Friday, November 20, 2015

how to practice

I teach and play piano for a living, which will come as news to nobody who knows me personally or who has read my blog for any length of time. I have done a lot of thinking lately about effective practicing. As a collaborator and coach, I work almost exclusively with students (rather than full-fledged professionals), ranging from junior high through graduate level. By the time you're working with grad students, it's often a semi-professional situation anyway, but at every level, anyone studying music is learning how to learn.

I've told people that I make a lot of mistakes (alas), so I have gotten to be an expert at learning how to fix them. It's taken me a long time, and I'm still not perfect. For example, I can practice something six ways from Sunday until the cows come home, but if someone says the wrong thing to me right before a performance, it will screw up my confidence and I have to fight to hold my focus together. Yes, I should be over that stuff by now, but I'm not. It's an unfortunate truth that I will probably work to overcome for the rest of my professional life.

Let's turn back to the positive for a moment, shall we? Once I became a parent, my practice time was immediately limited and I learned to be much more efficient at the piano. I only take gigs I know I can prepare for, and I make sure to learn all the hard stuff first without any putzing around. Sometimes I literally make a plan, and it might go like this: 20 minutes on this, then 30 minutes on that, then 5-minute break for tea, and then I better read the pile of vocal rep in case any of it is harder than it looks.

Mistakes happen all the time. Musicians practice to avoid mistakes. In fact, a very, very smart person once told me that the goal of practicing isn't just to play the music right; it's so that you know you'll play it right, that there is no second-guessing left. That is a goal I reach for every time I play, and to that end I've analyzed mistakes I've made so that I know how best to fix them. There are infinite reasons we miss notes. Sometimes it's technique, or a poor grasp of the rhythm, or a harmony that is difficult to untangle, or the phrase is awkward, or it's an orchestral reduction with too many notes and you have to eliminate some of them, or you forgot to eat lunch and your blood sugar is low, sometimes your left hand is just doing everything wrong...whatever it is, you will do a much better job fixing the problem if you know why you're making the mistake in the first place.

Now when I'm rehearsing with young students in particular, if I notice the same error over and over, I speak up. I help them figure it out. I try not to be obnoxious about this, but I believe this is my job as a coach, as someone with plenty of experience making - and fixing - mistakes. This often involves removing one or more elements of the music getting in the way of a successful run-through (i.e. speaking words in rhythm if a singer is having trouble with text, or playing a rhythmically tricky passage under tempo if coordination with a solo instrument isn't working).

Perhaps "mistake" isn't always the correct word to use. Often, it's not that there are errors to fix as much as finding ways to make the music work better. Usually it has to do with tempo or timing, like starting too fast or slowing down too much in the middle of a phrase, or speeding through the climax of a section when it really needs more time for the dramatic moment to be effective.

I'm not describing any rehearsal or teaching techniques that are new or revolutionary. I'm not reinventing any wheels here. I just know that the longer I do this, the better I get. I just wonder, will I ever actually feel like I'm good enough myself?


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