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This week's featured recording:



Fugue in D Bwv 532
by J. S. Bach

One year ago on the final Sunday of June we said a fond farewell to our pipe organ for the summer while the console was refurbished. I sent it off with this delightful fugue, so that the congregation could have pleasant memories of that final pedal tuba ringing in their eyes for the months of July and August.
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Monday 6/8

Let's go back to the beginning

The sound of late Medieval music

Wednesday 6/10

To be taken orally

sure, take two Youtube videos, but call me in the morning, ok?

Friday 6/12
I'd like to be stubborn like that
You mean it doesn't just rain down from heaven? I have to study, too?



(This is) Your Brain on Microsoft
A paen to the pain of practicing

"Go practice the piano!" our mothers would yell. So off we'd march. But once seated at the instrument, not all sounds gushing forth bore a family resemblance to the tunes our teachers had actually assigned. It was easy to fool mom. She was busy chopping onions in the kitchen and wasn't paying too close attention, so as long as she heard piano noises coming out of the living room you were probably safe. Once in a while, though, you might get a reprimand. "That doesn't sound like your lesson!"

It has taken me several years to figure out what I really ought to be doing when I am supposed to be practicing the piano. All of that goofing around I did during childhood wasn't all bad, however. There is a fine line between goofing around and creativity. Making up passages so your songs would be longer, or trying to play them in different keys or just making up something else because you had gotten tired (oh so quickly) of playing the same one again and again--all this has actually borne fruit, even in some of my gainful employment, to say nothing of my hobbies. But actually practicing is a skill that comes late to many of us, and to many more, not at all. It is a discipline, which is to say it is not easy, or natural. And to teach it in a way that does not make it seem like the killer of every possible ounce of joy in the known universe is probably also beyond the ability of most teachers.

Still, the art of practicing is an extremely important skill to have if you want to get anyplace as a musician. At one point I asked myself, "how do concert pianists practice?" to which the answer was simply "become one and find out!"

I have since spent thousands of hours with myself in the practice room, and found that, while I may not always be the best company, any piece of music worth the learning has a price--and often rewards with joys subtle and great at various stages in the process.

At first, if the piece is not too unfathomably difficult, I read it through. This stage can include the joy of discovery, particularly if your composer has planted little harmonic surprises, or turns of phrase on every other page so that you feel as though you are listening to a skilled conversationalist. At this point you are experiencing all of the effect of the piece and little of the hard work. But if the piece is too difficult to make continuous playing practical, proceed directly to stage two: rolling up the sleeves and getting to work.

There are a lot of people who don't like this stage very well. It often means playing the same measure or phrase over and over until every note, and every choreographed leap, is just right. The passage has to feel comfortable in the hands, and it has to make musical sense. Since a really fine composition will usually have many simultaneous details, there are a lot of small things to master. At this point we are also teaching the muscles what their routes are. I have heard it claimed that in the course of a piano recital a pianist will make some 600,000 decisions. The more of those that can be put on autopilot the better! How do you articulate each note? How loud is piano exactly? Forget the tempo, that will come with more practice. Can you make even a single measure feel like something you know well rather than something you have to suffer through each time? Never mind a measure: what about a single gesture?

Getting this kind of familiarity in the music pays off--eventually. In the meantime, it can go anywhere from mildly frustrating to fairly depressing. No wonder people would rather avoid it. Whole hours, or days (or weeks) of limping through the same passages, hardly noticing the improvement (unless, like myself, you have trained yourself to notice even the subtlest difference in the way your brain reacts to the information), constantly missing the same notes (make a note of those for special attention), spending all of your energy trying to do what the notes tell you when, if you ever manage to make the piece sound like music, it will be you telling the notes how you want them to sound--this is the pianist's dirty secret. Years ago a neighbor of mine asked how I practiced (interesting, because when the window was open he could probably have listened in). He figured I probably just played the pieces over and over. Not exactly....

How long this stage lasts depends greatly on the difficulty of the piece. But it is always too long. And there is always a point at which I wonder when it will be over. I've gotten used to this. I even plan for it. For a fairly short piece of moderate difficultly, for instance, it will probably take about three days to learn. And so on. And at some point (as I tell myself often) there will come a point when the details will have assembled themselves with enough familiarity and control that I need no longer focus on them so much and I can begin to use my energy to consider larger issues of interpretation, when the piece starts to sound like music, and you can try making it say something instead of merely trying to get the recipe of notes right. This is a good time to be alive. It is also a lot less mentally tiring when you have passed on to this third stage, and you can practice longer without getting so mentally worn out. You may not yet have the piece memorized, but it is familiar, which is at least half-way there.

One of the long-familiar signs of this earlier stage (and also a sign when it has gone away) is how tired I get after practicing for even an hour. If I have been exposing myself to new notes and new musical information, my brain is practically a hive of activity. I can almost feel it buzzing about. I have trouble using words or thinking clearly at times, as if in a cloud. And I can also get very sleepy. The other day I ingested an entire short piece at one meal and I felt an overpowering urge to sleep at the end. It reminded me of what my computer is always telling me: you must reboot in order for the latest updates to take effect.

It might not seem intuitive, but I think sleep is a very important part of practicing. After a nap, the notes are always much more clearly in the mind. This also brings up the importance of practicing a piece well in advance of when you intend to play it (something I get to do less often these days when there is such a volume of music to deal with).

I once did an interesting experiment in college. I practiced a brand new piece of music very diligently for two hours. Then my mother came to take me home to spend the weekend (my parents lived 45 minutes away from the school). I should note that I did not take my laundry home. That evening, sitting at home, I tried to imagine the piece I had worked on several hours ago. No use. I could barely remember anything. But the next day, a little bit emerged. By the third day, I could remember whole passages and see the thing pretty clearly in my mind. I had not touched the piano all weekend, but by Sunday night, it was as if I had been practicing hard for three days. It confirmed a theory I had about the importance and independence of the brain. It always seemed to take three days to memorize things. I wondered how much practice had to do with it. I came away thinking that the brain can incorporate new routines without us, provided we've told it what to do, and convinced it that it is important to learn it by constant reinforcement of the same regimen and through repetition. Then you have to wait for the film to develop! (My apologies to the young folks who don't know what I'm talking about.)

Once the piece is in the mind and the fingers it would seem victory is assured. After all, as I would tell myself, gritting my teeth, "The piece is already written. The composer can't make it any harder than it already is, and I can keep working until I get it. That puts the odds in my favor!" But it always helps to remember that, nearing the end, there is always a stage of frustration while the piece, nearly perfect, doesn't quite come out. At this stage I am usually playing it through several times a day, trying to get it to "gel." At that point little errors creep in, or don't quite go away, little fissures develop in places I thought were airtight, and often mistakes occur in different places every time. This used to horrify my colleagues the week of their recitals because they hadn't quite prepared far enough in advance, and hurried, harried, last minute practice has a way of making the situation seem worse. This indicates that you still don't know the piece as well as you should, and to add insult to injury, by this time you are sure that you ought to be in full command of it by now, that it's already taken far too long to prepare, and that you should be ashamed of yourself for not achieving perfection already for crying out loud!

If you get to the point where the piece is going very well, there are still three things to remember: there is a big difference between playing the piece flawlessly by yourself when you've already been practicing it for an hour (I call this the 'student' stage because they would always tell me "It went better at home" and I would say "of course it did!" with no trace of sarcasm), being able to sit down with no warm up at all and just nail the piece right away (also alone), and lastly, being able to play it while nervous and dealing with distractions, preferably at what feels like 4 in the morning. This last bit of honesty helps me prepare to play the weekly offertory at the 8 o'clock service, and also prepare for concerts in places with a significant time difference since nothing makes certainty uncertain like messing with the basic makeup of your biological clock.

If this whole litany of obstacles and objections makes you want to go out right now and practice, you need serious help! And if, by chance, you found it tedious and dull, just imagine what all that practicing is like. But then, listeners are spoiled. You get to hear the end results with none of the suffering. Sometimes I like to go to concerts (when I can), partly for that reason. Or even to listen to my own recordings sometimes, well after the fact. You see, I forget so easily....

 

6/30 (4/18/12)


michael@pianonoise.com