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Proverbs for Pianists

There is a great deal of wisdom encapsulated in proverbs. While they are meant to apply to life in general, they also have specific applications to piano playing and teaching. I enjoy using these aphorisms while teaching, and they often become a quick way of reminding students of a principle that is eluding them at the moment.

"A chain is only as good as its weakest link."

A piece of music is like a chain of sounds, held together by the rhythm. In a performance, the weak links are places where the performer either doesn't know the notes or has technical and other problems that cause stumbling and stopping. Always practice the weakest part of the piece first, until it won't snap under pressure.

"As you sow, so shall you reap."

This proverb is a paraphrase of Galatians 6:7, from the King James Bible. In piano, this refers to the learning and practicing process. If the pianist learns the piece well and puts a great deal of thought into interpretation and working out technical issues, the performance will also be good. On the other hand, poor learning and practice habits lead directly to poor performances, and the unsuspecting student usually blames performance nerves or the piano rather than faulty preparation. I believe that most performance nerves stem from the fact that deep down, unprepared players know that they did not practice properly.

"A stitch in time saves nine."

This proverb refers to darning socks, not a common skill anymore. When a tiny hole first appeared in a sock, it required one stitch to repair. As the hole grew, it required more stitches, and therefore more time and effort to repair. In practicing, the same holds true. The longer one ignores a problem, the more difficult it becomes to solve it because of the bad habits built up. The best time to fix a problem is right now.

"Cross that bridge when you come to it."

We have all had the experience of performing with some "weak links" in our pieces. As the weak link approaches in performance, we start to worry about it. Distracted, something else goes wrong, and the performance goes down in flames. The only solution to this all-too-familiar tragedy is to learn to stay present in the moment. And strengthen the weak links.

"Every cloud has a silver lining."

Because of the distressing effect mistakes have on the ego, people tend to think of them as something negative. It is infinitely more useful to accept that mistakes happen. Once something goes wrong, analyze why. The reason is usually quite simple, and is a result of not understanding the passage. The cloud is the blow to the ego; the silver lining is the chance to learn from the mistake. This also applies to difficult lessons and practice sessions. Uncomfortable though it may be, this is where I do most of my learning.

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." AND "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

The first bit of advice should always be taken in tandem with the second, which comes from Albert Einstein. Most practice sessions consist of endless repetition of something that does not work. Practicing is not simple repetition. It is "intelligent" repetition, where each attempt informs the next. Successful procedures are kept and failures are discarded. Therefore, every repetition should be different, until all that's left is what works.

"Make haste slowly."

This proverb, attributed to Augustus, is a riddle to most students. The worst, most time consuming, and therefore most popular way to learn something is to plunge in at "tempo desperando" and flail. To learn quickly, calmly take the time to understand and master each individual phrase. It may seem painfully slow at first, but results come much quicker. I tell my students that they would be astonished at how slowly I practice, and therefore how quickly I learn.

"No pain, no gain."

This proverb has been misinterpreted by generations of music students, causing untold suffering. There should never be physical pain during practice, ever. Pain is an indicator that students are doing something wrong, or have something physically wrong with them. A better interpretation of the proverb is that one must struggle to overcome faulty assumptions about piano playing and music in order to play more expressively. Seeing through misconceptions can be very difficult, frustrating, and often painful, but this is ultimately necessary to play well.

"Whether you think you can, or you think you can't—you're right."

This quote from Henry Ford sounds like another riddle, but on reflection, many students understand. When seeing a seemingly complicated score for the first time, they often decide that it is too difficult. This brings a sense of futility to their practicing and slows down the learning process. If students are convinced they can do it, then they find a way. Often, the issue is that they try to do too many things at once. I recommend solving one problem at a time.

"Practice makes perfect."

Careful with this proverb; it's not complete. "Practice makes permanent." I first heard this from a friend of mine, Ingrid Clarfield. The trap in the proverb is that everything students do when they think they are practicing is what they are actually practicing. This includes, but is not limited to, wrong notes, poor rhythm, unmusical playing, excess tension, memory slips, anxiety, distraction, anger, boredom, and so on. The saying should be modified to read "Perfect practice makes perfect." Of course, that raises the thorny question: What is perfect?

"The least of the work of learning is done in the classroom."

This quote comes from the writer Thomas Merton. Piano students (and their parents) assume that learning takes place at the lesson. This is emphatically untrue, and the student who believes this is severely handicapped. A teacher's task is to guide, to point out what needs to be done, and suggest ways to do it. It is the student's task to go home and work out a solution. It is the parents' task to create an environment where it is encouraged. This is why intelligent, creative practicing, and plenty of it, is so vitally important.

"You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink."

As a novice teacher, I thought that it was enough to tell a student something, and since it was so obvious to me, the student would understand right away and begin to do it. I've also found that even if you can clearly demonstrate the necessity and advisability of a process to students, they still resist like stubborn horses. Or perhaps mules. With students, one can only keep leading them to the water and pointing out the beauties in the hope that one day they will take a sip and find it irresistible. 

And in closing, a quote from Aristotle:

"Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you'd rather have been talking."

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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