the thrill of discovery comes the
difficult part--Practicing a passage for what can seem like forever
before the music starts to sound like music. I remember tackling a
Rachmaninoff concerto for absolutely forever and being frustrated by
how long it was taking with no discernible progress in sight. Then I
remembered it was still the first day. But hey, it had been several
hours and I wasn't playing it wonderfully yet, ok?
That's the first obstacle, perhaps: impatience. But the
I also remember the lesson of one particular child. He
played his piece, and afterward I pointed out two very specific
things he needed to fix. Then I asked him, "what did I say?"
"You said the piece was bad."
Of course that is exactly what I did not say. I did not
give him a general impression of the piece, nor did I give him a
reason to take away a vague emotionally negative idea and throw away
everything else. But that's what kids tend to do. For that matter,
that's what any emotionally immature entity tends to do, regardless
of age. All criticism becomes "it was bad."
I reminded him that I did not say the piece was bad and
repeated exactly the two things--the very specific things, like not
to hesitate before he played a certain note, and not to play a wrong
note in another spot, or to coordinate a left hand note and a right
hand note better--and asked him how to fix that.
I suspect at that point I had to provide not only a
diagnosis but a strategy.
That, you see, is the biggest reason most of us need teachers to
show us how to practice. We need someone with good ears who will
tell us exactly what is going wrong-- not generally, not in a
defeatist way, but exactly and precisely provide a list of the
things that aren't right: specific notes, rhythms, awkward measures,
muddy articulations, clumsy technical approaches, and so on. Then we
need to develop a plan for how to deal with those exact things head
on. How am I going to fix this spot?
What is wrong, and how will I fix it? Very specific
questions, with very specific answers. And that process is repeated
and repeated and repeated until the problems go away and we can play
the piece fluently.
This is why the toughest, and potentially dullest part,
of practicing, is actually the one with the most going on. This is
the part where if you are the typical piano teacher you tell little
Johnny to repeat his song 10 times every day and with a scowl on his
face like he is eating vegetables he doesn't like he plays it 9
times to see if you are checking in on him--nine times exactly the
same way; wrong every time.
But if you, or the student, are really practicing, and
really making progress, those nine--no, ten--times, are not the same
at all, and there is an interior dialogue running through each of
them that charts exactly what was good and not good about every
note, every musical moment. It isn't just mindless repetition, it is
careful listening and small adjustment every moment every time.
Boring? I'm mentally exhausted after just an hour at this point,
because I have to concentrate so hard. There's no time to be bored.
Plus I just don't have the energy.
Besides, I'm not counting repetitions. I keep playing the
passage until I get it right, and I don't care if it takes a hundred
times. Maybe some time in the 50s I'll conk out and agree to try it
again tomorrow, or in five minutes after a break, but the number of
repetitions doesn't matter anyway. Getting it right matters. That
can be very difficult. But after years of teachers and years of
lessons, I won't let myself get away with anything less. My teachers
wouldn't have. Now they are a part of me.