Practicing, a long game
I'm sure that psychologists have studied the age at which children become meta-cognitively aware of the differences between long term and short term memory. This is something I need to try to find out.
I came to the realization, with one of my teenaged students, that he wasn't practicing with his long term memory in mind. In The Perfect Wrong Note, William Westney writes some about ingraining the correct version of a piece in our mind. He laments the kind of practicing where a mistake is encountered, corrected and then never addressed again. What he's getting at, I think, is that there's the conscious, working, short term memory. Then there's the unconscious, storage, long term memory. Usually we practice so that our short term memory understands the right or the wrong way to play something, but we don't realize that there's no guarantee that our long term memory knows the difference.
What gets stored in our long term memory will be the version that we've practiced most, the one that can be chunked and related to some piece of information already in our long term memory.
Some day I'm going to try an experiment with a more advanced, teenaged or early twenties student:
I'll assign them the task to memorize a few paragraphs of some text, maybe something musical to distract them from the point. I'll instruct them to only memorize the text for 10 minutes a day, each day for one week. Each day they'll take notes about what they did, how they approached memorization. I assume the way they'll practice memorizing text will be more conducive to long term memory storage, than the usual way we practice piano.
I'm very passionate about practicing in efficient and effective ways. No matter how hard I try, I often feel like my ideas and tactics aren't appreciated, or even taken up at all, by my students. But I think we naturally will approach memorization of text differently.
Ultimately, the problem is that we don't think about learning a piece of music as a matter of memorization. We're not memorizing the notes from the get-go. We're memorizing the gestures, the choreography of the piece, which are necessary to play it with fluidity, without making major mistakes. This is called implicit memory. I hope that the idea of memorizing text will help students connect to a more efficient method of practicing, where long-term memory is the ultimate goal.
A rest is anything but
When you encounter a rest in musical notation, you should do anything but rest.
This observation isn't really new. It's a nice quip that many people have said. Teachers themselves, pedagogy instructors, and students. All have realized that so much goes on in a rest.
I'm commenting on it, because I find myself as a teacher forgetting the advice. Or, I forget to consider this as a fundamental issue slowing down a student's learning process.
Rests have musical value, of all kinds of variety. It could be interruption or surprise, and very often it's a musical breath, an essential aspect of voice-like phrasing.
Often, rests are technical, and it's in this sense that I forget the maxim. Often times, rests mean to move. Whether or not a composer inserted the rest intentionally, we often need rests to find a new hand position. Think of a rest as a momentary pause is absolutely incorrect.
The same could be said about long note values. It is difficult for younger students to engage with these in any way other than counting out the correct number of beats. But we want to draw students into a dual-way of approaching longer notes: both counting the durational value, but also using the 'hold' as a chance to look ahead and prepare what comes next, at least mentally, if one can't do so physically.
Secrets in the moonlight
The first day of my first piano repertoire class in the fall of 2017, I gave my students a quiz. There were no wrong answers per se, but I was interested in presenting them some pianistic problems, or, challenge some commonly held assertions about the piano repertoire.
One of the questions that I asked was:
On the surface, this is a simple matter of confirming whether or not the piece was in triple or quadruple meter. Perhaps some considered whether it was actually notated in 4/4 with triplets, or in compound 12/8 time. But several students, including some who had performed the piece quite recently, gave pause, simply for the fact that I asked a seemingly obvious question.
They were perhaps more perplexed when I asked a follow-up question:
In some ways these were trick questions. Tricky because a) the question of time signature seems relatively uncontroversial, and in fact, obvious; b) because we all have a pretty clear sense of tempo in this movement. It has to be some sort Adagio, no?
Well most people fail to realize that the time signature in the Moonlight Sonata's first movement is actually cut time. Though the tempo marking is Adagio Sostenuto, I always like to ask what is 'slow and sustained'? Students don't often think about the connection between the tempo marking and the meter marking.
To me, the tempo marking relates directly to the note value of the basic beat, as revealed in the time signature. Therefore, the half note ought to feel like the basic beat, and it's the half note which ought to feel slow and sustained.
Could it be that most people play the famous first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata too slow?
Well most performances nowadays are so slow that one cannot sense the half note as a beat. It's possible to hear this movement with the half note as a slow beat. It sounds faster to our ears, yet I think makes considerable sense so that the harmonic rhythm doesn't seem intolerably slow. Besides, when you count the quarter note in most 'slow' performances, the beat is actually rather fast, not anywhere near a sense of slow and sustained.
Months ago, I wrote about my love of Amy Beach and her Ballad, Op. 6. I was finally working on this great piece after dreaming about it for many years. Back in February, at my first Choosing Joy performance, I was relatively happy with how the piece went. I won't go too deep analyzing the performance. But I figured I would share it-wrong notes and all-as a special treat to those who read my blog. Check it out:
Prevailing wisdom tells you that when playing a fugue, one should always bring out the subject. I suppose the logic is ironclad: the whole point of a fugue is to have the main theme/subject weave itself in and out horizontally while 3-5 voices weave in and out of themselves vertically.
But I wonder if this way of playing a fugue defeats the purpose.
Isn't the genius of Bach that he could combine the subject and independent material in remarkable ways? It's more that he hides the subject? So if we're constantly pointing out the subject, we're working against the genius of his polyphonic writing.
I like to make the appearance of the subject much more subtle, and bring out the top voice more often than not. Give the audience some credit: most will know what they're listening for, and will search for it anyway. We don't have to hit them over the head with the subject. Even for the audience without significant musical training: fugues are set up that they get to hear the subject alone to begin the movement, then hear it flow from one voice to the next. Given just a little musical ear, and they understand this concept, and will track it as the texture becomes more complex. To me, this unveils a much greater, more subtle form of compositional genius.
I have one more comment before I leave sleeping and schedules for a little while. I found a really great article discussing how to identify your most productive times of the day, and how to best utilize your energy highs and lows by categorizing the different tasks that need your time.
The article asks you to consider your tasks on a scale of high or low for energy and for impact. This gives you four types of tasks: high energy/low impact, low energy/low impact, high energy/high impact, low energy/high impact.
Once you've identified the best times of your day to get work done, you want to put your highest energy, highest impact tasks there. That's why I practice in the morning, about 3 hours after I first wake up. My best mindset is then filled with my most important task.
I take this idea further when I schedule my teaching during my low energy points in the day. I don't find teaching college aged students particularly tiring, but it's still very impactful, so late morning and early afternoon is my best time to get this done, efficiently for my own mindset and levels of energy.
Low energy/low impact things still have to get done. Ideally, you can all these things in around the edges so that they get done in places where you need a boost of confidence in your productivity. These kinds of things, like answering email, are important, but are never your top priority. But if you crank several things out in a few minutes (given their low energy requirements), you feel rather accomplished.
Hopefully you can keep the high energy/low impact tasks from your life!
Now this way of scheduling isn't always perfect. I teach my youngest students when they're out of school, late afternoon and early evening. This is a nebulous time for me, as sometimes my afternoon second wind lasts till 8 or 9 PM, sometimes it's over by 5 PM! But this is certainly a high energy/high impact kind of work. Sometimes you can't do all of your work in the most productive parts of your day. I counteract these low energy teaching days by always having snacks on hand, drinking plenty of water, and standing up to teach instead of sitting.
If you've never given a lot of thought to how you schedule your day, I urge you to. I feel most like myself, and most like a successful musician and teacher, when I have a productive strategy in place and keep to it with consistency.
"Pianistic Intentions" one year in
One year ago I made the first post in my officially rebranded blog. I renamed this space "pianistic intentions", because I'd been reflectively intensively on the idea of what it means to stand out as an artist. It seemed to me that there is a category of musicians, professional and amateur, young and old, who successfully combine the best of performance traditions, with their own, distinctive, individual voice. This is something they do with purpose and with intentionality.
I want to listen to intentional pianists. I want to develop intentional pianists, I want to be an intentional pianist.
So much writing about classical music, so many piano blogs, don't get at this specific distinction of how to be a unique artist. It's also really difficult to approach this topic when teaching advanced pianists.
I had a conversation with a younger graduate student in piano performance recently. I'd just heard a performance and complimented what I heard. They answered "well, I made a mistake but I don't think anyone noticed". I get how difficult it is to accept compliments when you're disappointed in your own performance. But I think there's something different going on beneath the surface.
This pianist thought that their performance ought to be judged solely on the merits of whether the right notes, rhythms, articulations and dynamics had been played.
It just so happens that I've overheard this same pianist practicing. I could tell that this pianist practiced in a way to avoid errors, or at least get through them. Not to fix errors, and certainly not to develop an individual musical voice. Not to problem solve, not to hear the music in a new way, not to challenge their perceptions of how the piece should be performed.
I'm posting a slightly abbreviated version of my first post about "pianistic intentions" below. The student I was speaking with has gotten the copying part down, but has yet to move past it.
I still stand by the framework of this original post. Everything that I've posted since then has been with the intention of moving pianists from the point of copying, towards a more intentional pianism. I haven't always been steady in my work, but I'm expecting that the second year of blogging (dare I say, intentional blogging?) will be even more fruitful than the first.
On May 22, 2017 I wrote:
A lot of studying the piano is learning to copy, from our youngest years through at least until completing undergraduate education. Initially, this isn’t a bad thing. We need models to learn:
Waking up, for musicians
Musicians, I think, are notorious for working late and sleeping in. I used to be in this crowd. I loved getting to a piano around 8 PM and having the rest of the night ahead of me, without any commitments to anyone, where I could practice. I felt 'the muse' late at night, I felt inspired. It was harmless if I wasted 45 minutes with friends talking in the hallways outside our practice rooms because I could always just practice later.
As I expanded on in my Friday post, I reached a crisis point where I couldn't manage to get my practicing in if I tried to work late.
I don't know much of the science behind it, but I do feel like I think better in the morning, even though I would have sworn several years ago the opposite. As I think back now, the last five years have easily been the most productive of my life, musically, and most positive of my life personally. Perhaps I felt inspired working late in years past, but that doesn't mean that the work I actually did was any good.
I've told enough friends, colleagues and students about my love of mornings to know that most people will still reject the idea. They aren't morning people, you see.
I'm very much of the opinion that anyone can become morning people. Here's how I did it.
We're very familiar as a society about sleep cycles, but we don't think about our awake cycles. When we're awake, our bodies go through natural cycles of energy. I always get tired around 1 or 2 PM, regardless of how much sleep I got the night before. I get through it by either working (I do well if I'm teaching during this time), or I take a quick cat nap (10 minutes with about 5 minutes snoozing after my alarm is enough for my brain to shut down, without getting into too deep a sleep). Either way, I catch a second wind and have a long productive period through the rest of the day.
The trick to being a morning person is to always be a morning person. Sleeping in is the worst thing we can do for our productivities and scheduling. I've yet to have anyone tell me where their internal battery is located, you know, the one you have "catch up on sleep" for. Unless your body needs healing, in which case sleep is the best state your body can do that in, do not sleep in (more than an hour or so).
We also usually don't accommodate our sleep cycles when we're trying to get up. In my doctoral work, when my workload was so heavy that I had to cut out sleep time, I was able to be very successful if I slept 6 hours a night. I would feel worse in the morning if I slept 7. The reason is that we will feel much better waking up if we wake up during the lighter part of a cycle. Since our cycles work in about 90 minute increments, you ought to wake yourself up after 3 hours of sleep, or 4.5, or 6, or 7.5. I've adapted to well with this strategy that I still only sleep about 6 hours every night.
The biggest thing is consistency. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time, and you'll be surprised at how quickly you become a 'morning person'. Give yourself a few weeks of following these simple rules and I bet you'll be a morning person in no time. Please let me know if it works for you!
For the love of mornings
I wanted to follow up on Friday's post to talk a little about why I love mornings, and what I do when I wake up so early.
I'm not the kind of morning person that wakes up energetic and singing praise of the day. It is difficult for me to wake up, and I do let myself it snooze once or twice (this is a planned thing, I give myself the time to do it intentionally). I do need a good hour before I feel like myself after waking up. I do 'need' my coffee.
All these things are good and fine. When I say I love mornings, I don't mean that I get up and attack the day. I don't even follow strategies that some suggest, like exercising first thing, or meditating.
I love mornings because it's a time for me to be an introvert. I am a classic introvert, meaning I need time to be alone to recharge. Being around others is draining. Even though my wife is the singular exception to this rule (I wouldn't mind if she joined me first thing in the morning), I like time to be completely by myself. I drink a cup of coffee and check social media. Usually I don't check social media again until the evening, after work.
Then after about 20 minutes, I read. About a year ago, I read this simple idea if you read 20 pages a day (not a lot of reading), every day of the year, you're reading over 7,000 pages through the year, which means you'll read at least 20 books a year, at an average of 350 pages/book. Reading just one more page per day adds another book. But twenty-some books was way more than I had read since I was in high school, and I jumped in. I love this time, and it has helped me value reading over social media or TV throughout the rest of my day.
After about an hour, I go wake my wife up, spend time with her, get her coffee and help her get ready for the day. Given that she works a typical school day, and I work partly after school, this is crucial time to spend together.
Once she leaves, I finish up my third cup of coffee, and read some more or send some emails. Then by 8 or 8:30 I'm either practicing, or heading off to teach a class.
I have found that morning practicing is extremely rewarding. I think much more clearly, and I listen better. My mind is totally alert for a couple hours. In general, I've had my best performances since becoming a morning practicer and I don't think these things are unrelated.
Tomorrow I will tell you the secret to becoming a 'morning person', even if you're certain it'll never work for you.
I love mornings.
That I would write that sentence with 100% honesty would have surprised me little more than 5 years ago. I used to love my late nights and sleeping in in the morning. This reached its pinnacle at the end of my undergrad where I was able to practice till 1 or 2 in the morning, and sleep as late as I wanted in the morning without any commitments. But in the midst of my doctoral degree, I made a significant switch.
Initially it was out of necessity. The nature of my coursework meant that I only had limited time to practice. And many occasions throughout the day happened where I'd want to practice, I'd have a little time, and no practice room was available.
Funny that my teacher, in hearing of my plight, didn't think the solution was for the school to buy more pianos!
Instead, he related that when he arrives at school, between 8 and 8:30 AM, no one is practicing. Obviously, students who regularly can't get into a practice room ought to reorient their schedule to where no one else is practicing.
This proved to be a good mood. I was able to practice way more. And because I still valued my coffee time, as an introvert, I was able to wake up at least 1 or 2 hours before I "had to" to get to an available practice room. When I got married and my wife had to leave earlier for work, I woke up earlier still.
Now I wake up between 5 and 5:30 every morning, almost without exception. I look forward to weekends, not because I can sleep in, but because it's time where I can be awake and enjoy my mornings even longer. I LOVE mornings.
I'm going to expand on my routines more over the coming days to give you some insight into why this has been such a transformative practice for me as a person, and as a musician.
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act