The definition of a “curse” is: “something unpleasant and unavoidable that never goes away”. Practice is – or can be – the (instrumental) musicians curse. When already a famous cellist, Pablo Casals’ left hand was crushed by a falling rock. He confessed that his first emotion after the accident was actually relief : “thank God – now I don’t need to practice anymore” !!
Researchers have compared the number of hours of practice required to acquire different skills. Learning to drive a car requires dozens of hours, learning a language hundreds of hours, mastering tennis requires several thousand hours, but mastering an instrument – especially a string instrument – requires tens of thousands of hours. More hours in fact than almost any other skill. But this is not just a simple mathematical equation (certainty). If Billie Smith + 10 000 hours of practice = Rostropovich, then there would be a lot more brilliant musicians buzzing around.
HOURLY INEQUALITY: THE YOUNGER, THE EASIER.
Thousands of hours of practice may be what is usually necessary to make a really fine instrumentalist, but that doesn’t mean that anybody who puts in those hours is guaranteed this reward. Unfortunately, not every hour is worth the same amount. Every hour of practice as a child is probably worth ten hours of adult practice. This is not just because of brain plasticity. The young body, as well as the young brain, grows with and adapts to the instrument, as though it were part of the body, in a way that an adult’s body is unable to do. Many of the finest violinists seem to have a nice juicy cushion of natural fat under their left chin. It is possible that this “natural” cushion – an extraordinary aid for holding their instrument – comes from the many hours they spent playing and practicing the violin as a child. This is, however, only the most visible part of a process of adaptation to the instrument that can only happen in childhood and adolescence. Learning to become absolutely comfortable with a string instrument is similar to learning to become absolutely comfortable and proficient in a foreign language: both are much harder for adults than for children.
But that is not the end of it. Not only do we have to spend all these thousands of hours of “lost” childhood mastering the instrument, we then also have to continue practicing regularly to maintain and improve our skills. A musician who wants to keep playing well, and especially a string musician (and pianists also), is obliged to practice from his (musical) cradle to his (musical) grave. Playing a string instrument is such a complex, highly developed and physically unnatural skill, that the strength, coordination, accuracy, control etc required to play well, are rapidly lost if we stop exercising them regularly. Even the best players will start to play badly if they stop practicing even for a relatively short time. Fortunately however, learning an instrument is like learning a language, or like learning to swim (or to ride a bicycle etc): even if we do stop playing for a long time (years even), once we start practicing again, we come quickly back to our original level.
BODY OR MIND
Thinking about the music can help us find a great interpretation. “Reading it” without the instrument – especially if we read the full score, and especially if we are listening to a recording at the same time – helps us very much to really get to know the piece. But neither of these intellectual activities will help us to become a great player. It is possible to “know” a piece very well, and have a very good interpretation worked out, but still play it very badly, because the physical side (body-instrument-acoustics) lets us down. Instrumental musicians are “athletes of the small muscles”. Just like for athletes, to play the cello – or any instrument – well, there is no substitute for many, many hours of physical, bodily, athletic practice. But when we have done those hours of physical practice, we need to rest our body, and it is then that we can do these other types of “mental practice” (without the instrument). Sportspeople usually have coaches to do their thinking for them, wheras the mature musician is usually much more alone and unsupported once we have finished our youthful study period.
So what are some of these mental practice tricks? Even just imagining that we are playing the instrument can be a very useful technique for memorisation and for reinforcing (or checking) our mastery of a piece of music. As mentioned above, listening to a piece while simultaneously following the score helps us very much to really get to know it, because when we are playing it, we are often so occupied with what we are doing that we don’t really pay much attention to what is going on in the other voices. Click on this Mental Practice link for a more elaborate discussion of these ideas for “practicing” away from the instrument.
REPERTOIRE OR TECHNICAL WORK?
In our cello practice it is very easy to mix up “technique” with “interpretation”, in a way that ultimately hinders the development of both. The wonderful italian cellist Enrico Dindo has a very useful idea with respect to the separation (and ultimate fusion) of these two areas. When we start to learn a new piece of music, he encourages us to consider these two areas as being in two entirely separate “rooms”. In one “room”, we practice the piece, at the cello, in a purely “technical” way. In another “room” – without the cello, but with the score, historical information, our singing voice, recordings etc. – we work on the musical and interpretative aspects. As we gradually get to know the piece better, these two separate rooms become more and more connected until ultimately they fuse into one large room in which we are practicing simultaneously a competent execution and a well thought-out interpretation.
Often, working on studies and exercises specifically designed for certain areas of technique is a more efficient way of training our bodies than just hammering away at repertoire. Repertoire, rather than being our training material, is actually what we train for. Ideally we can keep our repertoire emotionally fresh by not repeating each piece 1000 times but rather by working on our technique away from the piece, and working on our intimate knowledge of the piece away from the instrument!
One of the best ways of avoiding the mind-numbing repetition of difficult passages is to invent exercises directly derived from those passages. There are many ways to do this: transposing the passage up and down chromatically, changing the rhythms, modifying some of the notes etc. In this way, not only do we keep a fresh, active mind but also this method allows us to work on the passage from many different “angles” as it were. This reinforces not just the passage, but also our technique in general. Sevcik, the great Czech violin pedagogue was an expert at this. He wrote a book of “preparatory” exercises for each of the Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn violin concertos. What an efficient and pleasant way to work on the technique of difficult repertoire!
START AT THE BEGINNING?
When practicing a piece of music it may seem logical to “start at the beginning”, but this is only logical from a musical point of view. If we are working on our technical mastery of the piece then it is probably more useful to start with the most difficult passages and then work downwards through the difficulty hierarchy towards the less problematic bits.
PRIORITISING: WE ARE ONLY AS GOOD AS OUR WORST PASSAGE
After performing any piece we could do a postmortem (autopsy) and choose only one problem to work on (our most serious) from each of the four main categories of our musical work: left hand. right hand, musical language and psychology.
FINDING THE STRUCTURE IN THE MESS
When a passage is not going well, it is easy to think of it as a sort of random, unpredictable, out-of-control mess. But this “mess” usually has a lot more structure and predictability than we are aware of because, most often, we are repeating the same identical technical errors each time we play it, and thus we are making the same identical mess each time. For example, if any particular note in a passage is often out of tune, then it will normally be repeatedly (predictably) either flat or sharp, rather than just randomly (unpredictably) “out-of-tune”. Or, if a passage is rhythmically unstable, it will normally be unstable in the exact identical way each time we play it. Unfortunately we very often don’t realise that we are repeating the identical errors each time. When we do however realise this, then it makes it a lot easier to “clean up the mess” definitively, quickly and efficiently, because we now can see more precisely what the solution is. For example, instead of thinking simply “this passage is out of tune therefore I need to practice more” we can refine our analysis to say “this shift (or extension) is usually too big (or too small)”. Now we know exactly what corrective measures to take, rather than just lashing out at the “generalised mess” problem blindly, with hours of unfocused practice.
OTHER PHYSICAL PRACTICE TECHNIQUES
Playing along with a recording is another very good way to reinforce our learning of a piece of music. It’s a little like learning to walk while holding someones hand, learing to ride a bike with the two extra lateral safety wheels to stop us falling, or like shadowing someone in their job to learn how to do it. Or like reproducing a great painting by colouring in a “paint-by-numbers” template! When playing along with a recording, not only are we “guided” in our own part, but also we can hear all the other voices as we are playing, which helps us to hear how our part fits in with all the rest. A very pleasant and painless way to get to know a new piece of music, for anybody who is not particularly worried about playing their own personal interpretation would be to follow the following progression of increasing independence (autonomy):
- play along with a recording
- play along with a recording of only the accompaniment (“Music Minus One”) of which many exist nowadays
- play with real live people
- transpose difficult passages into neighbouring keys (only when there are no open strings in the passage)
We all need to practice, but we also need to be aware (beware) of the dangers of “over-practice”. It converts music into robotics and will kill the spontaneity necessary in performance. See Preparation-Spontaneity. Fortunately, practice doesn’t have to be a “curse”, a dry boring exercise. Although it is a lifelong, almost daily necessity, it CAN be made pleasant. Basically, any playing where you can hear yourself well (i.e orchestral playing is definitely not “practice”) can be considered practice, of which chamber music is the healthiest and most enjoyable type.
And how can we avoid all these hours of mechanical practice ??
Be a singer …… or a conductor …… or a composer …………………. or a critic!!