The Art of Practicing
Updated: Apr 26, 2020
“In your practising be a perfectionist. In your performance be a realist.”
Robert Roux - Steinway Artist, Master Teacher
When asked as to why he continued to practice until the age of 90, the famed Spanish cellist Pablo Casals responded “because I think I’m finally making progress”.
For some the daily practice routine is like going to the dentist and getting teeth pulled without anesthetic. For others it is a wonderful forum for self exploration. The general difference between the two lies in the mindset of the student, which in turn affects the quality and experience of the practice.
I have had many experiences when practising of losing myself in the moment. I would finish a session and notice that several hours had gone by; as if it had just been moments. Whether one is negotiating the formative challenges of a new work, mastering the science of the instrument, or losing oneself in the synchronicity of performance level repertoire, a lazer beam focus is paramount.
One of my favourite philosophers of modern day, J. Krishnamurti, draws a sharp distinction between the act of concentration and the art of attention. To paraphrase: concentration results when the mind is forced to encounter a situation which it resists. Attention is a state of mind which is free, and as such brings about a state of true meditation. While Krishnamurti is making this statement more in regards to philosophical and even theological premises, I have found that it very much applies to the art of practicing as well.
And so, I have formulated the following acronym elaboration in the hopes that it will inspire the student towards delving even more deeply within themselves, and opening their minds to the moment at hand, and the practice treasures which can be gleamed from such attentive focus.
P… Practice does not make perfect! Rather perfect practice makes perfect!
E…..Ear fulls and ear fulls of listening. The art of listening is one of the most important skills to develop at an early age. Listening in terms of musical practice needs to be multi dimensional, and to serve as a tool for constant re-evaluation of ones work.
R…… Repetition. The great linguist and American social activist Noam Chomsky has done research into the linguistic evolution of toddlers. He observed that in order for an infant to own simple words like "Mom" or "Dad", that those words had to be spoken to them hundreds of times, and that they had to try and fail speaking those words hundreds of times. And then once learned they never give it up! So it is with piano practice. Repetition must be with a specific focus and goal in mind. Mindless repetition is useless.
F…… Freedom… The goal of any passage which you are practising is total freedom. If you have not reached that point, keep practising! Or in the words of Lang Lang…”Don’t practice until you get it right. Rather practice such that you cannot get it wrong”.
E…...Ecstatic. Consciously make space and time every day for your practice routine. Consciously adopt a mindset that this period is going to give birth to some treasures of self exploration. Consciously lose yourself to find yourself! This is a great power which music yields. I have heard it said that while Music exists in time and space, Music has the power to transport you to a place where time and space have no meaning.
C…. Catalogue and create a chart of your practising throughout the week. This can bring you to a great sense of pride and accomplishment looking back at the end of the week. It is also a great way to make adjustments in your practice structuring. For instance at the end of the week if you have only been spending 15 minutes a day on your sonatina and the passage work is still not successful for you, then you can increase for that piece, whilst reducing the time of another piece which is farther along. At the end of the day it is extremely important to have had quality time spans for every piece, sight reading, and technical items which one is currently preparing.
T… Time. When my first child was born I was finishing a doctorate degree and had signed with an artist manager in Canada and was playing concerts. Together with the demands of being a new father, I realized that my practice time had shrunk significantly from its usual 4 to 5 hours a day, down to two. With that said, I found that my focus only intensified and that I was able to get as much done within two hours as I had been within the earlier longer time frames. Lesson: it is not the time that matters as much as the quality. Ultimately after you have realized the rewards of quality practice, you will have no difficulty finding the incentive to increase the time - should it become available.
I…… Instruct. In my earlier blog post on my teachers I mentioned that they instilled in me the notion that in order to be a good student you must practice as if you were simultaneously teaching yourself. Thus a wise student will learn to adopt this perspective in every moment of his/her practice. And all teachers must practice what thy preach!
O…..Other means for practising outside of the usual planting ones rear in the chair for a certain period of time can be highly useful. Table top practising for tactile memory, working with a tape recorder or video playback to bring the dimension of the listener and to one’s own listening, or even visualization away from the keyboard can all be highly useful techniques.
N….. Nirvana. Many theological traditions wax poetic about enlightenment, however are often sparse on the description of how to attain the enlightened state. Thus it is up for you to find out. So it is in the art of practicing. To get lost in the myriad treasures which come forth in upper-level practice and performance one must ultimately find the answer for oneself!