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The Number One Important Growth Step: Build a Firm Foundation

When developing a new skill, don’t overlook the need to build a firm foundation.

I’ve noticed a pattern in many of my piano students: in their eagerness to play the “fun” music, they neglect the building of the fundamentals. 

Understandably so – practicing technique can be tedious! Not only that, in reality, the pieces that often drew us into wanting to play the instrument often require years of study (and hundreds of hours of practice) to be ready to tackle. 

In my opinion, mastering five-finger patterns forms a firm foundation for those seeking to master the art of playing the piano. This skill is so important that I often teach this technical exercise to my students within the first few weeks of lessons and instruct them to play them at the beginning of each practice session. I view them as the cornerstone for understanding music theory and piano technique. Yet, I know not all my students practice them!

Let’s explore the word “cornerstone.” Cornerstones, the first stone placed when constructing a masonry foundation, serve as a reference stone that subsequently determines the development of the rest of the structure. If something is off with the cornerstone, the entire structure could fail. 

The same is true when developing a new skill.  Don’t overlook the need to build a firm foundation if you want to achieve mastery over that skill.

black and white sketch of a man sitting at a piano

Fundamentals - A Familiar Tale

I’ve experienced the propensity to skip the fundamentals as well. In my pursuit of learning how to paint with watercolors. Does this sound familiar? I set aside the time on my calendar to play with my paints. I scroll YouTube to select which tutorial I want to watch (and the end result I hope to create). I lay out my supplies. With brushes, paint, water, paper towels, and painter's tape in hand, I eagerly follow the instructions on the screen. 

When I reach the end of the tutorial, my painting looks nothing like the example in the tutorial. 

Where did I do wrong?  

I failed to spend enough time on the basic techniques – learning how much paint and water to load onto the brush, practicing my brush strokes, gaining color mixing skills, or studying how the water interacts with the paper. 

In my overzealousness to produce an end result, I skipped over learning the basic skills required to find success with painting with watercolors. 

I don’t think I’m the only one who has done this –especially as adults who have already learned how to master a thing or two in our lives. 

In our eagerness to master a new skill, we are often resistant to taking the time to build up the proper foundations, preferring instead to achieve the thing, check off the to-do list, or arrive at our goal instead of enjoying the process of establishing the firm foundations from the beginning.  

Building the foundations can feel, at best, a necessary evil- at worst, unnecessary. 

We want to learn and we want to learn quickly. Better yet, we want to have already mastered the skill. 

black and white sketch of painting supplies on a table

Patience & Process - Embracing the Foundations for True Expression

I blame our instant gratification society for this situation. Remember, back in the early days of the internet, when logging in through old dial-up modems could take up to 15 minutes or longer for that horrific modem sound to come through the computer?  Or remember when doing a research project required a trip to the library so you could use an encyclopedia to gather information? (I might have just dated myself there!) 

With information at our fingertips all the time, these days, we are a society of information.

But that information isn't always inherent in our body or built into our bones in a way that knowing once used to be. (Was it just my family that had entire dinner table conversations around trying to piece together history based on knowledge once memorized?) 

In many ways, the beauty of learning to play an instrument, make art, practice yoga, or gain any other skill – is that they all require a deep level of knowing, a mastery of the skill so deep that it seeps into the marrow of our bones. This kind of knowing results in automatic actions, unconscious movements, and a way of being as comfortable and familiar as living in the air we breathe. 

When we know this deeply, we can fully express ourselves free from the need to think through the technicalities of the skill. We become present in the middle of the action. It is being while doing. 

The only way, I believe, we can get to that point of being in the middle of doing is to study the fundamentals of the skill we seek to acquire. 

As you pursue your next skill or hobby, keep this in mind. Don’t overlook the need to build a firm foundation. Be patient with the process, establish those basic skills first, and then get ready to soar!  

You’ve got this! And so do I!

Food for Thought:

What skill are you currently learning that needs a stronger foundation?

If you aren’t sure, ask yourself this:  Have I been finding myself frustrated or discouraged while learning the new skill? If so, why? Is that discouragement a result of not having mastered the fundamentals or due to impatience over the time it takes to build those fundamentals?

Envision what it would feel like to show yourself grace and patience while learning the basic fundamentals of a skill on your road to mastering it.  

When learning a new skill, expect progress to be slow (at first). Give yourself permission to find joy in the process instead of focusing on your desired end results. Progress will come with time, even if slowly. (But, that’s a post for another day!) 

Exercise patience. Extend grace to yourself. Establish habits and rituals around your practice of this new skill and relish in the moments you are carving out of your busy life to invest in gaining this new skill.  


If you are looking for additional support and encouragement in your musical journey, check out Notes to Self: A Guided Mindful Practice Journal designed to bring mindfulness and celebration to your practice sessions. 

Are you an adult musician looking for community with other adults actively pursuing the skill of mastering an instrument?  If so, you are invited to join my Facebook Group, Notes to Self Musical Community: A Supportive Group for Adults. I hope to see you there!

To have these "Insights From The Piano Bench" essays land directly in your inbox, subscribe to my monthly blog digest newsletter. Let's explore what music can teach us about life together. 


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