Following on the heels of my last two posts (one about how practice doesn't make perfect, another analyzing a recent Beethoven performance), it's worth noting one more thing:
All of our successes are a culmination of our entire lives up to that point, including successes and especially including our failures.
I mentioned in the Beethoven post that I'm quite terrified of performing fugues; that's a genre you can't get away from playing the piano. Here's the source of my terror: towards the end of my B.Mus in piano performance, I went through a string of performances where I had memory lapses in fugues. It didn't seem to matter what I did at the time, no matter how prepared I was, no matter how often I played without problems in the practice room, or for my teacher. I could not get through fugues.
Now, I know of several strategies to do better memorization work. The point here isn't how to do better practicing.
The point is that no matter how much better prepared I am today, I will still be worried about performing fugues in public. That makes every successful performance of a fugue that much more of an accomplishment. That makes every remembered note, every beautiful phrase or voicing that much more powerful to me. I think that playing on that knife’s edge allows me a certain kind of musicality that I wouldn't otherwise have. I would play differently if I didn't have that string of rough performances. Not better or worse, just differently.
The “failures” of my past make me, me, the pianist that I am today. That's the most valuable, distinctive, tool in my musical arsenal.
There can never be enough reminders: Practice does not make perfect.
I can never say enough: Practice makes permanent.
I'm so glad that someone decided to adjust that silly little axiom to say something vastly more accurate. The original wording is so wrong, so misguided, that I dare not repeat it verbatim.
We all need reminders that practice time brings us no closer to perfection or artistic or technical mastery. Practicing only reinforces what we're doing, good habits or bad habits.
It's worth noting though, when we have young kids that we're teaching, they can't innately comprehend the difference. It is so important that we help students and give them tools to make good habits permanent in their practicing. We see students for 30 or 60 minutes once per week (most of the time). They practice more than that at home and need to be able to work independent of a talented teacher.
But, one thing that Suzuki piano training has taught me, is that we have a secret weapon at our disposal: parents. If my student's parent understands good habit-forming practice skills, they can guide their student at home. Parents need not be able to play piano, but there are innumerable things they can do to help their kids practice better.
Parents can listen for balance between the hands. Parents can listen for a steady tempo. Parents can listen for hiccups in continuity. Parents can listen for an ugly note. Parents can listen for crescendos or decrescendos. Parents can listen for false accents.
As long as you give them a specific item to listen for in one specific spot, parents can go a long way to helping students make permanent, good, habits in their practicing.
I've had teachers advocate slow practice, in fact, most of my piano teachers advocate slow practicing.
But I've known a few people who advise against it: our technique works differently at slower and faster tempos. Even fingerings can work at one tempo, but not at another. One of my former teachers, Paul Barnes, used the analogy that you can't water-ski under-speed! The alternative-because these teachers don't expect fast tempos upon sight reading-is to practice small sections of a new piece at performance tempo.
I'm sympathetic to this idea. Ultimately, I often have to catch myself, and many students, in getting 'trapped' at a slow tempo. Many of my piano practice strategies are geared towards practicing in small sections, and building towards performance tempo as quickly as possible.
But I do value slow practicing for pianists, in the end. But I always try to frame it this way: Practice slow in order to think fast.
If our fingers and our brains are slow, we aren't pushing towards the goal of perfecting a piece for performance. We're not ingraining it in our minds. We aren't doing slow practice, we're doing slothful practice.
If your fingers are moving slow, but your brain is moving fast though, you're still making progress. Your brain needs the chance to make connections between new notes, to chunk information into efficient modes of memory. Practice piano so that your eyes and fingers are working at a pace that allows your brain to do that crucial work.
more active arms. You want big motions, big power, to come from bigger joints and bigger muscles. Fingers are really good at the small things: articulating. The arm, specifically the elbow joint, is really good at creating the motion needed for a big sound at the piano. The common wisdom says that you play the piano with your fingers. I try to emphasize with beginning students that the fingers are more than anything just a conduit for bigger muscles to transfer motion to the keys. Tiny muscles that they have, we want our fingers to have to work only as a last resort.
Obviously, this is complex language. When teaching beginning piano students, you don't want to overburden them with technical language. In fact, you don't want them to really know that they're learning at all. A fundamental principle in piano pedagogy is that you relate new knowledge to old knowledge.
What kids do understand naturally, by the time they're beginning piano lessons, is brushing their teeth. And unless they use an electric toothbrush, they understand that bristles on an old-fashioned toothbrush don't do any work themselves. But they're essential to brushing! Kids immediately and intuitively understand that it's our arm that's the source of motion when brushing their teeth.
So, I give them a toothbrush to play on the piano. It just so happens that the 'arm' of the toothbrush corresponds nicely to our forearm, the 'joint' of our hand holding the toothbrush corresponds to the elbow. The bristles of a toothbrush even look like our fingers hanging from our hand in a beautiful piano hand position.
I'll have my students play quite a bit with the toothbrush, then ask them to treat their fingers just like the bristles. Generally, they intuitively make the connection, they can play with quite a big sound, without pushing or forcing. Their fingers are more passive and their arm more active, and they have nice alignment as well as hand position. Throughout their early years, I can continue to refer to "toothbrush arm" as a technical tool for specific pieces.
This way I also never have to talk about their wrists. They innately understand that the "wrist" of a toothbrush isn't floppy, but it isn't a cement block either. Again, it's a conduit, a tube where motion from the arm travels to the fingers. They get that all the wrist has to do is just not get in the way.
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. I've written an e-book about it, which you can get for free here. 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.
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.
How do you get young students to slow down? Certain children love to speed through their playing. This causes, at best, the stuttering mentioned a few posts back, at worst, general frustration.
But “slow down” doesn’t make sense to them! Their desire to speed precludes any logical thinking. Even when I manage to slow them down they don’t see the connection between tempo and success in a passage.
One pedagogy mentor explained it this way: kids who have high energy, and love playtime, associate “slow” with one of two things. You slow down either when you’re tired, or when you’re sick. If I’m asking one of these kids to slow down, they think I’m asking them to be tired or sick, and why would they voluntarily feel like that?
I’ve had success with certain kids to play like a turtle. Occupying their imagination with thoughts of imitating slow-moving animals ‘tricks’ them into adopting a successful tempo.
I’ve been trying out one new strategy, one that I think will work best with 9 or 10 year old students (or older); kids that understand fast and slow, probably even know that slow practice is better, but choose not to do it. I ask them to adopt “thinking” speed. I’ll explain thinking speed as the tempo where their brains and their fingers can talk to each other. (Or if it’s a reading exercise, I’ll sometimes substitute brain for eye; for my Suzuki students it’s sometimes their ear.)
Again, the idea is to fill their mind with a different thought that inadvertently causes them to adopt a desired tactic.
I think with certain students, saying “slow down” causes a certain number of guilt, especially when they know that a slow practice tempo will be more successful. Using ‘thinking speed’ instead allows me to make a more neutral suggestion that gets the same result.
As a follow-up to the last post: I can’t stress enough how important it is to sing while you practice.
Playing the piano is a study of diminuendo. Every note dies away right after it begins. It takes a special ability to make a true musical phrase that isn’t full of false accents. It takes an even greater ability to make a phrase that is truly beautiful at the piano, one with direction, one that pulls on the heart-strings.
By singing, I’m not just getting a shape of the melody. I think singing a line actually helps me shape the accompaniment. Take a simple melody and Alberti bass, something like Mozart’s K. 545. The left hand accompaniment helps lead the phrase along. With subtle rhythmic acceleration and dynamic shape, it can build the perception that the melodic notes are actually growing and transforming. We can trick audiences into hearing shape on single notes.
Many students are resistant to singing out loud! Usually at first I don’t require them to in front of me, but I suppose I need to build the resilience that my undergraduate teacher used with me (spoken of in yesterday’s post!).
At some point in my undergraduate years, my teacher began forcing me to count out loud while I played and practiced.
This was incredibly difficult at the time. She of course wanted me to become aware of my poor rhythm, or unstable tempo. But it seemed that counting out loud just exaggerated the problem. I could either count out loud, or play, not both.
But she was insistent! I imagine now that I had one or two lessons where most of the time was spent with me struggling to count out loud (because I was stubborn and didn’t try it in the practice room during the week!). If my counting drifted off, she’d stop me. If I counted incorrectly, she’d stop me. If I played incorrectly, she’d stop me. We would repeat and repeat endlessly.
I’m so glad for her stubbornness!
Eventually I was able to do it, and it’s an indispensible part of my practice toolbox. I found once I got it, it’s been easier since. I don’t even use this just to fix tempo or rhythmic issues: it’s more about having a metacognitive awareness of the piece. By multi-tasking, my sense of time is sharper, but my technique is more independent, and I listen much better than I ever have.
Those weeks of struggle forced me to transcend passive practicing and cultivated greater awareness of my work. Adding my voice to practicing led to me singing while I practiced (more on that in tomorrow’s post), and helped me collaborate, as I could be more attuned to the rhythmic events outside of my own playing.
Another habit in my students that I’ve been trying to combat has been “stuttered” practicing…Where the student plays a few beats, stalls and stutters, collects enough information to play a few more beats, before stalling and stuttering again.
I’m okay with intentional pauses, in fact I encourage students to learn music in small, isolated, predetermined sections. But within that section, students need to keep going no matter what. This way, we start to get a sense of the choreography needed to play a piece.
But of course most student stuttering at the piano doesn’t work this way. They simply sight read a little, stop, and sight read a little more. There’s no intentionality, there’s no organizing of the physical technique needed to internalize a passage. This kind of practicing yields incremental results. Intentional practice yields exponentially greater growth.
I’ve been saying to these students: “The keys aren’t going anywhere. It’s our hands that have to figure out where to go. We only have 10 fingers but we have to convince our audience that we have 88. Practice so that you can trick your audience.”
Right now, of course, the music is tricking the student and it’s obvious to anybody listening.
I expand on this intentional practicing in my e-book, “Pianist’s Guide to Practicing”. You can get it for free, just by clicking here.
"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