Practice? or Playing?

I was browsing through an (old) book about piano technique the other day.   The book, written by a virtuoso piano player in about 1902, pointed out that practice involves not just the body, but the brain, and that effective practice is a lot of work.

He then went on to say (reflecting his 19th century world-view) something along the lines that “young girls do not practice effectively; they are more prone to while away the hours playing at the piano” rather than practicing.   He went on to say that the piano offers a host of temptations ot play at it — rather than master it — and the diligent student must be aware of the danger.

I stand convicted.

I have a lot of enthusiasm for music.   I love to play music.   Sometimes, I so want to play it that I don’t spend adequate time practicing the music so I can play it better.   Maybe I’ve had a tough day at work and practicing just feels like more work to do — while playing is pure pleasure.   And sometimes, it’s probably just my own ego that says “you’ve already got it” – when my fingers say I don’t.  By pushing through too quickly to “playing” before I’ve mastered it, I actually slow down my progress.

In my head, I still play the violin as well as I did when I was 21.   But when I took it out of the case recently and ran bow over strings, it’s clear that I have a lot of work to do to re-install technique and produce a sound that has the right intonation — let alone tone — for the pieces I want to play.

At the same time, practice does not have to be drudgery.  It’s not all about repetition and rote.

As Westney Willliam points out in his book (which I recommend) The Perfect Wrong Note, practice is actually a time to identify and solve the puzzles of why a section of music is giving you trouble, and to work through the mechanics to get it right.    Approached this way — practice is no more tedious than playing Tetris or Farkle or solving a Sodoku puzzle.   There can be a great sense of accomplishment when you figure it out.

And then — the playing becomes even more of a pleasure!

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1 Comment

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One response to “Practice? or Playing?

  1. Nanci

    Practice – UGH! “Young girls do not practice effectively” is so true. Remembering piano lessons from age 9 to 13, and how I hated the practicing. It was more like a chore – all I wanted to do was play. I’m not sure I didn’t think that I was practicing – playing the same thing over and over and over – isn’t that practice? Yes, I had the two or three songs I mastered. The mastering didn’t translate well, without that dreadful practicing.

    Was it age? Was it the instructor? Was it the fact that mom and dad were breathing down my neck to practice my 30 minutes a day? Possibly all of the above.

    I had an instructor who claimed to be deaf in one ear. Oddly enough – she never missed it when I played a wrong note, or used the wrong finger to play a key. I didn’t like her. It wasn’t fun and she was mean. Or so it seemed at the time. Possibly why I didn’t learn to play to the next level.

    My friends with the same amount of lessons were playing Beethoven – and I was playing “Whirling Leaves” or “Born Free.” (I wanted to be playing The Beatles or The Carpenters music) They were much more advanced. Creative instructors make all the difference at that impressionable age. Maybe those friends were more disciplined. I was a daydreamer.

    Took lessons for a short time again as a class in college. I found out I wasn’t as advanced as I thought I should be.

    Would I do it differently now? Not sure. I like to play for the relaxation. I like to play and sing along. Do I wish I could play the classical like my friends? Hell yes! It’s beautiful.

    Are there instructors out there who have progressed to make learning fun? For the future of those who want to play, but weren’t blessed with the gift of playing by ear, I certainly hope so.

    Maybe I’ll stick to the acoustic guitar. . .

    Oh, and P.S. – Note to those who have not reached the “Midlife Musicians” age yet – not a good idea to try to teach your own children. . . but that’s a topic for another discussion!

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