Over the Christmas holidays I went on a swing, for the first time in many years! Side-by-side with one of my great-nieces together we went higher and higher, both with enormous grins on our faces.


Smiling girl on the swing

A different kind of playing went on with my other great-niece. She has been learning the violin and although she could only play bits of some Christmas carols I filled in the rest. Playing together to the rest of the family at Christmas lunch was definitely one of the highlights and totally absorbing!

I hope you managed to play in both of these senses over the holidays. But, before you read any further, just stop for a moment and think back over the past year.


How often did you ‘lose yourself’ in an activity that you just did for the sake of it – without any purpose or ultimate goal?

The topic of play has been sloshing around in my head for some months now so I thought it was about time I got my musings down on paper. Over the next two blog posts I am going to explore other people’s thoughts on play and ponder how this applies to playing the piano and other instruments.

We tend to associate PLAY and the act of PLAYING with children and young animals. Like many of you I am sure I spent a lot of my childhood playing in my backgarden, creating imaginary houses, inventing stories or prentending to be a horse! I had difficulty growing up and learning to behave like an adult (and hopefully I’m not there yet!) Indeed this perception that we have to leave play and our childish ways behind us is slowly changing and research certainly tells a different story.


Stuart Brown one of the leading authorities on play identifies 7 different attributes:

  1. it is apparently purposeless
  2. we do voluntarily
  3. we are attracted to it because it makes us feel good
  4. we lose our sense of time and enter a state of flow
  5. we lose our sense of self
  6. it is an improvised activity
  7. the activity is something we want to return to

He also argues that the feeling of play, the emotional connection, is absolutely critical.

Stephen Nachmanovitch’s inspirational book Free Play suggests many of the same qualities and he points out that:

‘Play is intrinsically satisfying’.

Crucially, despite its apparent purposelessness, play is central to learning and evolution. Because play has no set rules or boundaries, and takes place within a safe environment, we are able to explore who we are and what we can or might be able to do or achieve. We push the boundaries and in doing so, according to Brown, p.17:

‘We stumble upon new behaviours, thoughts, strategies, movements or ways of being’ 


Play appears to be central to healthy brain development. As we play the brain forms new connections between neurons and appears to be of particular importance in the frontal cortex where much of our cognition is generated and the cerebellum which is ‘responsible for key cognitive functions such as attention, language processing and sense of musical rhythm’.

During the act of play we test out ideas in various combinations and this appears to give us the ability to be flexible in responding to situations back in the ‘real world’.


Providing additional support for the benefits of play in the animal world there appears to be evidence to suggest that the animals that play the most are the ones with the best chances of survival. Through play they explore not only their fighting instinct but what is and isn’t acceptable within their social grouping.

The impulse to play in animals can even override more basic instincts such as hunger. If you haven’t yet seen this amazing and wonderful footage of a starving Polar Bear playing with a husky dog is testament to that; this wasn’t just a one-off but has been an annual ritual for the bear and dogs.


So play exists for its own sake with the focus on the process rather than on a product. When we play we are in ‘flow’. We are one with that moment in time. Huizinga [cited in Westney, 2003] says that:

‘Play casts a spell over us: it is “enchanting”, “captivating”.

We are transported beyond ourselves and we can touch the stars – no wonder Hindus refer to ‘lila’ as divine play.

I suspect this isn’t very far from the Zen-like qualities that pianist Susan Tomes describes in performances where she has experienced tiny glimpses of something that is beyond the ego, beyond the music and beyond the instrument.

‘There ceases to be one who is doing the playing, and a separate piece of music that is played’. p.147


I am really intrigued and curious about exploring the juxtaposition between play, children’s experience of music and playing the piano. Lots of questions spring to mind:

Do children experience music as part of play ?
Would we benefit from being more playful in our practise?
Do we allow or encourage our pupils to ‘play’ ?
Should playing the piano be a serious business?
Can pianists only experience play when they have a secure enough skill set?

So, enough musings for one day as it’s time to play. I’m off to put my wellies on and go and splash around in some puddles!

Free Play: Improvisation In Life And Art (1990) Stephen Nachmanovitch, Tarcher Putnam, New York

Play: How It Shapes The Brain, Opens The Imagination And Invigorates The Soul (2009) Stuart Brown with Christopher Vaughan, Avery, New York

A Musician’s Alphabet (2006) Susan Tomes, Faber and Faber, London

The Perfect Wrong Note (2003) William Westney, Amadeus Press, New Jersey

This post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart | Co-Founder & Director of The Curious Piano Teachers




  1. Alison McRobb

    Very interesting, especially picking up on Hindu ‘lila’. I have a new 6 year old tomorrow – keen, so I hope not too young. We’ll be trudging with some ‘elephants’ down at the bottom of the piano and flying off with some ‘butterflies’ at the top, then trying two pieces I’ve written, where the notes are green dots with finger numbers! First time back piano teaching after a long period doing other things – must read Susan Tomes: I think she lived opposite us in Cambridge when a student!

  2. Julia Skaife

    Dear Sally,
    I am so interested in the questions you have raised regarding ‘play’ in piano lessons. One of the main reasons why for many years I changed from studying music to art and design, and later furniture design, was because of the comparative ease with which one could play with materials and nothing was every wrong – all added to the richness of discovery, and one could be really creative. Traditional piano lessons seem so restrictive by comparison – where is all that avant garde music we hear on Radio 3? I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t master as much technique and expressive powers as possible in playing piano as this is truly liberating to creativity, but while learning an instrument surely there should be space to experiment, reflect, and learn, without right and wrong, or at least apply different criteria to our judgements. Maybe composing should be integral to piano lessons just as improvisation is. Thanks for your blog on – I look forward to next week’s.

    1. Sally

      Dear Julia,
      I am so pleased that this has struck a chord with you! It is interesting you talk about your time as a furniture designer as my husband is a furniture maker/designer and we have had conversations about the parallels between the two. More on this next week I think! Sally


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