Myths of Music Practice #2

Myth #2 – Your Practice Should Sound Good by Catherine Cowan

While we should aim for our performance to be engaging and rewarding to hear, the same should not necessarily be said of practice. The goals are completely different and we are unlikely to achieve our best practice by simply playing the piece beginning to end, forging past any difficulties as best we can.

Think of it like a computer game, you’re walking through a town and you have to respond to situations along your journey that need your help. Don’t just walk past – the aim is not to get to the other end of town as quickly as you can, but to collect points by helping out with difficulties you meet on the journey. Those semiquavers in bar 7 that are running out of control? Stop and find a way to get them back in time. You notice a hesitation in bar 11. How can you get those notes to flow without pausing? To win points you must identify issues and create solutions.

Breaking down a piece in this way is likely to sound odd and disconnected to a listener and once a tricky passage is correct, you may need to repeat it many times in order to have it feel natural. This is probably not going to sound particularly pretty but will reap great rewards for the player.

There’s no limit to the extent you can break down your playing. In her first weeks of college, a cellist friend of mine was advised to play no pieces at all, in fact no more than the single note G for days. Under the careful guidance of her tutor she was able to improve her expertise dramatically in this way!

It is often said in instrumental teaching ‘the slower you go, the sooner you get there’. For practice to be its most efficient it’s very likely that some passages will need to be played extremely slowly, and a listener may even lose the sense of the melody. Rachmaninov, one of the world’s greatest ever pianists is described as practising so slowly that the piece was at first unrecognisable.

“I heard an occasional piano sound as I approached… I stood outside the door, unable to believe my ears. Rachmaninov was practising … at such a snail’s pace that it took me a while to recognise [the piece] because so much time elapsed between one finger stroke and the next.” – Abram Chasins, American composer. (Chasins, Abram. 1967 Speaking of Pianists. New York: Knopf, 44.)

Lots of helpful practice techniques that are likely to carry the player through to a greater level of ability can be hard for someone else to enjoy listening to. I frequently recommend my piano students to enjoy crashing out some really dissonant sounds in their practice. For example, in learning a scale you might take all the notes from one hand position that would normally be played melodiously one after another, and play them all at the same time in a cacophonous cluster. Its not sweet on the ears but can be very effective at developing mastery of movement around the keyboard.

My advice would be to free yourself from the tyranny of having always to make sounds pleasing to others. Your practice is not for an audience, it is for you, to experiment, to make a racket if need be, to delve deeply into the piece and get to know it until it becomes part of you.

Do you have any strange sounding practice techniques that help you?

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