Wednesday, June 3, 2015


This is the second in a short series of articles about practicing.

After the thrill of discovery comes the difficult part--Practicing a passage for what can seem like forever before the music starts to sound like music. I remember tackling a Rachmaninoff concerto for absolutely forever and being frustrated by how long it was taking with no discernible progress in sight. Then I remembered it was still the first day. But hey, it had been several hours and I wasn't playing it wonderfully yet, ok?

That's the first obstacle, perhaps: impatience. But the second?

I also remember the lesson of one particular child. He played his piece, and afterward I pointed out two very specific things he needed to fix. Then I asked him, "what did I say?"

"You said the piece was bad."

Of course that is exactly what I did not say. I did not give him a general impression of the piece, nor did I give him a reason to take away a vague emotionally negative idea and throw away everything else. But that's what kids tend to do. For that matter, that's what any emotionally immature entity tends to do, regardless of age. All criticism becomes "it was bad."

I reminded him that I did not say the piece was bad and repeated exactly the two things--the very specific things, like not to hesitate before he played a certain note, and not to play a wrong note in another spot, or to coordinate a left hand note and a right hand note better--and asked him how to fix that.

I suspect at that point I had to provide not only a diagnosis but a strategy.

That, you see, is the biggest reason most of us need teachers to show us how to practice. We need someone with good ears who will tell us exactly what is going wrong-- not generally, not in a defeatist way, but exactly and precisely provide a list of the things that aren't right: specific notes, rhythms, awkward measures, muddy articulations, clumsy technical approaches, and so on. Then we need to develop a plan for how to deal with those exact things head on. How am I going to fix this spot?

What is wrong, and how will I fix it? Very specific questions, with very specific answers. And that process is repeated and repeated and repeated until the problems go away and we can play the piece fluently.

This is why the toughest, and potentially dullest part, of practicing, is actually the one with the most going on. This is the part where if you are the typical piano teacher you tell little Johnny to repeat his song 10 times every day and with a scowl on his face like he is eating vegetables he doesn't like he plays it 9 times to see if you are checking in on him--nine times exactly the same way; wrong every time.

But if you, or the student, are really practicing, and really making progress, those nine--no, ten--times, are not the same at all, and there is an interior dialogue running through each of them that charts exactly what was good and not good about every note, every musical moment. It isn't just mindless repetition, it is careful listening and small adjustment every moment every time. Boring? I'm mentally exhausted after just an hour at this point, because I have to concentrate so hard. There's no time to be bored. Plus I just don't have the energy.

Besides, I'm not counting repetitions. I keep playing the passage until I get it right, and I don't care if it takes a hundred times. Maybe some time in the 50s I'll conk out and agree to try it again tomorrow, or in five minutes after a break, but the number of repetitions doesn't matter anyway. Getting it right matters. That can be very difficult. But after years of teachers and years of lessons, I won't let myself get away with anything less. My teachers wouldn't have. Now they are a part of me.

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