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.
“It is a mistake to imagine that all notes should be played with equal intensity or even be clearly audible. In order to clarify the MUSIC it is often necessary to make certain NOTES obscure.”—pianist Alfred Schnabel (via 404-notsound)
This is one of those areas of black magic. Like, how do you make a pickup note sound like a pickup and not the beginning of a bar? How can my teacher stop me before I’ve even played the downbeat and say, “No, make it sound like a pickup,” and somehow I know what he means? Dark arts!
“Alban Berg gave a rather humorous answer to one enquiry: new music, he said, should be played as though it were classical, and classical music should be played as though it were new. This expresses the profound necessity of not seeing music as finally and absolutely stabilized in a series of tableaux vivants. (Why are they called ‘vivants’ in any case?) It also implies a reconsideration of what we generally mean by ‘tradition’ The better one comes to know the problems of interpretation, the more aware one becomes of the ephemeral character of the models that have been established, which were essentially determined by their epoch[…] What I mean is the change in the general attitude to a composer according to which aspect of his music appeals most to the taste of the period. In this way we have heard Bach’s music highly ‘dramatized’ and then reduced to the dry and rather trivial, while Mozart’s, once presented as charming, is now tragic. There are innumerable instances of this, and all give the lie to the idea that there is any one, exclusive tradition that represents the single, eternal aspect of any masterpiece.”—Arousing Interest in New Music (1972), Pierre Boulez. (via gestopft)
“Sofronitsky, who was Scriabin’s son-in-law and a great interpreter of his music, said “Remember, when you play Scriabin he will overthrow you emotionally. You have to have icecubes in your veins.” Which is a paradox because you don’t want to sound like you’ve got icecubes in your veins. But you have to maintain an iron control or else all the passion will just blindside you. His music is so visceral, so hyper-everything, hyperemotional, hypersensuous, hypererotic, hypermanic, hyperexciting… But you have to stay connected to the structure.
But even when structure is more obvious, one has to be careful. For example, Chopin sort of stands halfway between Mozart and Scriabin. Chopin has all this clarity and all the structure and all the purity, and yet if that’s all you play, if you leave out the magic, you’ve got nothing. But if you only play the magic it’s quite sickening. I mean, if you get all vaporous and emotional it’s nice for a few minutes — and then yuck. And with Scriabin, of course, it’s practically the other side of the coin.”—Garrick Ohlsson Artists on the Bench: This Week With Garrick Ohlsson : San Francisco Classical Voice
“It’s a common story with a few variables: a young pianist heads off to some form of post-secondary education or internship, and realizes quickly that beyond the realm of Nocturnes and Sonatas, there’s an endless amount of music written for Piano and Something Else. The young pianist is forced/invited/bribed to join some sort of chamber ensemble to get a credit in school, and she realizes that playing with other people is super fun and it makes her a better musician.
Pianists who decide to work with singers do so largely by playing regular voice lessons … It’s in these countless hours of playing voice lessons that pianists become coaches (if they’re paying attention). They learn to identify what it sounds like when a singer is pressing on the voice, or under-supporting, or clenching their jaw, or holding their breath, or when they’re out of tune and why. And as pianists work for more and more technically developed singers, they get the real treat of hearing what it sounds like when a voice is supported well and free from tension; I’ll spoil it for all you and tell you that it sounds thrilling.”—Jenna Douglas posting on Musical Toronto
It was actually terribly frustrating. I got so nervous trying to play for my professor I messed up much worse than I would have normally and got angry with myself for it which only made things worse. But when I finally managed to play through the first three pages my professor stopped me with one word. My name. She sounded pissed. “Lindsey,” she said, causing me to freeze without turning around to look at her, “…this is what I hate about you.” Oh god. What had I done? I slowly turned to face her. Her arms were crossed, her dramatic and dark Russian features over exaggerating the exasperation and frustration on her face. I shivered. “No really, I hate this. When you play, in terms of music you are perfect. No really, that was EXACTLY what Debussy should sound like. You have a gift, or it’s genetic, or whatever. Your rhythm, your phrasing, it’s all right, it’s all perfect. Your problem is in your head. You don’t trust yourself, you hesitate even when your hands are in the right place. You make one mistake and you just fall apart. In terms of musicality it’s perfect, there is nothing I can teach you. But I cannot learn these notes for you. Fix it.” I did not speak. I cringed and flinched away from her, I had done exactly what I’m always afraid I would do. I disappointed her. I felt so incredibly guilty. But as I left that lesson I wondered if there had been a compliment hidden in there somewhere, or if she had only just used the words “gift” and “perfect” to keep me from crying.
Either way, my practicing has taken on a new enthusiasm this week as I try to make my professor and friend proud. I know I speak and write about her a lot, but you have to understand what a special gift it is for me to learn from someone like her, and what an even greater gift it is to be such good friends with her.
Did I mention I’m babysitting her daughter next weekend?
I hope this week’s lesson goes well, for fear of making Momma-P angry again.
Piano lessons are therapy, no lie. To misquote Chopin, I tell the piano things I cannot tell myself.
“It took planning and great expertise to make each lesson possible. The nurse helped her learn how to calibrate her medications. “Before she would teach, she would take some additional morphine. The trick was to give her enough to be comfortable to teach and not so much that she would be groggy,” Martin recalled.
Nonetheless, he said, “She was more alive running up to a lesson and for the days after.” She’d had no children; her students filled that place for her. And she still had some things she wanted them to know before she went. “It was important to her to be able to say her goodbyes to her dear friends, to give her parting advice to her students.”
Peg, … got to fulfill her final role. She lived six weeks after going on hospice. [My daughter] had lessons for four of those weeks, and two final concerts were played. One featured Peg’s current students, all younger children; the other, her former students from around the country. Gathered in her living room, they played Brahms, Chopin and Beethoven for their adored teacher. A week later, she fell into delirium and, a short time after that, died peacefully in her bed.”—
The New York Times published a moving story today about cancer and end of life care.
“6. The precise location and source of each error was identified accurately, rehearsed, and corrected.
7. Tempo of individual performance trials was varied systematically; logically understandable changes in tempo occurred between trials (e.g. slowed things down to get tricky sections correct; or speeded things up to test themselves, but not too much).
8. Target passages were repeated until the error was corrected and the passage was stabilized, as evidenced by the error’s absence in subsequent trials.”—
Practice room strategies of the best pianists, based on a study performed at the University of Texas at Austin