On My Mind: Practice
This is one of a series of articles on teaching I originally wrote for the Suffolk Piano Teachers Foundation Newsletter, in a column called "On My Mind".
Practicing has been on my mind.
A friend's teacher recently told her, "I just love to hear you practice. You do it right. Most people just bang their heads against the wall." In my experience, most students - and even some professionals - do bang their heads against the wall when they practice. I call it practicing by the "Test Method." Using this method, the student puts her hands on the piano, says, "Ready? Go!" and watches what happens. She doesn't anticipate her tempo, dynamic, quality of sound, or the feeling she needs to have in her body in order to play the piece well. When, predictably, it doesn't go well, she tries it again. After a week of this, she arrives at her lesson in more or less the same shape as at the end of the previous lesson. The trouble is that Test Method is designed to produce maximum frustration and minimum progress.
The alternative is what one of my eight-year-old students dubbed the "Plan-Ahead Method." In the Plan-Ahead Method, the pianist only starts playing after deciding what to play and why. My eight-year-old says that if the Test Method is designed to produce frustration, the Plan-Ahead Method is designed to produce Music! It surely does, at a pace surprisingly faster than the Test Method. Once students get into the habit of using the Plan-Ahead Method, they are surprised and pleased with their progress.
How should they use the Plan-Ahead Method? Pianists need to convert the notes on the page to movement that makes the sound match the notes. Therefore, they need to develop a clear sound in their ear and movement that feels good to create the sound. All of their practice needs to move toward that goal. There are several stages of practice. At the beginning is the exciting exploration of new music. What is the story line? What is the setting, the time of day? Is the protagonist happy? Angry? Mischievous? All will be revealed when all the notes are in a row, in the correct rhythm, with all the dots and dashes of articulation and dynamics. Then there is the working-out stage, in which, one hopes, difficulties in reading, interpretation, and movement are worked out. This is a period of great experimentation and puzzle-solving. The pianist needs to ask several questions: What if I move like this? What if I start this phrase suddenly softer than the last? Mistakes give us a lot of useful information at this stage. Lastly, there is preparation for performance. This is a period of determination and great honesty. Am I really using all the solutions I found? Does it really sound the way I want it to, the way the composer intended? Is the music really coming out of the piano? During this period the pianist should both run the piece a lot and also play through slowly, practicing planning ahead and making sure the piece goes just the way she wants. Planning ahead is important at all these stages of practice.
It is at the stage of preparing for performance that the Test Method often makes a stealthy reappearance. It comes when running the piece. After months of practicing with the Plan-Ahead Method, exploring and experimenting, pianists often abdicate all responsibility when running the piece. This happens in the students we least suspect! They send their hands to the piano, then sit back and see what happens. This is a critical error. In performance, there is an acute need to be fully engaged, so the music comes alive and the performer can react quickly to the unexpected. Not only that, but it is more exciting, rewarding, gratifying, and downright fun to be fully engaged! Therefore, I would go one level further in the preparing-for-performance stage: pianists shouldn't just plan ahead, they should plan ahead to nail it! (Forgive my slang!). There is an astounding difference in the performance of someone who has planned ahead to do his best in performance, and the same performer who has planned to nail it. It's a tiny shift that makes a huge difference. When someone plans to nail it, they take charge of the piece and the piano. The audience feels it, and becomes more engaged too.
Last year I asked one of my students, a very gifted girl high school senior is now pursuing a degree in music education, if she felt she could possibly be performing by the Test Method. I would have said at the time that I thought she practiced well, but her performances were confusingly uneven, and her demeanor in performance oddly disengaged. I told her it seemed to me that if she planned ahead to nail it when she ran her pieces, her whole experience would be different. That has turned out to be true in more ways than I imagined. She has applied it to everything - her practice, her performance - she's even keeping an eye out to make sure she doesn't wait around to see how her life goes. It was a tiny shift of intention that happened in a flash, that has meant everything. Her practicing, which was productive before, is now hugely so. She is learning faster and more solidly, and her music is more alive.
As my eight-year-old says, the Plan-Ahead Method is guaranteed to produce Music!
I am interested in your thoughts on this subject! I invite you to share them with me.
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