WHY DO SOME PRACTICE DAYS GO SO WELL?
Updated: Jun 4
Last night I played Schumann's "Traumerie," Mendelssohn's "Confidence (intermediate arrangement)," Schumann's "Foreign Lands," Aram Khachaturian's "An Evening Tale," and Part B (the tough part I'm trying to secure) all the way to the end of Tchaikovsky's "Chanson Triste" -- without note error and with proper dynamics, phrasing, rhythm, tempo, nice tone, and a goodly amount of musicality. Music flowed out of me and my fingers, and The Duchess was with me!
What was happening? I'd love some feedback and ideas from "those in the piano know"!
Some days my playing or practice just "comes together" and all pieces seem flow easily from my feelings through my fingers to the keys. I'm not talking about the magical "flow" that I one time experienced and about which I wrote a former blog, but ease in making music and expressing my love of it.
Other days, or on particular pieces, nothing goes right even if I seem physically relaxed and warmed up, and mentally motivated and ready to practice.
I've noted a few other times recently where it all comes together: ready ease and surprising accuracy, after I physically warm up. (I follow zoom teacher Ilinka Vartik's* wonderful stretching protocol. Of course, seniors especially must take care to accommodate any of their physical limitations to her overall cogent, safety-conscious advice.)
Then to warm up my fingers, hands, wrists and arms, I play one or two lyrical slow pieces employing keys base to treble and from piano to forte dynamics, trills, and all fingers more or less equally, such as Gale Smith's arrangement of von Paradis' "Sicilienne."
Incidentally, there are piano teachers of various common and exotic flavors out there. I've been sternly warned that my method of warming up is not adequate and that I must learn and warm-up with scales. I've also been told that my method is just fine, and to learn the scales one at a time, practicing the scale used in the specific piece I am studying. I have been told by a music and performance professor that I can burn my copy of the famed Hanon exercises and send him a picture (I actually liked doing them for over a year until I got supremely bored) -- and he implied that I should practice my scales!
I don't much like the word "should" which is anathema to me when I hear it, because it does not take into account me as an individual student with well-thought out, specific piano goals, good understanding of learning methodology that works best for me, and my general comfort level in the method I use to warm up.
How can I make what happened, happen more times than not, and move it up to most of the time?
Ilinka says the basic way is to have perseverance; learning the piano is not linear!
Yes, I used to think it was linear, but my talk therapist Cary Ann Rosko first brought me to the realization that learning -- and life -- are iterative. We have to try, flop around or fail or reach a seemingly-interminable plateau, think about where we are and learn from our mistakes, and then try again -- and often, again!
I also used to think that my five years of junior and senior high piano lessons would somehow help me in late-life piano studies, but now I know differently; I had to start at book one again! I also used to think I was "smarter," "quicker," and "more talented" than I actually was, so that failures became a larger stumbling block in my emotional stability that they could have been.
According to Ilinka, credible pianism and improvement take "seeing the bigger picture" and realizing that some days are inspired and full of energy while others? Not so much. It's part of the normal "roller coaster" process.
If we persist and apply ourselves, there comes a day when quantity of practice transforms into quality (see 7.00 in her video referenced above). Ilinka advises that a plateau is a "period of accumulation" when the subsconscious mind organizes a plethora of information and mechanical practice into something wonderful. But we "usually only see what happens on the surface (not) less obvious ‘variables’ that affect our productivity."
Perhaps she is correct that everything in life goes in cycles (including our pianism skills) and how easy or difficult the process seems to be. Last night everything seemed easy, and I'm grateful -- and motivated -- by that!
*BTW, check out Ilinka's valuable video on pre-practice away-from-piano warmups, and one on practicing away from the piano specifically around 10 minutes in when she summarizes the way to analyze a piece before beginning to learn and interpret it. I did not get to this step of learning until six months after I began with one teacher and then switched to my second teacher (and why not?). At minute 12.30 to 13.23 she advises precisely how I like to learn a new piece: start with one thing at a time, then add in the myriad other elements of quality in pianism. I encountered one teacher who, frustratingly, wanted me to address all the elements at one time, when I was struggling just to get the notes correct in learning some trills in the piece (I had only had instruction on trills in one other piece before that!)!
Not Linear I just read that progress in playing a piece on the piano is surely not linear, yet I used to think that once I rehearsed that part, t’was certainly all clear. But then I read that that’s not true! One can resolve a problematic phrase then the next day or days after that it’ll return to the original haze. The same thing happens in how I memorize a piece I’ve set my mind to; I’ll get it one day then lose it the next then have to cement it anew. That’s just like life, as I think on it, nothing goes in a straight line. We bob and weave but then must repeat if success we hope to find.
* * *
Iteration in the World of Pianos and Life
Life is an iterative* process.
We try, we learn, we try again,
each try just one step closer
to the perfection we imagine.
This process inheres in the musical world
for practice or presentation–
none are perfect from the start
if we fall prey to distraction.
The choice is ours to make
to get back on the horse,
or nurse our wounds or sit and sulk
or blame someone, of course.
’Tis grace we know, and good fortune, too,
that contribute to how we fare,
our powder kept dry even though we cry
still needs that basic flare.
It’s effort’s required and patience, too,
with allegiance to eternal hope,
but remember iteration and then we know
with all else we can cope!
*Inspired when my therapist, Cary Ann Rosko, listening to
me lament the months it took to publish my first poetry
book, commented that publishing is an “iterative” process.
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