30 Days of Musical Tidbits: Practicing (and an aside on TNR).

Still have a few more things to vapor on about for my “30 Days” music series, didn’t get to my November quota. Tempted to delay that yet again, given that it’s so hard to resist parsing the sad comedy at The New Republic. Then again I couldn’t possibly be funnier than embattled owner Chris Hughes and CEO Guy Vidra‘s own vouchsafing their steadfast stewardship of the TNR in these parlous times. I doubt they will manage, based on the ineptitude of these self-inflicted injuries and the wobbly ideas they have for advancing the paper. But they’ve become the most talked about and loathed leadership team in journalism, and that’s saying something. It ain’t much, but maybe it’s a strategy?

Anyway, </snark> and on to music.

Over the years, I have mused a good bit about practicing, and herewith put together part I of some thoughts on the topic. In addition to my own puzzle over my piano and voice practice (and more often lack thereof). This also responds to the fact that I get the occasional question from parents or adults who are thinking about taking up or reviving music lessons. These are along the lines of how to help your kids keep at it, how to do it yourself? Any tips and tricks?

To start with, I am hardly any model of a great practicer and have never been. Through luck of the draw, I found I was reasonably fluent at sight-reading music from my earliest lessons (I started piano rather late, 5th grade, and this may have had something to do with it). I don’t recall a time when I couldn’t sight read music of intermediate complexity adequately–we’re not talking about reading a Strauss orchestral score at sight at the piano the way a music brain like Renee Fleming’s can–but poking through Rodgers and Hart selections, or even a Mozart sonata–this I can manage.

Tunnel Vision

keyboard_sizedI bring up sight-reading because it has worked against my first advice about practicing. Namely, that it is all about small scale  focusing in (Nancy O’Neill Breth uses the term “tunnel vision” in her useful pamphlet on practicing techniques). Lots of aspects of music and the pleasures therein are the opposite of this: taking in how a whole piece comes together emotionally, layers of melody and harmony, etc. But to get these watch parts to move, you have to take them apart and put them back again. That means breaking things down to ever smaller units, a section, a measure, or the shift of one hand from one position to the other, until you can find a successful approach.

I truly hate this kind of work, but it seems to me a question of cognitive style as much as anything else. Working at really intense level of detail, and being able to turn down the gain on everything except the matter at hand is a probably as much a native talent as any other aspect of musical ability. Oddly, it’s the complete opposite of what a music critic–something I used to be–needs, namely an intuition for the big picture. Still, that piece work is key to practicing–not its entirety–and finding a functional approach to achieving that focus is good. Interestingly, if, like me, this isn’t how you work, then you probably need to practice that kind focus in itself. It’s exhausting for those of us who don’t think that way.

Divergent Thinking

I’m indebted to a great book called “The Musician’s Way” by Gerald Klickstein, for the next insight. Namely, his observation that musical problems are “divergent” in nature, rather than fixed. By this he means that there will be many responses–theoretically infinitely many–to a particular musical problem, be it technical, rhythmic, expressive, whatever. This has helped me in particular because I always assumed two things about my piano playing until recently. 1) There was a correct fingering–some kind of platonic ideal, and 2) Whatever it was, I wasn’t doing it. This stems from a belief the problems in practicing were kind of like math exercises, 2+2=4, or learning your times tables. Sad to say, a view that my earliest piano teachers certainly seemed to endorse. But musical problems really aren’t fixed like that–even things as seemingly cut and dried as rhythms–and thinking about them that way is unproductive. Instead, trying to figure out what is going on, and going wrong, in the section–to see practicing as problem solving, is really helpful. (Klickstein’s book is loaded with other good advice, some other tidbits of which are related here.)

But It Sounds Terrible!

Accept that you don’t  always (or even often) sound good or interesting when you are learning and practicing. This may be a problem that is unique to me, but I have always hated that when you are practicing it sounds to you–and to anybody who is unfortunate enough to be listening–like you can’t even play the piano while you are doing the work. You may be repeating things over and over, with no changes that are audible. It’s not uncommon for things to sound like they are getting worse rather than better as you pick apart and then resolve problems. Tolerating the emotional frustration that comes with that is hard for me, particularly since I can play a lot of other music fluently, and why not just play that?

No less a keyboard wizard than Shura Cherkassky talked about very slow practice in which he concentrated solely on whether he was putting his fingers exactly in the center of each key and that his hand motion was perfect. This was painstaking (see tunnel vision above) and required a level of ‘zooming in’ that no bystander else would understand. Yet, his results speak for themselves.  (He’s 86 in this video, by the way!)

Oddly enough, I’m guessing this kind of issue comes up in anything that requires breaking down things into these ever tinier pieces. Is watching somebody practice 1000 chip shots interesting? Revising thirty, forty or a hundred drafts of a sonnet? I revise writing to the point of ludicrous obsession, sadly, without literary results equivalent to Shura’s musical ones!, and that is sort of fun. Still not there with the piano.

In part II, such things as dailiness, setting goals, and whether demanding that a kid practice ever helps.


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