Thursday, June 1, 2006

Finding Corners, Laying Down Tracks

It's human nature to want to cut corners. With practicing piano (or any instrument, I guess), the temptation to cut corners can be unrelenting. We want so badly to be able to play the piece as well as Horowitz or Gould or even our piano teachers, and we become frustrated that it's not as easy as they make it sound. If only Real Piano were as easy to play as Air Piano!

I must admit though, I'm probably not as bad of a corner-cutter as most. One of my "let-me-tell-you-how-anal-I-was-as-a-child" anecdotes has to do with piano practice. I would line up ten (or twenty, or fifty) pennies on the left side of the piano. Then, I would work on a measure, a set of measures, a whole page, or an entire piece. Each time I played it perfectly, one penny would move to the right side of the piano. Each time I made a mistake, the penny (or sometimes two, if I was feeling particularly masochistic) would move back to the left. I couldn't stop practicing until all of the pennies were on the right side of the piano.

Thankfully, I'm not quite that strict on myself anymore. Also, my concept of "perfect" has changed. Playing something through without making any mistakes doesn't necessarily constitute "perfect." What about the phrasing? What about the voicing? Did I hold that half note long enough? Now that I'm playing so much Bach, I've developed an intolerance for hearing two notes that aren't supposed to be played together. So all of that comes into play when I'm practicing for "perfection."

I think of my practices as being microscopic. Give me a measure or two, and let me explore it for twenty or thirty or forty-five minutes, the way one might get lost in observing a particularly fascinating drop of pond water under the microscope. Particularly with Bach, there is so much packed into the tiniest little "drops" of music. I forget time as I drill a measure or two. When I finally emerge from the almost trancelike intensity of the practice, I wonder how anyone on this earth can ever be bored when Bach offers so much to ponder in every measure of every page of every piece he ever wrote.

Back to cutting corners. There is one form of cutting corners that I am guilty of, and it always occurs at the end of my practice session: I feel compelled to play the piece (or the section I've been working on) at concert speed, even though I'm not ready for it. This is particularly a problem after I've had a good practice session; I'm happy with my progress, I'm feeling overconfident, and I think I'm somehow capable of zooming from my slow, deliberate level to that of the recordings I've heard. It never works. Experience has taught me that it never works, yet I repeat the same behavior every time.

One of my goals for my practices this year has been to not yield to that temptation. To make that goal more attainable, I've begun an end-of-practice routine that, I think, will help wean me off the habit.

Instead of zipping through the piece at the end of practice, I slow it down to about half the speed at which I'm practicing it. I play it through at that slower speed, listening very intently for the nuances as well as the notes--the voicing, the phrasing, etc. I pay close attention to fingering, too, if that's an issue. The goal is to play it as such a slow pace that I can play it "perfectly." It's possible; I just need to be willing to slow it down enough. Often that means playing it so slowly that it's virtually unrecognizable.

At the slower speed, I don't have to play it through fifty pennies-worth in order to get everything right. What's really interesting, I've found, is that, whenever I do this slow-practice routine, I end up playing the piece much better the next day (or the next week) when I sit down to practice. It's as if my brain remembers the "perfect" way to play it, long after I played it that way. As a result, I've inched to a new level and can begin my practice from there.

I've been doing this for several months now--enough that it's become a bit of a ritual. I call it "laying down tracks." I've also thought of it as "finding corners" (rather than cutting them) because, when I play it that slowly, I become aware of areas for study, particularly with voicing, that I didn't notice so much when practicing it before.

I don't know if this is end-of-practice routine is recommended by the experts or not, or if other people practice this way, but I've found it very helpful. If you're looking to improve your practice sessions, you might give it a try (and let me know how it works for you!).

(Just a note--my regular "practice speed" is super-slow as well. The end-of-practice speed is simply a lot slower. I don't want you, dear readers, to think that I'm speeding through my practices and doing the slow stuff only at the end!)

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