teaching others to cook seemed like a far-off, crazy dream.

How would you play piano today if you changed your mental attitude from “I’m learning piano and I’ll be decent at it” to “I’m learning piano and I’m going to become a piano master”? What would change for you?

What exciting places would that mental shift take you?