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10 subtle signs you are NOT trusting yourself while practicing

Should you trust yourself while you practice? There might be some benefits. But, you will not even know how unless you pay attention to signs that it is not happening. To get you started, here’s a list of ten such indications:

  1. Playing a wrong note twice, trying to fix it the second time.
  2. Trying to make sure you play the right dynamics, fingering, phrasing, etc. (you think you know what’s so important, don’t you?).
  3. Realizing you missed something coming up in the music and rushing to fix it before it’s too late.
  4. Playing tentatively because you believe your idea of the music is less valid than your teacher’s.
  5. Stopping when you have a “memory slip.”
  6. Looking at your hands to make sure you hit the right notes.
  7. Looking at the music to make sure you don’t miss anything.
  8. Playing slowly because playing fast stresses you out.
  9. Playing fast because playing slowly stresses you out.
  10. Looking through this list the next time you practice and trying really hard not to do any of them.

So what DO I do?

Do these things if you want. Maybe you have really good reasons for doing them. Or, you could try not doing them.

Either way, pay attention to what happens.

Can you embrace your faults?

As a musician, how often do you take a stance of acceptance towards yourself? I see in my students and colleagues (and certainly myself) constant battles, efforts at correcting or running away from our faults. What if those faults don’t need to be chased away? Could we even embrace them?

What exactly are we not accepting? While playing, we experience sensations, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Evaluations such as “this doesn’t feel right” or “this doesn’t sound right.” Thoughts like “I’m no good” or “this worked better last week.” Maybe we try to fix our technique, to match a sensation we remember from the past. Play in tune, with proper rhythm. Please the teacher, chase away our feelings of inadequacy.

Whether or not these are valid concerns, we still have the choice at any moment to either pursue them, or accept that things might not go perfectly. Why would we accept these things? After all, isn’t our aim in practicing to eliminate what we don’t like, to present the audience with an enjoyable, polished product. Perhaps, but do those goals interfere with our actual work while practicing and performing? Could our performance be based on qualities such as aesthetics, physical comfort and athleticism, creativity? If we base it instead on avoiding that which we fear, what room do we have for exploring those other qualities? If the goal of technical training is expanding our knowledge of the cause and effect relationships between our bodies and our instruments, is it possible that avoidance can have a limiting effect on this exploration?

How then, do we practice acceptance? We could move toward that which we fear. We could notice when we are avoiding, not so that we can slap ourselves on the wrist, but rather so that we can make a conscious decision to stop avoiding. Could we take an attitude of “yeah, it sounds bad, so sue me”?

Exercise: Choose a small passage of music or technical exercise and play it. Ask yourself “Did I feel at any point that my attention wandered away from my intention, toward something that needed to be fixed?” See if you can find what exactly it is you were afraid might happen. Play the passage again, reminding yourself that the idea is now to welcome whatever it was you were trying to keep at bay.

What thoughts does this bring up? Do you feel you might be compromising yourself as a musician, lowering your standards?

What if there were no way to do it wrong?

All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself. — J.S. Bach

We all know that you’re supposed to play classical music right. There are just so many things to get wrong, aren’t there? Wrong notes, wrong rhythms, wrong dynamics, wrong phrasing, wrong articulation, wrong attitude.

What if there were no way to do it wrong? Are there benefits to getting rid of the concept of “wrong”? Even just for a bit?

Yes, you would be lying to yourself (everyone knows there’s a right and wrong, right?). Yes, you would be disrespecting your teacher, the composer, and the great art of music. Yes, you would disappoint your audience and embarrass yourself. Yes, you might never make any progress whatsoever, and you might even go backwards. If you’re in school, you might fail. If you’re working, you might get fired. You might get a nasty look from the conductor.

That wasn’t a wrong note I heard, was it?

Let’s not argue with any of that.

I don’t mean to take this lightly (well, part of me does). But my question is only: are there any benefits to doing it wrong?

Would it be more fun? Would it be freer? Would it be more personal? Would it hurt less? Would it let you give up the stress of trying to get it right? And if that stress is gone, would it make you more relaxed, more observant, more willing to take risks?

Even just for a moment?

It’s only a question.

(Sorry, Bach, I don’t mean to pick on you. You just had that stern look I was going for…)

Three unconvincing reasons not to use a metronome

I am tempted to say that if you don’t use a metronome regularly in your practicing You’re Doing it Wrong, but I’m sure that would be unfair.

Nonetheless, not everyone agrees with me. So here are the top three arguments against using a metronome, and my responses.

Argument 1: It is only for beginners who can’t keep time.

My response: Literally no one has a problem “keeping time.”

The same beginners who struggle mightily to count to the number 4 in a piano lesson have no problems performing complex dance moves with their friends, or singing along to their favorite songs on the radio. They also have no problems walking, talking, playing video games, or any of the other thousands of tasks that call for highly trained and coordinated senses of rhythm and timing.

This is my beloved Seiko SQ50-V, the only metronome loud enough to hear and melodious enough to make me feel like I don’t need to shoot myself.

The reason they seem to lose all of this in a piano lesson is only because they are distracted. They are trying to do many things at once (play the right notes, read the symbols on the page, please the teacher, prevent themselves from screaming in frustration) and they are caring very much whether they are doing them well. Yes, that messes up your sense of time. The metronome will bring you back into the present.

 

It is not only beginners who get distracted. Maybe you’ve learned to hide it, though. You’ve learned to play reasonably in tempo, despite your distractions, your anxieties, your fears, and your insecurities. Are you paying any price for that?

Argument 2: It is too stressful.

My response: If you think the metronome is stressful, you are probably taking it way too seriously. The metronome can be a calming, soothing force.

Don’t try to follow the metronome. That is where the stress comes from. Instead, let it click in the background. Sometimes you’re with it, sometimes you’re not. It doesn’t really matter, does it? Is the metronome going to yell at you if you deviate from its tempo?

If you feel rushed by the metronome, can you let it go?

Argument 3: It leads to mechanical playing.

My response: On the contrary, I believe the metronome is an incredibly useful tool for developing musicality. The purpose of the metronome is not to learn musicality per se, but rather to learn control and poise. Once you have control, you can express the music however you see fit.

It is musicians who cannot play with a metronome, and instead base all of their movements on escaping their own anxieties, who end up playing inflexibly and mechanically.

Stress is easy

Here’s a challenge for you: can you just let go of your difficulties?

Maybe you say it’s not hard enough. You say it’s too easy to let go; what you really need is to hold on, to challenge yourself, to get it right, to learn.

You’re playing the piano, and you feel stress creeping up. Your shoulders tense, your jaw clenches, and you start freaking out about what’s coming next. Can you just let it go?

This sounds like a question you’ve probably heard a million times in the past. Of course, the common advice is to simply relax, take it easy, focus, breathe, etc. You’ve heard it all before.

It will be easier, you will have less stress, it will feel better, it will be more fun. Right? Then why don’t you do it?

You try it, but it doesn’t work. You stay relaxed in the places where the music is simple, the spots you know well…and then something comes up and the tension is suddenly back again (doesn’t seem so easy, does it?).

Or maybe you manage to do it for a moment, but your playing is worse as a result. Your articulation is sloppy, you miss notes, etc. You’re not going to let that happen again, are you?

So the tension and stress continue forever.

You always try to play well…that comes so easily to you…it’s second nature, isn’t it? How can that be the hard way?

Maybe the hard way is letting go.

Interpreting poems

As someone who plays a lot of art songs, I am constantly faced with issues of poetic interpretation. Is there a right or wrong interpretation of a poem? What would it mean for an interpretation to be right or wrong?

One could say that an interpretation is right if it accounts for every detail in the poem, and does so in a way that is the simplest possible accounting of all of those details. If an interpretation either does not account for every detail, or it contradicts a detail, or another interpretation accounts for all the details in a simpler way, then it is a wrong interpretation, or at the very least incomplete.

That’s all well and good, but is that really a useful definition? For example, suppose I have an interpretation that accounts for every detail of the poem. How would I actually know that it accounts for every detail? It might just account for every detail I have thought of, and someone else might be able to point out another detail that it does not account for, or worse, a detail that it contradicts.

So, while, theoretically there could be an interpretation that satisfies all those criteria, I don’t see any way it could really be said that a given interpretation is the correct one, or that a given interpretation is a wrong one. After all, a so-called wrong interpretation, one which is contradicted by some detail, might actually be vindicated by the discovery of another detail which removes the contradiction.

Let’s explore what I think is the actual root of this problem. It seems to me that any definition of “correct interpretation” is ultimately trying to capture the notion that the correct interpretation is the one the poet had in mind. This is an issue not just in poetry, but in all kinds of art, music, writing, etc. I would like to challenge the notion that the poet’s interpretation actually has any more validity than that of anyone else.

You might say “it’s his/her poem, of course it should be up to him/her what it means!” What do you even mean by “mean”? If the poet wishes to express him/herself directly, he/her could do that, instead of writing a poem. I think there must be a distinction here between “what the poem means” and “what the poet means”. The latter would be a feature of the poet’s own psychology, but the former is a more complicated matter. A poem is not a conscious being, and does not have its own intentions. It is a collection of words, which can evoke meanings in the minds of its readers. Those meanings can agree or disagree with each other, they can change over time, they can take into account some or all of the details of the poem, they can take into account details the poet was not aware of. They can be the result of a misunderstanding of the poem, or of a greater understanding of the subject matter than the poem itself suggests.

How can you say that any of these interpretations is the “correct” one?

Why musicians should have opinions

As artists, should we always have opinions? Why do some people have opinions and some don’t? Should everyone have an opinion, or should we leave opinions to those who have enough knowledge and evidence to back up those opinions? Are those opinions ever right or wrong?

When I was a little kid, I was taught that some statements are facts and some are opinions. And the distinction given was that facts were statements that could either be true or false, but opinions were statements that were dependent only on someone’s feelings. For example, it is a fact that the sky is blue, but an opinion that blue is better than red. I’m sure this is something that was taught to you as well, so I need not elaborate on it.

I am often struck by the idea that opinions can be either right or wrong. After all, if they are dependent only on someone’s emotions, how can they be right or wrong? Either blue makes me happier than red, or it doesn’t. At least, if that’s how we define “better” in terms of colors.

The idea I would like to entertain is that opinions are not right or wrong, but they are also not unimportant. Opinions are fundamentally what we must have if we are to consider ourselves artists. That is what it means to be an artist, to be a performer: to have an opinion, and express it. If we are not expressing an opinion, what are we doing?

So many people seem to believe that the purpose of art is to make people happy, to make them sad, to convince them of something, to achieve technical perfection, etc. But I don’t think that’s it. A performer may hold those viewpoints, but I think that is missing the point. The point is that it is up to the artist to decide what the purpose of the art is, and to express that.

This article, for example, expresses my opinion. The only reason I’m writing it is because I have this opinion, and I would like to express it. Is it possible that I am wrong? Perhaps so. Perhaps the purpose of art is not to express opinions. Perhaps the world would be a better place if teachers told their students what to do, and the students followed that blindly.

But I don’t really believe it would be. I believe that what artists must always do is form opinions. Those opinions must be formed constantly and without fear, because that is what it means to be an artist in the moment, without concern about the past or about the future. This is basically what we do.

Some of those opinions might be well thought-out, and some of them may not be. Some may be foolish, some may be the product of years of experience. This concern cannot stop us from expressing those opinions, however. It is an ongoing process of discovery, a constant exploration of what it means to be human.

So that’s what it comes down to. As artists, we figure out what it means to be human, and we try to express it. My humanity cannot be right or wrong. It is dependent entirely on my experience in this very moment, the way I react to things as they happen. My emotions and reactions are not planned out in advance, censored to see if they make sense or not. They are real and they happen as they happen. As an artist, it is my job to figure out what those are and express them.

Students are often completely resistant to this idea. They assume that they do not know enough to do it correctly, and it is the teacher’s job to tell them what to do, how to express, etc. I don’t believe that it is ever too early for the student to begin to get in touch with that inner source that is responsible for true expression.

Teachers are often guilty of encouraging this attitude. Yes, a teacher may be more mature than the student, may have more experience, may understand to a greater degree what the composer may have intended. But those are minor details. At no point should the student be relying on the teacher’s wisdom as a substitute for his/her own ability to express. The student must discover what the music means to him/her, even if it is “wrong.” The expression of music becomes meaningless if it is meaningless to the artist.

Of course, this is all my opinion, and you may disagree with it. But this is my opinion at the moment I am writing this article, and there is nothing I can do about that. My opinion may change tomorrow, or next week, or in 20 years. So it is with music, or any form of art. If I were to write anything that is other than what my actual opinion is, I would be dishonest, and there really wouldn’t be a point.

So, what happens if I really don’t understand the music I am playing? Should I not play it? I’m not exactly sure that question makes sense. The music means something, it has to. Upon listening to it, upon playing it, I have a reaction to it. That reaction, whatever it is, is my honest reaction, and it is what I need to tap into in order to interpret the piece. As I get to know a piece, my reaction may change. I may learn more about the piece, I may learn more about the composer, or about the style, but always my reaction is my reaction, and my understanding is my understanding.

Thus, to all musicians, I urge you to discover for yourselves how you understand music, and always have an answer to that question of what it is you want to express. Anything less than that is not being truthful to your audience.

Why you should have a lesson even if you didn’t practice

It is not an uncommon occurance for a student to wish to cancel their lesson because they didn’t practice that week. Apparently, this seems to be a reasonable attitude. After all, if the student hasn’t practiced, what is there to do in the lesson, beyond just repeat whatever was done last week? The teacher will just chastise the student for not practicing, and nothing will really get done, because the student and the teacher will just end up going over what the student should have done that week. Some teachers even advocate this attitude, seemingly intentionally guilt-tripping their students by saying “since you didn’t practice this week, you and I are now going to practice together.”

Actually, I don’t think it’s a bad idea for the student and the teacher to practice together. Much can be illuminated by watching the student practice, and the teacher may not have been aware of problems the student was facing. As far as why the student didn’t practice that week, there could be many explanations. Perhaps the student didn’t know what to practice, or didn’t know how to practice it. Perhaps they tried practicing, and there were too many problems to continue. Perhaps they got frustrated.

Much light can be shed on these issues if the teacher engages in an honest inquiry of what problems the student is having. There is really no place for blame here. The fact is that the student didn’t practice, and if the student wishes to make progress, the teacher must help the student figure out where the problems are and how to solve them. Not practicing is no more a character flaw than is being bad at rhythm or not being able to play scales fast.

I do additionally question the extent to which students are required to practice. Especially with beginning students, why is there an expectation that they practice at all? Obviously, if the student is spending time working on piano apart from the teacher, they will probably make faster progress, but there are several issues to consider here.

First of all, who is to say that the student is practicing correctly? I don’t know why many teachers take it as a given that if they tell the student to “practice this piece” then productive work will be done on it. The student needs to be taught how to practice.

Second, even if the student is “taught” how to practice, who is to say that the student is practicing correctly? The instructions may have been misunderstood, or perhaps the student does not wish, for whatever reason, to practice the way the teacher instructed. Perhaps the teacher’s expectations are too high, or simply not appropriate for that student.

Third, whose expectation is it that the student make fast progress? If it is the teacher’s expectation, or the parent’s, but not the student’s, there could be problems. In the case of an adult student, it could be both the expectation of the teacher and the student, but it might be quite unreasonable on the part of the student to expect so much of themselves.

Fourth, there are many things that simply can’t be practiced. The main reason I believe it is good to take piano lessons, and not say simply learn on own’s own through YouTube videos, is because it is essential to have an experienced pianist watch what you are doing, and steer you in the right direction. This is not necessarily actual formal instruction, but rather a transmission of skill that can only happen in real time, face to face. It is an experience, one which through much repetition, eventually should rub off onto the student. I want to practice with my students. This is not a punishment; it is a fundamental reason why I am useful as a teacher.

I believe we need to adopt an attitude of curiosity here, rather than blame, and not focus so much on whether or not students are practicing, but rather on forming clear goals and always engaging in a process of motivated action. I don’t believe that it helps anyone to blindly set expectations without reviewing the goals and desires of those involved.

So this brings us back to the initial question: “why should I have a lesson when I didn’t practice?” The answer should now be clear. There are many reasons to have a lesson besides testing how your practicing went. As a teacher, I am interested in talking with my students about their experiences and frustrations while playing. It does not matter whether or not they practiced. With beginning students, it is necessary for me to review regularly how they are playing, and actually less important for them to practice. The more frequent the lessons, the better.

I am not advocating that students do not practice, or that teachers do not ask their students to practice. But this all has to be put into the proper perspective. There is much that can be done in piano lessons beyond reviewing practice. Students who are paying for a teacher should expect that the teacher is providing an experience that they could not get on their own.

July 10 Recital with Allison Holst-Grubbe

Hearts All Whole

PERFORMED BY SOPRANO ALLISON HOLST-GRUBBE AND PIANIST MICHAEL KORMAN

Exploring themes of love as found in nature through German and American art songs of the 19th and 20th centuries.

This will be an exciting program featuring songs by Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann, Franz Liszt, Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, and William Bolcom, as well as piano works by Frédéric Chopin and Claude Debussy.

Photograph by Katherine Griswold