“Stop telling your hand what it ought to do. Find out what it is doing.”
It’s September of 2007, and I’m entering the fourth year of my undergraduate degree in piano performance. Never a virtuoso pianist, I initially failed to earn a place in the performance program and thus would be finishing my degree in 5 years. I’d been working hard and with the help of my teacher, made progress.
But there was still a hump that I could not overcome. I had a strong desire to play fluidly, with confident virtuosity and musical artistry, but something often got in the way. My strong musical ideas and intentions couldn’t always get through, my technique suffered, especially in performance.
I needed to play a concerto recital as part of my degree requirements, so I began learning Mozart’s K 467—a work with intricate passage work requiring just the attention to detail, both technical and musical, that I needed. At the same time, I was assigned a chamber group to play Franck’s Piano Quintet, which required a great romantic virtuosity and the technical approach to make the piano sound like an organ.
As luck would have it, one of my chamber music coaches, in a chance conversation, recommended a book he had recently read and thought so highly of that he made sure the campus bookstore carried a few copies. Rather down on myself as a performer, I checked it out and my life was changed forever. The book was William Westney’s The Perfect Wrong Note.
Early in the book, Westney writes of an illuminating experience he had playing a Beethoven sonata for a master teacher. Re-working the first measure over and over again, the teacher demonstrated, sang, conducted until finally applauding Westney for playing it correctly. Even now, no longer a student, Westney recalls, “I had no idea what made that repetition different from all the others. All I knew was that he loved it, because (presumably) that’s just how he would play it himself.” (pg. 42)
Westney suggests that there are dangers in the way music is traditionally taught. Students get bored and quit. Students learn to copy rather than create. Students are passive not active. Students gloss over instead of fixing their mistakes.
Mistakes end up being the main focal point of the book. Wrong notes can be perfect because they are information. Mistakes tell us what we need to work on, and thus, direct what we do in the practice room. Practicing should proceed in such a way that we try to make mistakes.
“Let’s say you miss a note in the fourth measure. Fine. That note now becomes the last note of a practice segment. Go back a few notes, enough to create some context, and repeat enough times for your hand to teach itself the distances involved. Let your body figure it out in its own way, and that may take several repetitions to happen…The idea is to let it happen, not make it happen.” (pg. 87)
Westney suggests practicing with big energy, an intentional approach to your performance. Here the opening quote is relevant, “Stop telling your hand what it ought to do. Find out what it is doing.” This is by Eloise Ristad, an influence on Westney, in her related book A Soprano on her Head. The practicing suggested here will not sound pretty for a long time but that’s okay. We don’t practice to impress anyone, we’re alone in the practice room anyway. If we are worried about sounding good all the time in the practice room, we are more concerned with satisfying our own ego than creating an artistic product.
The Perfect Wrong Note turned out to be an extraordinary influence on my playing. I truly believe that I would not have progressed beyond my bachelor’s degree had I not read it. This book allowed my inner musicality to finally be heard. It accelerated the path to growing my technique and my artistry which made me more receptive to my teachers and coaches.
Through this book, I revolutionized my practicing. I learned how to apply all of the practice tips I’d heard over the years in such a way that they were transformative, rather than utilitarian. I learned to self-analyze small segments of my work, zoom in and address the individual problem I was having rather than ignore mistakes and hope they disappeared on the next run-through. I learned to listen to myself and consider whether I was happy with my performance or not. I learned to be confident in my playing and interpretations. I learned how to give convincing, effective performances of Mozart’s Concerto K 467 and Franck’s Piano Quintet and how to prepare myself to perform even more difficult works with greater maturity and fluency.
None of these achievements were immediate, but the book engaged me in a process which brought far more success than I had found previously. I’d be skeptical of quick fixes. We grow and change as musicians (and people) so much, constantly, that anything that creates a quick fix is likely not going to benefit you in the future, it just happened to help in that moment. Westney’s book continues to engage my work as a performer and teacher today.
I do not intend for this series to be an advertisement for my own work, but if you are intrigued by this book and would like to read further into the practical lessons I’ve learned from it, you’re in luck! Over the years I developed an in-depth document that chronicles many of the practical tips and the mental mindset I’ve developed as a result of this book. I’ve also created a series of videos, which I will always be adding to, to demonstrate my own work.
I’ve turned this document into an e-book, ”Pianist’s Guide to Practicing” which you can get for FREE, just by signing up to my e-mail list. By doing so, you can get the book and stay closer in touch with my work as a blogger, pianist and teacher. Check out this link or see the signup form in the sidebar at the top of this page.
Next in the Influential Books series I’ll be looking at…Creativity.
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