Wishing everyone peace and joy throughout this holiday season and beyond.
Coming soon: guest posts from two readers about improvisation and motivating students!
Thank you so much for reading my blog.
And now… back to packing!
Although we may vow to practice every day without exception, we all find ourselves taking a break from time to time, whether planned or due to illness, other responsibilities, being on hold with ConEd, travel, etc.
In the past, I would get angry with myself. Not helpful! That leads to yelling at yourself when staying calm would be the way to go. When you acknowledge that everyone has days off, getting back into the loop is much less of a struggle.
What can we expect when we start again? (Note that I did not say “start over.”)
Perfection? Probably not. However, if you are going back to music you have practiced recently, you can expect improvement! Somehow, “ignoring” the music for a while lets it “cook.” You will most likely find new insights when you return to it.
Jell-O fingers? Yes… so I use the first practice session to concentrate on my warmup. Skipping the warm-up after time off just doesn’t work well for me. I need to feel the muscles in my fingers, so I exaggerate the movements.
Playing at performance tempo? Even if that were possible, wouldn’t we be inviting wrong notes, fingerings, errors in dynamics and phrasing? Practicing under tempo is useful, but extremely slow practice is not necessary. I’ve already learned the notes. But right now, performance tempo invites mistakes that I’d rather not add to the mix.
I usually dislike my playing that first day. That is frustrating, but by now I expect it. By the second day, it starts to sound better.
The first day back also seems to be a good time to assess fingerings. If something feels uncomfortable (a level or two below “rusty”), this may be the time to experiment. See whether a different fingering feels better.
Dynamic changes may not sound smooth. In addition to that, if a notated dynamic contrast is completely missing, mark the spot in your music! That means you didn’t learn that spot well enough. This is a great time to eliminate the “oops” and fix the gap. When you’ve remedied the problem, that phrase will usually fit into the whole more easily when you return to performance tempo in a few days.
I find it extremely motivating to set a goal, such as a performance date. With a concert in place, I am far less likely to return to vacation mode. (I have an aversion to making a fool of myself on stage. Wonderful incentive!)
It is also helpful to keep a practice journal. You’ll be able to see your progress. I have found that dropping and then returning to a program speeds my progress toward my performance goal. If you have a journal from the time you started learning the notes, you will be able to eliminate guess work and have accurate feedback. (Do you remember what you did a week ago? A month ago? Keeping a written record is very helpful. There is no reason to expect oneself to remember everything. Remembering the notes is enough!)
In an online piano forum, participants were exchanging ideas about how to return to practicing after a break. (What’s the secret? How can I make this easy?) Differing viewpoints emerged, as one might expect. Looking through the comment thread was invaluable.
One participant advocated starting out exclusively with etudes. Another suggested practicing only new repertoire. Someone else planned to play familiar music, waiting to add new pieces until s/he was back in shape.
While reading the thread, it seemed that perhaps taking something from everyone might be best. In that way, etudes are included but not intimidating. Familiar music needs to be there so we feel like we know how to play! And new repertoire keeps us making progress.
This post has been updated from 2010.
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I went with it, of course. Resistance would have resulted in one unhappy student. What actually happened? We had tons of fun!
This is the slow section of Mozart’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra #5, first movement. In other words, the “piano” part is an orchestral reduction.
The right hand, when played by the orchestra, is divided between two string parts. Pianists, though, are required to perform gymnastic feats in the reduction, playing both parts in the same hand.
This section of the concerto is serene, slow, and quiet. To achieve a murmuring sound on the piano is difficult, especially due to the fingers passing over one another and because the normally resulting accents must be avoided. (It is not possible to play all the notes in the right hand while keeping the hand quiet, playing only five keys ((one for each finger)), and not moving to a different range on the keyboard several times. In other words, don’t try this at home!)
When I posted the above pic on Facebook, the following discussion ensued:
First, on 5/1:
The most recent addition to my catalog of Finger Busters.
DG: Finger busters is right!
AE: What she said!
CBW: Oh my! 😦
Then, on 5/22:
Remember this? The “ack!” phase?
Aced it in today’s performance.
I feel a blog post coming on.
CH: Looks “Greek” to me Gretchen but I’m grateful there are artists like you that let those like me enjoy the music!
GS: Exactly. My 1st thought when opening a score is often, “I can’t play this… I’ll NEVER be able to play this… NO ONE can play this!”
And then I learn it.
TP: Some people like a challenge and some are gluttons for punishment!GS: And some find it necessary to freak out EVERY TIME. I don’t think child prodigies do that…
TP: In my trade we call it it SIDS…self induced disaster, the process of psyching yourself out before you even know what you’re up against! lol
GS: I b the expert!
SN: So how did the tempo end up?
GS: 120 and 72. Felt reasonable, thank God…
GN: A great feeling to have worked something out in practice and then play it in performance with no “hitches” . . . .nice work!
GS: Thank you!
KC: cool, still growing into the job, Gretchen, that is so great.
How long did it take to reach performance level with this piece?
Although my Facebook “bookend” posts were three weeks apart, I was busy when I first looked at the score. There was no time to practice it right away.
After consulting my practice notes, I realized that I had learned the piece at performance tempo in 8 or 10 days.
This is not an idle question. I am genuinely curious. This is an aspect of people’s careers that is rarely talked about, as far as I know.
I am well aware that many musicians learn music faster than I do. One of the vocal coaching fellows at Tanglewood (there were 3 of us that summer) could learn even a newly composed score still in manuscript form and perform it in 3 days. He had the enviable ability to skip the practice stage most of us need to get the music into his hands. Currently head of the composition department at BU, he is a conductor, composer, wonderful pianist, and vocal coach.
My teacher at Aspen was practicing Hindemith slowly with the metronome when I arrived for my lesson one day. She had never played the piece. Four days later, she performed it flawlessly, much faster. So I went home and learned how to practice slowly with the metronome, increasing the tempo in increments.
On the other hand, another teacher practiced Schubert’s “Die Schöne Müllerin” for an entire year before performing it.
What was Horowitz’s time requirement for mastering the repertoire he performed? Rubinstein? Glenn Gould? Myra Hess? Clara Schumann?
A pianist who was interviewed on NPR, when discussing a recent CD release, let it be known that he had practiced one piece for 15 years before ever performing it!
So it seems that preparation time is highly variable.
What do child prodigies say to themselves when first opening a score? Have you heard anyone talk about that?
I suspect that my self-talk may stem from the fact that I was not a prodigy. While there was music in my family, many musicians I know listened to recordings and attended concerts from an early age. Several had parents who were professional musicians. They had mentors who connected them with effective teachers. Good instruments were acquired early. All of that makes a difference. I’ve been playing “catch up.”
A childhood friend recently reminded me that, when I would be invited to go somewhere, my response would always be, “I can’t. I have to practice.”
Following my senior recital in college, a few friends came back to the recital hall from the distant reception to ensure that I was planning to attend. They were afraid I would go back to the practice room immediately. (I’m slow about packing up after a performance.)
B.B. King said it very well:
“It seems like I always had to work harder than other people. Those nights when everybody else is asleep, and you sit in your room trying to play scales.”
And now I’d like to thank my audience, who listens attentively whenever I practice and never, ever complains. And thanks also to everyone who commented on Facebook.
Does this sound familiar? I have felt this way many times.
Being consistent about practicing has its good points, though. For one thing, it’s so hard to start over from nothing.
Hence the following.
~ Winston Churchill
When Winston Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in favour of the war effort, he simply replied “then what are we fighting for?”
~ Martha Graham
“We learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. One becomes in some area an athlete of God.”
“Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”
~ Albert Einstein“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”
~ Beverly Sills
Beverly Sills sings “All The Things You Are” by Jerome Kern
“There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.”
“You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don’t try.”
~ B.B. King
“There are so many sounds I still want to make, so many things I haven’t yet done.”
Or we could all try this!
~ Artur Schnabel
“When a piece gets difficult, make faces.”
(My personal favorite!)
To be honest, I see a generation that is crying out for the sustenance that traditional worship can bring. For boundaries, for beauty, for connection to something bigger than themselves.”
“As an educator, I think Lady Bird Johnson’s observation that children are “apt to live up to what you believe of them” still rings true. One of the lies of contemporary worship is that modern entertainment is the only way to engage the fleeting attention span of our youngest worshipers. The point of corporate worship isn’t to hook them with trappings of supposed cultural relevance, but to dedicate their lives to the glory of God, and be transformed by the sacred storytelling of Word and Sacrament.
Please see previous posts in this series.
How was she able to be so personable, considering that she had a headache?
Well, she was compartmentalizing. I didn’t understand how to do that at the time. But I worked on it, and am now so much better!
Which brings me to the point: What happened to Andy Murray in the quarterfinals at this year’s US Open?
He tanked! There is plenty of video footage of him smashing his racquet against the court and screaming during his match with Stan Wawrinka. That was between points. During play, he looked like a bump on a log. He let shots go without moving at all, netted several returns, and generally looked disengaged.
Don’t you think the spectators who paid for those expensive tickets expected to see both players at their best?
I should say that I have long thought Murray’s game was erratic. He is extremely talented, but his widely variable focus and frequent lack of will make his game so inconsistent.
What would happen if he could put his frustrations in a box for the duration of the match? Does he need to vent so much that it saps his concentration?
Try this: When you are practicing and feel distracted, frustrated, angry at the company you spent an hour on hold with just now, or worried about something else, take out your imaginary box. Put all of that in the box, then go to the front door. Open the door, and place your imaginary box out in the hallway.
All your “stuff” will still be there when you’re finished practicing. You can have it back if you want it.
By the way, the same procedure works just as well for rehearsals, auditions, juries, and performances!
This week our service will be held indoors.
My goal is always to enhance the service. So I look for the “givens,” i.e. the scripture readings, hymns and prayers that are already in place. The music should be compelling, add variety, and help shape the service into an integrated whole. While looking at this week’s parameters, I found some organ music directly related to the hymns. That made an excellent starting point.
How Firm a Foundation Early American tune (1787), arr. Mark Thewes (b. 1954)
This is an alternate harmonization of our first hymn for today.
Mr. Thewes is Organist and Director of Music at Westbrook Park United Methodist Church in Ohio.
Pastoral Paul Manz (1919-2009)
I was introduced to the music of Paul Manz by Gerhard Krapf (1924-2008) at the University of Iowa during high school. Manz’s music is both contemporary and accessible to listeners. His writing feels like a breath of fresh air.
This link chronicles Mr. Krapf’s military service in Germany, his years of hard labor in a Russian camp, and his education. As a teenager, I had not heard about his life, and he never talked about it. Instead, he poured his energies into playing, teaching, and composition.
Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise Traditional Welsh Melody (1839)
I will introduce this hymn with excerpts from an alternative version arranged by Rebecca K. Owens. When using hymn introductions from outside the hymnal, I always alert the choir first. This Sunday, the heads-up will go to individual choir members who will be sitting among the congregation. (The choir has the summer off.)
Clicking on the link above will take you to comments by Erik Routley (1917-1982), who was Chaplain of Westminster Choir College for several years, including my time there.
Ms. Owens is the Senior Organist at the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem, PA.
Let Me Be Thine Forever Chorale (1532)
This version of the tune changes energetically between 6/4 and 3/2 meters. If someone is hearing the piece for the first time, the rhythm may come as a surprise.
THE ACCOMPANIST I've always worried about you-the man or woman at the piano bench, night after night receiving only such applause as the singer allows: a warm hand please, for my accompanist. At concerts, as I watch your fingers on the keys, and how swiftly, how excellently you turn sheet music pages, track the singer's notes, cover the singer's flaws, I worry about whole lifetimes, most lifetimes lived in the shadows of reflected fame; but then the singer's voice dies and there are just your last piano notes, not resentful at all, carrying us to the end, into those heartfelt cheers that spring up in little patches from a thrilled audience like sudden wildflowers bobbing in a rain of steady clapping. And I'm on my feet, also, clapping and cheering for the singer, yes, but, I think, partially likewise for you half-turned toward us, balanced on your black bench, modest, utterly well-rehearsed, still playing the part you've made yours. Dick Allen Originally published in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 74, No. 3, 2007