Productive Practicing: The hidden part of the iceberg
The demands of playing the piano at an advanced level are varied and complex. The list of skills pianists need to learn seems endless, and many of them are subtle and time consuming to master.
How long does it take to understand the pedal (Anton Rubinstein's "soul of the piano") and its possibilities? How much practicing does it take to absorb the intricacies of the various styles of music? No wonder pianists must practice well, several hours each day for years, before they are ready for the concert stage.
On the surface, practicing sounds as thought it consists of various bits of music, repeated until learned. Then the bits are polished to a greater or lesser extent until they sound the way the performer (and hopefully composer) intends. Eventually, the bits are assembled into larger sections, which are finally put together to form an entire piece. However, this audible part of practicing is merely the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the "visible" portion, there lives an unseen structure that determines the shape and quality of the pianist's work. The building blocks of this supporting structure include a myriad of intangible substances, some of which I'll reflect on below.
How well we concentrate determines the speed and quality of our learning. Unfortunately, once the notes are learned, it is quite possible to play a piece without paying attention. How many of us have played a sonata while compiling a shopping list? To the untrained or inattentive ear, it may sound fine. Hence, many intelligent and well-meaning parents are hoodwinked into believing that their kids are practicing when they are actually daydreaming to their own lackluster musical accompaniment. In Buddhism, this daydreaming is called the "monkey mind"—trivial thoughts leaping around and chattering incessantly like monkeys in a tree. According to Nadia Boulanger, "Life is denied by lack of attention, whether it be to washing windows or trying to write a masterpiece." When we concentrate, we also practice concentrating and improve at it.
Determination and willpower provide the engine which drives practicing. It is determination that keeps us at the piano when the oh-so-pleasant distractions of everyday life beckon seductively. Wouldn't you rather check email, watch Judge Judy, or eat another ice cream bar than work out the strangely elusive voicing of the first chord of Beethoven's fourth concerto? It is only when the voicing begins to work that we realize that it was in fact worth the effort. Up to that point, Judge Judy was obviously a much more logical and productive way to spend our time. Willpower gives us the strength to resist temptation and overcome obstacles. I will find that beautiful sound. I will discover that captivating rhythm. In a recent Clavier Companion article about Adele Marcus, I read that her definition of talent was "...the desire to express yourself." (May/June 2011, p. 48.) Willpower, determination, and the desire to express take the fascinating landscapes of our imaginations and give us the drive to realize that landscape in sound.
Courage is not the same as fearlessness. General George S. Patton, an American commander in World War II, said, "Courage is fear holding on a minute longer." It is the quality that keeps you going even when you are frightened. While it is quite unusual to have someone actually shooting at you when you practice, there are things that we do fear: the very real possibility of failure, the looming specter of an upcoming audition or concert, the opinions of teachers, parents, the public. These fears make checking Facebook appear much more attractive than working out those frightening leaps in Scriabin's Etude in D# minor, Op. 8, No. 12. (I just watched Horowitz on YouTube displaying all the alarm of someone buttering toast as he navigated the etude. Very inspiring!) Courage is a lot like determination. I use the words "gumption" and "chutzpah" when discussing courage with my students. I just like the sound of those words.
Nothing is possible without perseverance. To expect immediate success is like believing that your lottery ticket will win. And yet many people expect it, giving up almost immediately when things don't go their way. I like to joke with my students that my career as a musician is an almost unblemished record of failure, marred only by the occasional success. Let's be honest: how often do we play something perfectly? I mean, really nail it? And yet, if we keep at it, we get closer and closer to that elusive, ever-changing perfection. As the song "Pick Yourself Up" says, "Don't lose confidence if you slip, be grateful for the trip, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again." 1
Perseverance is all very well, but many people practice as if they were wind-up toys persistently colliding with a wall. How many times have we heard the same passage coming from a practice room repeated several times with the same problems? Eventually the pattern stops and the player moves on, without having corrected anything. Albert Einstein defines insanity as "doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." By this definition, "sanity" means figuring out what went wrong and coming up with ways to fix it. With all of us wind-up toy practicers, it is not that we are not intelligent. It is just that we often don't apply our intelligence. The more often we use it, the handier it gets.
Confidence is basically trust; trust in ourselves and our abilities. The interesting thing is that it can be learned and practiced. Confidence is born out of meeting and overcoming challenges. Up to a point, the more difficult the challenge, the better. If the standard is set too low, success comes easily and we earn very little confidence in return. No risk, no return. According to Nadia Boulanger, "Loving a child doesn't mean giving in to all his whims; to love him is to bring out the best in him, to teach him to love what is difficult." Loving what is difficult allows us to over-come challenges, and this breeds confidence. If I master Chopin's "Revolutionary" etude, I can take on the "Winter Wind." Learning a Clementi sonatina opens the doors to Mozart. Confidence is not born from praise, even sincere praise (although I believe in giving praise when it is due). It results from honest evaluation followed by a concerted effort to overcome deficiencies. Teachers help students gain confidence by instilling in them the tools to help overcome these deficiencies.
Respect is not only for Mafia dons. The word "respect" is derived from the Latin word respire, which means "to look back, to gaze at, to consider." We don't use this definition anymore, but I think it deserves some respect. The key is in the definition "to consider," which means to think carefully about something. If we think carefully about the music, about what our teachers say, about what our students say, then we respect them, and that leads to understanding. And of course, there is also a hierarchy that needs to be respected. Just as in the Mafia. (Police take note- I am not speaking from personal experience!) In a lesson, there are three musicians in the room: the student, the teacher, and the composer of the music. It is the composer who deserves the most attention. And it is impossible to understand music or play really well without respect. In fact, I think that "respect" is just another word for "listening."
It is difficult to overstate how lucky we are, how much we have to be thankful for. Because of our technology, we have a staggering wealth of musical opportunity—endless live performances, recordings, YouTube, iTunes, free scores. We also have many fine teachers, decent instruments, and mountains of advice (such as this article). Opportunity has become so cheap that we take it for granted. How many times have we cursed like drunken stevedores because YouTube doesn't load a youthful Ashkenazy's 1962 performance in the Tchaikovsky competition quickly enough? Bach apparently walked 200 miles to hear Buxtehude play and speak to him. Kind of puts YouTube and its instant gratification in perspective. And then there is the sheer volume of printed music, from the greats to many obscure gems that otherwise would have been lost. Most importantly, there is the absolute miracle of existence of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Beethoven's 32 sonatas, Chopin's 24 etudes. It is easy to take all this for granted, but some reflection reveals how precious our music is. Practicing with gratitude allows us to hear more deeply into the music instead of merely scratching the surface. (I am also sincerely grateful that you have read this far.)
We are not cats; curiosity will not kill us. Not at the piano, at any rate. There are many ways to do anything, just as there are countless valid interpretations of a piece of music. I had a student whose piano playing used to be a single-minded struggle to do things right. I made it a priority to stamp that out ruthlessly, and replace it with a curiosity about the expressive qualities of sound. Now his playing is ironically more correct and infinitely more expressive. Favorite questions include "What is this music about? How can I make the sound reflect the meaning? How can I get that sound?" Curiosity is a question. "What if I...?" Kids have the idea. "Let's pretend..." Curiosity leads us to discover far more than if we simply try to find the right way, whatever that is. With curiosity, we live many more than nine lives.
How many people have quietly looked at a painting for a while? When I ask a student that question, the reply often is: "Why would I do that? It's boring!" But when I do that, colors deepen, lines sharpen, and details emerge that weren't evident at first. In fact, after even a few minutes, the painting is so much more vibrant and alive that it is hard to believe that it's the same painting. Likewise, in reading and re-reading a poem, meanings emerge that were not at first apparent. And when I perceive them, they are so obvious that I have to ask why I didn't get them the first time. Music works the same way. When I repeat a passage with an open mind, heart and ears, I hear and understand things that I would otherwise miss. My sensitivity to the meaning of the passage become more finely honed. Many people automatically equate repetition with monotony, which is true in a sense, but not complete. Repetition without change becomes boring. Is it boring if, upon repeating a passage several times, our understanding and facility increases? The thing is, we ourselves change. The music doesn't.
One of the most important and overlooked faculties is the imagination. There is something mysterious and magical about it. Everybody can imagine, creating mental images, sounds, and feelings out of nothing. And yet, most of the performances I hear are accurate, musical, and often technically astounding, but lack the depth and color that comes from the infusion of imagination. According to Einstein, "Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere." I would much rather listen to an imaginative player than a merely logical one. Like logic, imagination can be developed, practiced, and inspired. It is simply a question of slowing down, engaging the imagination, and asking, "What does this sound mean to me? How should this passage sound? How can I project the meaning in sound? What color should this harmony be? What orchestral instrument could play this melody?" As a delightful fringe benefit, it is astonishing how many technical issues are remedied by this approach. Imagination is like a muscle; the more exercise it gets, the better it functions.
There are many things that we can only do for ourselves. Teachers, no matter how brilliant and inspiring, can only take us so far. The opinions of colleagues, academics, and even laymen can be rigid and stifling, full of "Thou shalt..." and "Thou shalt not..." and even outright contradictions. And then there is destructive self-criticism. One of my students was so adept at criticizing herself into tears that on occasion I almost felt like calling 911. To be artists, we need to go beyond what we have been taught and what other people think, and work things out for ourselves. Without independence, nothing we do is truly ours. Since music is an expression of what we understand and feel, if we simply parrot what we have been told, we miss the point. Independence inspires us to search for more musically satisfying interpretations rather than trying to score a higher mark on an exam. It leads us to make sincere artistic statements rather than trying to impress a jury. It is in fact independence that sets us apart from everybody else. When I assert my own informed independence and ignore the critical voices in my head, I hear "the dearest freshness deep down things"2 irrepressibly bubbling up from the music.
Above all, there is the sheer joy of making music. It is the joy of the child constructing sand castles. It is the joy of a chef preparing a superb meal. It is the joy of a gardener designing and nurturing a lovely garden. The practice room is the perfect place to experience this. Away from the intense pressure of performing, practicing can become a meditation, an oasis. It can become a search for beauty, an uncovering of secrets concealed in plain sight. "You are what you eat," as the saying goes. As a musician, you are what you practice. Most people spend far more time practicing than performing. So why not practice well and enjoy it? After all, if you don't, what's the point?
Just as the visible tip of an iceberg is supported by the vast bulk hidden beneath the surface, everything we experience is the product of numerous invisible processes. The music we hear is a result of the cooperation of countless factors, in which musical and technical knowledge play a small but admittedly vital part. Work without concentration is daydreaming. A person without determination is condemned to a life of mediocrity. Attempting to solve problems without using one's innate intelligence dooms a person to failure. Making music without engaging the imagination is missing the point, and a musician without respect is no musician. But people who cultivate the hidden part of the iceberg with diligence and discipline cannot fail, no matter what they do.
A final thought. As long as we believe that we play music, we struggle. Conflict ends when, in a moment of insight, we understand that music plays us.
1 "Pick Yourself Up" from the 1936 film Swing Time. Lyrics by Dorothy Field, music by Jerome Kern.
2 From the poem "God's Grandeur" by Gerard Manley Hopkins.