Music moves in me. Shapes I’ve needed to complete. Listen, listen hard.
Tumblr, with its vibrant musical community, already abounds in posts of this nature. But I posted this in another site, and thought it might bear reproducing here.
Practice at any musical instrument isn’t about quantity. It’s a matter of quality, and this is the biggest flaw in the “10,000 hour” myth. The only way quantity — in terms of hours, say — enters into the equation is to ensure that one establishes and maintains a certain amount of forward momentum. Even then, a relatively small amount of consistent and efficient practice is vastly superior to a large quantity of disorganized, unproductive dawdling. Practice doesn’t pay by the hour.
I’m a big proponent of the value of sitting down at the instrument and just playing, because I think it deepens one’s relationship with the instrument, enriches the affinity for and fluency with music in general, and prevents us from bringing a mass-production mindset to the piano bench (where it certainly does not belong). The figure is somewhat arbitrary, but I’d say that for beginning and intermediate students in particular, something like 30% of one’s time at the instrument should be spent in this unambitious, exploratory manner. This, too, is practice, and practice of an important kind. To sit down at the piano, or any other instrument, with clear, hard and fast goals at all times is not in my opinion a healthy and sustainable approach to music-making, though some might disagree.
At any rate, I don’t think the desire to do this — to sit and play, for heaven’s sake, enjoying sounds and livening up the synapses the way a child would — can be forced where it doesn’t already exist. But if a person doesn’t find pleasure and knowledge in aimlessly spending time with the instrument in this way, then I do find myself questioning from whence comes his or her desire to play at all.
With that preliminary aside out of the way, I’m happy to share some of the ways by means of which I try to ensure efficiency and productivity in piano practice:
- Consistency of practice habits. The most powerful way to promote efficient practice in the context of the individual session is to foster regularity by creating a basic practice schedule, say on a weekly basis, and sticking to it over the course of weeks to months. If you have to lose some time, make it up, and plan in advance to do so. Guard your practice time jealously. Having established a routine, you can add to it or adjust it if you must — but don’t cheat it, and don’t get in the habit of soothing yourself with reassuring internal chatter like, “Well, this week, I just didn’t have time." We either make time, or we don’t. Period. It doesn’t have to be a severe affair: just establish a routine, and hold yourself accountable for it.
- Begin with a warm-up. Piano-playing involves a truly athletic component, and practicing without a thorough warm-up is as disadvantageous for a pianist as for a gymnast. It’s crucial that the warm-up not be mindless, perfunctory. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. When it’s ready, you’ll know. When you’re simply stopping after x minutes in hopes that you’re ready — well, you’ll know that, too. You choose.
- Don’t practice for longer than you can remain engaged, and experiment with segmenting your practice. Even for advanced pianists, practicing for more than about two hours at a stretch starts to push it. You may find it helpful to divide your practice time into segments: 15 minutes for a casual warm-up, 30 minutes for Piece A, another 30 for Piece B. Take short breaks between the segments if you find they help you refocus — get up and walk around a bit, maybe.
- With respect to the music itself, divide and conquer. Few habits are as unproductive as the practice of “running” a piece before you’re ready to do so. Be methodical and Zen enough that you can devote 30 minutes or so at a time to a troublesome passage that’s only a few bars long. Save big-picture thinking and big-picture work for when you’re ready; in music, there is no such thing as filling in the details later. The musician needs a large number of manageable short-term goals, not a small number of castles in the sky. That’s not to say that the latter option is destructive, only that it must be converted to the former in order to produce results. (See item nº 1 for how to create a systematic approach that will keep you from needing to “cram.”)
- Practice technically difficult material slowly and methodically. At the piano (and at other instruments, certainly) there are healthy motions and unhealthy motions. To “power through” a technically difficult passage is to learn to accomplish that passage with unhealthy motions that will produce inconsistent, shaky results. To rehearse it methodically, beginning far under tempo and gradually increasing speed with repetition, is to begin with healthy motions which then get organically integrated into the flow of the music and produce a result in which you can be as confident as humanly possible. It’s old, dry wisdom. And it works. Andrés Segovia said that methodical practice is like a scaffolding which we construct around something we are building. Eventually the scaffolding is taken away and only the structure remains, with no evidence of how it was all put together; but if the architect didn’t bother to use scaffolding at all, we can sure tell it.
- Make use of ‘varied repetition.’ The concept of varied repetition relates to the theory that we learn best through practice when the repetition that is inherently involved is…well, varied. Turn even-flowing scale passages into jagged, dotted rhythms and practice them that way for a while before going back to the original. Practice complicated or troublesome passages at a variety of tempos, from unreasonably slow to unreasonably fast. For breakneck pyrotechnics, practice them with much greater velocity than necessary once they have been brought up to performance tempo in a healthy fashion. One of Rachmaninoff’s favorite maxims was, “The way to ensure the horse can win the race of a mile is to first make sure it can win the race of a mile and a half.”
- Keep the ears online, always. Always pay attention to the sounds you are making, and critique them by connecting the ears with the hands. Making music requires both fire (passion and intensity of involvement) and ice (cool, critical detachment). Don’t think of them as separate phases of the practice process — learn to integrate fire and ice at all times. This will make your music flow like water rather than in fits and starts. Modern technology can help: get comfy with the idea of recording yourself. For pianists, even very lo-fi video recordings are especially helpful and will reveal quirks (both positive and undesirable) that you probably weren’t aware of before.
I have officially decided that for Halloween I will be Martha Argerich.
Maybe afterward I’ll post pics and we can do a “spot the difference” or something.
Bonus points if I can play Prokofiev 3 anywhere near as fast/spectacular as she plays it
or if I can still play it at all.
Rachmaninoff - Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Piano - Philip Martin
BBC Proms - 1987
I would like to introduce you to my piano teacher, Philip Martin. I have had my second piano lesson with him this week and despite only seeing him for 2 hours I feel we understand each other extremely well. He is awfully encouraging and is even bringing in one of his piano concertos for me to look at! This week we looked at two études I had prepared and then we played through the Lutoslawski Paganini variations for two pianos. It was the first time every playing it with someone else and, my gosh, was it fun! He suggested I carried on learning it as it was going rather well.
I apologise for the lack of posting, I never realised how busy and tiring university life would be!
- The Piano Blog
I used the “That’s a big guitar.” line to someone carrying a cello at the conservatoire today and made a friend.
Just after intermission, about 50 people interrupted the St. Louis Symphony’s performance of Brahms Requiem on Saturday night, singing “Justice for Mike Brown.”
As symphony conductor Markus Stenz raised his baton to begin the second act of German Requiem, one middle-aged African-American man stood up in the middle of the theater and sang, “What side are you on friend, what side are you on?”
In an operatic voice, another woman located a few rows away stood up and joined him singing, “Justice for Mike Brown is justice for us all.” Several more audience members sprinkled throughout the theater and in the balcony rose up and joined in the singing.
Those in the balcony lowered white banners about 15 feet long with black spray-painted letters that said, “ Requiem for Mike Brown 1996-2014” and “Racism lives here,” with an arrow pointed to a picture of the St. Louis Arch. Another banner said, “Rise up and join the movement.”
Stenz stood stoically and listened to the demonstrators’ performance. Some onlookers were outraged and start spewing expletives. Others stood up and started clapping. Most seemed stunned and simply watched.
The singing only went on for two minutes before the demonstrators started chanting, “Black lives matter.” Then they all marched out together and left the theater. While they marched out, they received a round of applause from almost all of the audience members – as well as the musicians on stage.
Outside, symphony administrators huddled together discussing the demonstration. When asked if they wanted to comment, they said no.