When I was just starting music school I remember asking myself, "how does a concert pianist practice?" I figured I couldn't very well sneak into somebody's house and find out. But right away, my response to my own question was, "become one and find out!"
These days I probably don't actually qualify as a concert pianist since I don't give many concerts. But I have taken on some of the most difficult literature written for the instrument, and I've become a "concert organist" into the bargain. And I think I've been able to answer that question. It is a long answer and it takes many hours--of practice.
I've read I don't know how many times advice from teachers telling their students to practice passages "10 times" Now I'm going to compound last week's heresy in which I announced that I don't play scales to warm up every morning by telling you I don't play each passage 10 times. Ever. That I know of.
The reason I (probably) don't play each passage 10 times is that I never keep count. My goal in practicing is not to play something a certain number of times, it is to play it until I can play it well. Some passages probably don't need very many repetitions, and others I probably play at least 100 times. But who's counting?
While I am playing, I am constantly diagnosing the problems I'm having. If I keep missing the same note, I focus on just that note. If the rhythm isn't precise, I work on that. If the articulation is flabby, I work on that. Usually there is a specific area that needs more work than the rest, just as there as certain parts of the piece that are more difficult than other parts of the piece.
For many people, that approach might not work. People seem to need to quantify things; particularly if they aren't really enjoying their labor, they will want to be able to stop after a set number of repetitions, like somebody lifting weights or doing push-ups. However, if our weightlifter really wants to improve, he or she is going to need to push past the pain, and last week's number of repetitions, and go further. One more! yells the coach. No pain, no gain, says the motivational poster.
The strange thing about it is that it is my impatience, combined with a natural desire to avoid suffering that leverages the whole process. Because at some point, when the passage becomes easy, I stop having to worry about getting it right and start to think about getting it musical. It is no longer drudgery; it is enjoyable. The sooner I can get from the pain of assimilation to the joy of making music the better. And if I spend a very long, arduous day playing something so many times that I never have to put in that kind of work again, all the better. If I only play it 10 times, counting all the way, tomorrow might not be much better. I'll have to start over again, and I sure don't want that!
In other words, taking the passage from a bunch of notes to a musical gesture is not easy sometimes. And therefore I should work all the harder to make it that way. If this little equation seems like just the opposite of what seems natural you have the paradox of practice right in your hands. And you know why so few of us get very far with music. It is an unfortunate truth that the first steps are often the hardest; it is then, before we have any results to raise our spirits, that we have to work the hardest!
But the other reason I don't count is that I just don't have the brain cells to do it! I am busy figuring out what I can do to master the passage. The faster I can figure that out the more practice I can save myself. If my whole mind is engaged I'll get there a lot faster. And counting repetitions is just a diversion.
Think about it: does anybody really care if you played that measure 10 times? Or do they care if you can play the music well?
My brain isn't given to repetition anyway. It gets bored. But when I'm fully engaged, spending each moment sizing up the passage and suggesting improvements to myself, it never seems the same twice. Because every time I play a passage it is slightly, if ever so slightly, improved. And now I can work on it from a different angle. It is the same with music making. Each moment is unique. And being in that moment, rather than counting how many times I have to do something, signifies real commitment, and real reward.