Practicing

1000By now, most of us are familiar with the idea, given a broad audience through Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of work to achieve an expert level at various high-level activities: some sports, chess, and of course, music.

I used the 10,000 hours idea in a group class a few months ago to help persuade my students that the more time they spent per week at the piano, the faster they would accumulate knowledge and skill. We discovered that it would take 10 years of practicing 20 hours a week, 20 years of practicing 10 hours a week, and with the average of 2 hours a week it would take 100 years of practicing to achieve this nebulous “expert” level. We all laughed, especially those of my students who struggle to get more than two hours of practicing in a week, but it left me thinking: while achieving expert level is certainly important to some of us, it is not the goal of most of my students or their parents. What is important to them? Being able to play a song from Frozen, accompanying a friend in a school performance, playing for church…in other words, they want to be competent pianists. [···]

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“Have you worked this Up and Down?” 2909_wpm_lowres

My students hear this at many of their lessons. Up and Down is one of my favorite practice games. It is not always my students’ favorite method of practicing (let’s be honest. They prefer playing a piece from beginning to end two times and calling it good), but it works beautifully.

Here’s how it works:

1. Isolate a tricky passage in your music and mark it with brackets or by using sticky notes on either side of the problem measures. (These passages are often marked in their practice charts as “Dailies.”) [···]

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One of my New Year’s Resolutions for many years has been to practice more. (And exercise more, and read more important books, and avoid library fines, and remember to send birthday cards.)

I’ve learned through those many years that a goal without a plan is more like a wish. And while I have indeed had wonderful years of practicing more, I have also had years that started out with big repertoire and performance goals which fizzled as my need to finish so many daily tasks trumped my desire to improve my playing.

I love big dreams and big plans. I love the quest for transformation. I don’t love when my big goals fizzle because I’ve set my sights a little beyond the mark, and I don’t love that once those goals fizzle, it’s hard to get motivated again. So this year, I came up with a new concept, one rooted in a concept from the Tao Te Ching: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Or in my case, two measures.

Two Measures

While sitting at the piano bench at the beginning of the new year, flipping through repertoire on my “to learn one day” list, I attempted to sightread Frederic Rzewski’s Down by the Riverside, from his North American Ballads. Again. I’ve read through this piece many times in the last few years, but haven’t ever really put in the time required to conquer it. I decided to move it from my “one day” list to my “this year” list, and then decided that I would learn two measures a day. I decided if I was going to do two measures a day of the Rzewski, I might as well throw in another “one day” piece, so I added Bach’s Goldberg Variations to my two measure a day goal.

Two measures a day is such a small chunk that I have been anxious to get to the piano all month long. And surprisingly, two measures a day is a big enough chunk that measurable progress occurs. Today I attended my monthly piano group and performed the Aria and first variation of the Goldberg. The memory wasn’t 100% perfect, but it was fun anyway.

My process:

1. Read the two measures (always ending with the first note of the next measure)

2. LH fingering

3. RH fingering

4. HT super duper slowly (less than 1/2 speed) to check fingering and articulation. In the Rzewski, I check to see if I need to do any substitutions between the hands.

5. Slow to fast metronome work. In the Bach, I do the full two measures. In the Rzewski, sometimes I just do 2 beats, then the next 2 beats, and so on.

6. Choose a goal speed (usually 50-75% of performance speed). Once I can play the two measures at this goal speed three times perfectly in a row, my goal for the day is met.

7. Review all previous measures and continue polish and speed work.

8. Feel super awesome about completing my goal and go back to finishing the dishes or working on student invoices.

I figure at this rate, the Rzewski will be completed easily within the year. I am memorizing the Bach as I go, but not the Rzewski. Once I feel comfortable in my performance of Down by the Riverside, I will memorize two measures a day. The Bach? Well, if I learn a variation a month, I will be done in less than three years. And I guess that’s OK, because my journey of a single step has to start somewhere. Enjoying the journey is most of the fun, anyway, isn’t it?

What motivates you to practice? How do you fit practice into your busy lives? Do you think it is important for a music teacher to also be a practicer/performer? Why or why not?

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