It's been a pretty intense week of Pita Catching around here.
I would have called it an intense week of practicing, but my phone, which knows all about these things, decided to auto-correct "practicing" to "pita catching" when I texted my wife what I was up to, so I've kind of adopted the term.
Pita catching comes in a variety of forms. It helps to be familiar with all of them, because when you are on a deadline (and you are) you will necessarily experience all of them in a whirlwind of contiguous sensations which are emotionally and physically exhausting enough when you know they are coming. Not to recognize that the valleys of despair are just a normal part of the journey is to succumb completely. And remember, ain't nobody got time for that.
Palm Sunday is just over a week away now, and for the occasion I've selected a complex piece for organ solo by Jean Langlais (Les Rameaux, or "The Palms"). I've never played it before, and because of my schedule this year so far I've been unable to get a head start on it; so Monday was my first chance to tackle it. I skipped what I call the "introduction phase" which is just looking the piece over, reading through it a time or two, spending 20 minutes practicing bits of it and putting it away for later, given the demands of the calendar. Given the size and difficulty of the piece--nine pages of complex French harmonies and not a single bar of repetition anywhere--my plan was to pounce full out and get as much of the piece familiar and under my fingers at a slow tempo as soon as possible. That first day I managed to practice the entire piece in about four hours.
This meant combining the steps of "discovery" and "the pain." Discovery is obviously fun because you are finding new things, hearing exotic harmonies, enjoying how the composer put the piece together, even sometimes puzzled. It was also mildly intoxication because it reminds me of the Resurrection movement from the Symphonie-Passion by Marcel Dupre which I played years ago in my first year in Illinois, and a flood of associative memories hovered close by without my invitation. The pain comes in when your brain, realizing it is a muscle, and that you have tried to assimilate 9 pages of notes in a single morning, begins to get very tired and bruised. At that point, repeating phrases and whole sections is a lot like bench pressing. Each one is a struggle and leaves you tired. Then you take a short break, brace your courage, and do it again. The longer you practice, the harder it gets. It is an enigma that sometimes practice seems to make a piece worse. This is mainly true in the early stages, and in the first days, when the brain is trying to catch hold of all that new information.
The despair sets in the next day, when, despite four hours of work the day before, you feel as though you have had never seen the piece before, and that nothing you have done is having any impact whatever. This is because it takes the brain a few days to build all of the neuron highways to put it all in storage. Knowing this, you keep practicing, waiting for that eventual day or hour when all of the sudden the piece starts to feel familiar, as if you HAD been practicing all this time.
I was feeling like a goldfish on Tuesday, with the fabled 3 second memory. Repetitions did little to improve my comfort with the materials. Then I went through a stage where the passages would start to improve after several repetitions, but if I went on to something else and then came back to them I had to start as if from the beginning. On Wednesday the situation was no better--at the start. However, later in the day the piece did assemble itself fairly quickly and I was able to play it from start to finish--a phenomenon I have been aware of for a long time. No results, no results, then suddenly--whoosh. Progress.
I once had a neighbor who wondered how I practiced and asked if I just played pieces all the way through over and over. Any good musician knows that is not how to practice; however, at this stage in a piece's practice history I will often play through. It gives me an overhead view of the whole, and what it is like to get there. Once I've gotten the piece assembled the first time I am able to see all of the parts that aren't going as well. If I have a close deadline, I also know at this point how close I am to being able to "fake it"--that is, get through it somehow, in case I run out of time to clean and oil all the details. I played through five times before I went to lunch. On Thursday I did more of that. I called it the "fast and sloppy" stage, because I am grasping the whole and even playing it not far from tempo, but am making mistakes. Next I took the piece apart again, and worked each section carefully. That was Thursday. There was evening, and there was morning.
By Friday the piece is where I wanted it to be at the end of the first week--essentially playable, and in need of more repetition and reinforcement. I've gone from repetition that hurts to repetition that feels great, because my mind, like any mind, enjoys reinforcing what it knows already. My brain is now practicing on its own time, as well, which is a huge supplement. I am no longer afraid of being able to play the piece, having another week to work on it. The second week will be much easier than the first. And a lot more fun. It sounds like music now. I am using a full registration. I know why this man has such a reputation. It is an awesome piece of music.
I am still not done. I can play most of the piece once I've practiced for a while. I can't begin to play it cold, the first time. Nor would I want to do it under nerves, or after a lengthy choir rehearsal and a pancake dinner. This requires much more tightening, and a firm grasp of every measure. I've done this many times before, and I know what it will take, and how long. How a piece seems to accelerate as it is learned, so not to despair in the early days, but to get as much of a head start as possible, and let your head do its part. To work everything carefully, and then try to put it together, to take it apart again, lather, rinse, repeat. And all under constant diagnosis. Because even when a passage sounds fine to a listener, it may not be. If it took too much mental effort to get to a chord, even if there was no hesitation, that part will not withstand pressure later on. The better one can diagnose, the better one can improve. It also makes practice, with all of its ups and downs, much more interesting. I never look at a watch, count repetitions, or wonder when I can be finished. My brain is too busy for that.
Speaking of which, it is a new day, and I've got more pitas to catch.