PRACTISING PIANO: FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Why practising is at once difficult and meaningful
Technique, style, coordination, sight-reading, fluency, harmony, rhythm, articulation… These are the most common challenges a pianist faces while practicing. Ultimately, this is the set of tools that a good musician needs to develop. Any motivated individual on the path to achieve proficiency and expressivity with their instrument to a competitive level will keep himself busy for decades with those.
There is however a less apparent set of challenges that are at once deeper and more difficult to point out. We tend to overlook them, but they all reappear every time we sit at the piano. Instead we focus on the more practical issues we are having, like fluency, accuracy, etc. They make themselves clear very slowly throughout the years, and it is rare to discuss them in class. The difficulty in addressing them is due, I believe, to how differently we perceive music, as well as our differences as individuals.
Music as a Collective Expression
Undoubtedly, for all of us, music has the potential for collective expression that we tend to take for granted. Whether aware or not, we enjoy music most when it operates fully, such as during a good concert, when crowds gather and are moved by the same live performance. Along these lines, we see how some of the content music conveys, reaches us through a personal path, touching us privately. Conversely, other music takes a more collective path, touching for example our sense of community, friendship, or love for nature etc.
Allow me then to draw some general motifs through which music touches us collectively. I will identify reasons why, with music itself being so significant, its instrumental practice is often challenging in surprising and unexpected ways. The most important reasons why we have a hard time practicing efficiently are, I believe, hidden in the music itself, so here are few ideas.
Pleasure vs method
The first path is related to pleasure: listening to music is a pleasure to all of us. It is an emotional, intellectual, and even physical pleasure. One of the ways – generally speaking – in which pleasure is triggered with music is by eliciting our sense of freedom and liberation.
- Emotional freedom: think of how sometimes it liberates our melancholy, sadness or joy
- Intellectual freedom: the sense of awe we have in front of the majesty of a Beethoven’ Symphony or a Bach’s Mess, suggesting the possibility to understand a universal meaning through an intellectual endeavour
- Physical freedom: think of why we would enjoy dancing if not because, in some ways, music is telling us to liberate an instinctual energy through physical movements.
If freedom is so strongly related to the experience of music (as other dimensions, like expressivity, imagination, creativity, etc.), we would think that playing would also be an act of liberation. As many students know well, this is not always the case. And what about practising then, is it as much fun, as liberating, relaxing and enjoyable as just listening to music?
In many years of teaching I never heard a student saying: “The last two hours spent practising were such an inspiring, emotional and meaningful experience.” Instead students often begin their lesson saying how frustrated and unmotivated they currently feel given the lack of progress they sense.
Creating a Fulfilling Experience
On one side we are deeply attracted by the fulfilling experience of playing music. On the other we have a hard time accepting the struggles that come with it. As a consequence, reasonably, we learn about a variety of methods that offer help. A good method would in fact ease our way through the many stages of learning. It would help us understand the topics, providing logical and clear explanations. It would also support our confidence on the way.
Methods can address technique, theory, general music understanding, or affirm the necessity to organise our practice time, for example by breaking it down this or that way. The goal is to achieve the highest level of proficiency in the most effective way. All good.
So, why it is so hard for many committed individuals to improve the way they play their instruments? For many it is hard to do the same amount of time, the same practice drills, exercises and pieces every day for 1 month, 2 months, 6 months, 1 year etc. without eventually showing some boredom. For others it is the opposite problem, they will never get bored of their time at the instrument, but they will not stick to a practice plan for more than two days in a row, missing the opportunity to achieve actual progress.
Truth is that putting in place a method for efficiency might create conflict with the seek of freedom and liberation that motivates us to play in first place.
Freedom through Planning, Self-control & Order
It is hard to see how we would get to a place of intimate liberation and freedom (emotional, intellectual or physical) through a path of planning, self-control and order. Do you see the contradiction? How would you expect to enjoy doing something, anything like reading, gardening or conversing with a friend if you predetermine each single step? Moreover, what makes you think that the results coming from predetermination will have any liberating effect at all? Would you enjoy reading a book in an efficient way, like 5 words per second, every afternoon for 1 hour, 20 pages at the time no matter what, regardless its content?
To a degree that is different for every individual pleasure and efficiency do not coexist easily, they often exclude each other completely. Methods are obviously important and almost always necessary, but sacrificing the pleasure for the sake of tangible results would make those results meaningless. A method that does not increase your pleasure of sitting at the piano is not a good method.
Perhaps there is a line where pleasure and discipline meet: it is changing at the same pace in which we change, making it quite difficult for everyone to get consistent results. In music, where so many dimensions of our being are operating at once, too many variables are at work for us to establish exactly where that line is and plan accordingly. We might have to try various ways and see which works best in the long run . In other words, we have to keep experimenting.