We generally believe that boredom and mechanical work are necessary parts of proficiently practicing piano. Nothing could be further from the truth!
What is true however, is that if you hear someone practicing the piano hour after hour, day after day, be it a family member or neighbour, you will possibly hear the same piece repeated a thousand times. You’ll probably not understand how anyone can derive pleasure from this constant repetition. What’s more, you’ll barely notice any improvement in the piano playing since the last time you heard it.
THE CONCEPT OF REPITION
The concept of repetition itself is against any possible idea of beauty. What a piano student actually does is searching.
As musicians, we try to play a song and we search for weak spots.
- We search for the reason why the music doesn’t sound right.
- We try to play it in different ways searching for one that will make it doable first.
- Next, we’ll try to play the music so it sounds acceptable, then decent and ‘listenable’. Eventually, with enough searching, our song will sound nice and ultimately beautiful.
- We search for other spots where that strategy might work as well and try it out.
- We play the piece again and see if anything got better.
If there are no weak spots, mistake or apparent issue left, we then search for a way to make it sound more true, meaningful, interesting, personal, moving and beautiful.
The piece eventually will be repeated many times, but no two times in the same way. Unless you try something different each time, it is impossible to improve at all and that is not efficient practice whatsoever. Blind repetition is easy, it does no harm nor good either. Searching is hard and requires commitment, an inquisitive mind, curiosity, your will and your taste.
THE SEARCH FOR EFFORTLESS CONTROL
Even training your arms, hands and fingers to perform a complex set of movements without conscious control of your mind, which we all do to a certain degree while practicing. It is the only circumstance in which the concept of ‘repetition’ is useful, is once again the wilful aim at improving by means of repetition.
We search for that effortless control that allows us to enjoy the music we produce. A concert performer needs to have all the moves that need to occur down to the smallest detail, encrypted in his/her arms, hands and fingers, one by one, in order to produce the desired sound, each time. Certain passages require a technique built as the result of years of slow and patient training. Many artists at the top of their skills may still spend hours practicing in order to flawlessly perform one difficult passage, and certain pieces are simply not available to the majority of us.
That is why many teachers stress the importance of repetition especially in classically oriented academia. The way to avoid mistakes in a concert is to leave it all to an unconscious, highly trained body. Repeat it again, again and again. While it may be one of the ingredients necessary to mastery, it is not the only one. Certainly, it accounts for why many grow bored and give up. Who can blame them, if the search for beauty is replaced by mechanical, repetitive gymnastics?
PRACTICING IN AN EFFECTIVE WAY
I recently realized that when I’m practicing something, usually the first 45 minutes to an hour, are spent figuring out an effective way to actually practice it. I am de facto spending that amount of time searching for a way that is specific to the piece of music I chose, my level of familiarity with it and the general skill that I need in order to play it well. This initial part of my practice becomes a stream of attempts at practicing, each going basically wrong, showing that no effective improvement is happening. Until I modify the strategy to the exact point needed for real improvement, I’ll repeat the concept: effective practice often means a stream of attempts going nowhere.
My final suggestion therefore is this: instead of practice, search!
- for a way to make your playing a little better than yesterday.
- why it is more difficult than you thought.
- for an alternative way of doing things that might show you the problem.
Then, if it seems you have tried it all but nothing works, leave it to one side for the moment and move on to something else. By means of repetition itself, you will not make any improvement, except perhaps in your level of frustration.