My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Addicted to practicing

Photo by Paco, from Wikimedia Commons
I never thought this would happen.  But here we are.  Thirty-two years after my first piano lesson, I'm writing a blog post on being addicted to practicing.  Wonders never cease.

It took a few circumstances to get to me to this new-found place: a lack of time to practice and too much music.  There's nothing new or unique about these problems.  I think most musicians, of any age and level, grapple with these issues.  It's how we choose to deal with these challenges that either leads to ineffective, boring, robotic practicing or takes us instead to a place where practicing becomes filled with purpose, results, and an engaged mind.  I know I've been in my right mind during a practice session when I walk away from the piano feeling incredibly good about myself.  I feel so strongly about this that I've come up with my own practice mantra:

If I don't find practicing ego-boosting, I need to change the way I'm practicing.

Practicing is not about repeating music over and over again with the hope that it will eventually be right.  Practicing is not about just putting in the time.  For me, practicing is all about problem-solving, constant problem-solving.  I like to think of myself as an investigative practician.  Wrong note?  Why did I get it wrong?  Was it a bad fingering?  An accidental that I should've written into the music?  A rhythm that I haven't taken the time to figure out?  Am I simply playing too quickly for my brain to keep in sync with my hands?  There is a reason behind every wrong note and in order for a mistake not to happen again, there has to be an explanation that my brain can latch onto, react to, and fix on the spot.  If I play the passage in question again and I'm still making mistakes, then I try something else until the problem is truly fixed.  Another new mantra of mine is:

I don't let myself play the same mistake twice in a row.  If I do, I need to change the way I'm thinking.

This type of practicing is far from boring.  It is engaging, it is challenging, it can even be fun.  Shocking?  I know.  And when it works?  Wow.  When it works and success is tangible, there is nothing quite like it!  These days I have actually found myself stepping away from a practice session a few inches taller than when I started out.  It can be that phenomenal.  And now, string together day after day of this type of practicing and the power of positivity that has been attained will inevitably seep into performing as well.  To walk on stage knowing that I've never played a passage incorrectly but once means that I won't spend those precious moments during a performance anticipating the hardest passages or second-guessing myself.  I know that I know it.  It's that simple.  

Are my performances ever note-perfect?  Nope.  When I make a mistake, does that mean I didn't practice correctly?  Possibly.  But I now tend to just chalk it up to inevitability because there is no perfect in performing, at least not in my world.  And when you can walk off the stage with that type of attitude, without being tied up in knots, the world seems like a much happier, positive place and the stage begins to hold nothing but wonderful possibilities.  

Now go practice...and please, do get addicted! 


  1. I just want to say that I enjoy reading your posts! Thanks for sharing your insightful thoughts!

  2. Thank you, Yiyi, for the feedback! I always appreciate hearing back from folks that read my posts - keeps me thinking and writing which is always a good thing!

    I look forward to hearing more from you :-)


  3. And Yiyi, I forgot to add that I'm excited to take a good look at your blog as well and learning about your studio. Thanks!


  4. Hello, Erica Ann! I found your blog via twitter and Miss Leslie... I LOVE your entry on practice -- it can get addictive, huh? I am a piano teacher and also a former cellist and I ONLY wish that I had continued cello into high school and beyond. I will live vicariously through you, I guess, if you don't mind! Haha! I hope ONE DAY I will take it up again. It is the most beautiful instrument. God bless you!

  5. Hello, T.K. It's great to hear from you on the blog and to learn a bit more about you. I've been perusing your blog as well and am eager to check out your un-music blogs, especially your gardening one :-)

    So you're another pianist/cellist combo? That's so interesting to me. Seems like there are many of us out there and I can't help but wonder if there's a reason for that. But one thing I have to tell say you are a "former" cellist? Hogwash! Once a cellist, always a cellist. That's what I love about the cello world!

    Thank you again for your comment and your greeting! Happy teaching, blogging, playing, gardening...phew! You do a lot of things :-)


  6. There is something to be said of who we are when we are alone, far from the maddening crowds, far from our beloved fans, and far from our annoying critics. There is also something to be said about free will practice, no matter what we practice. Long ago the required curriculum and homework schedules of high school, never asked us to be creative, but only to answer specific questions in black or white. Now as a professional, the possibilities are limitless.

    While reading your post today, I could not help but reflect on Ludwig van Beethoven and some of the paragraphs I’ve read in, the series Cambridge Studies in Performance Practice (No. 4) Performing Beethoven Edited by: Robin Stowell, University of Wales College of Cardiff, Paperback (ISBN-13: 9780521023740), I can imagine how intense life-long learning and practices for both composer and musician must be. How many schools of thought are there in Classical Music?

    Since you are a Cellist and a Pianist, I can't imagine all the challenges and rewards you have experienced. What are your personal thoughts about your education, and now that you are a professional musician, how might you have enhance those years today?

    Who wouldn’t enjoy sitting by the hearth and listening to everything you've learned about the attributes of music, as well as the variations of emotional techniques stressed in your experience.

    Strings and Keys - you have to be a genius! I enjoy hearing both instruments - do you have a favorite and do you practice with one more than the other?

    I love Romantic Poetry, and Ludwig van Beethoven playing in the background, while I read poetry is a peaceful evening indeed.

    Do Columns like this interest you? I'm guessing you already knew these historical facts.
    Emotion in Beethoven and his music - psychiatry in music

    "Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend."
    -Ludwig van Beethoven

  7. David,
    Thank you, as always, for your comments, thoughts, and questions. So much to respond to, I'm not quite sure where to begin.

    I'll start with something easy...

    You asked if I have a favorite instrument and if there's one instrument I practice more than the other. I think I like both piano and cello pretty equally but for different reasons. Physically, I'm much more comfortable and at home with the piano. I look at a piano, and can't help but feel like I'm home, with a friend. But with the cello, well, it's an instrument that you can literally hug and that makes it so much like a person. It's a very intimate instrument, really, and it's unique in that when you play it, you can feel the vibrations going from the instrument into your body which is pretty extraordinary.

    I am primarily a pianist now, and have been since college for the simple reason that I felt that piano was more practical in terms of making a living. So I mostly practice piano and on occasion, cello too. But I play chamber music on the cello all the time and I also play in the community/college orchestra in town. Fortunately for me, I don't have to practice cello much to be able to do that so I'm grateful. I don't think I'd have the time.

    I am very curious to check out the article you cited about Beethoven. I'm an avid reader and am also insatiably curious so thank you for passing that on.

    I am truly honored to be a musician and to also be meeting so many wonderful people here on the blog and on twitter. Like Beethoven said, I feel that I cannot fully comprehend how deeply music has impacted my life. It is a gift. A mysterious gift.

    Thank you again, David.


  8. A belated thank you for that wonderful post

    -My Harshest Critic

  9. Hi
    I'm currently doing 8th grade ameb piano. There is this passage of Beethoven Pastoral sonata bar 197-208 Allegro. Well, I ve been practising hard on it for the past 5 days. I'm kind of addicted to getting it right, but I'm never so happy with it that I let it go. Every time I tell myself to practise something else, I end up going back to it to try and perfect it

    By the way, you article was inspiring.

    Please help

  10. Dear anonymous reader who's having difficulty with the Pastoral sonata...I would love to be able to help you if I can but I need to know of a way to contact you. Could you possibly provide me with your e-mail address so that I can get in touch with you?

    Thank you and I'm so glad that you found this post inspiring! I love to be able to help :-)


  11. Robert Weirich wrote in a Clavier magazine: " I am seldom happier than when sitting at the piano, my hands on the keys, my ears completely absorbed in the sounds emanating from the instrument." And he ends the paragraph with: "Art matters, even if it doesn't pay well."
    I began piano lesson at the age of 4, which means I have been playing for over 60 years, almost daily. I am also working through Bk 2 of Bach's Preludes and Fugues, currently on E +, although with all the other pieces currently on the go, I won't get through them as quickly as you. Thank you for recording helps me to listen to another interpretation.
    Do you play any of the Toccata's as well?
    I am new to the computer (6 mts.), new to "blogs" ( 1 mt.) piano teacher since my teens, church musician, pop band in the 70"s , mostly classical now. Married to a guitarist. I am working through all your blogs, your site is by far the most interesting site I have found. Great writing!!

  12. Dear Anonymous,
    Thank you so much for your comment and especially for that quote of Robert Weirich's - I can relate so much, as I imagine so many of us can. When playing an instrument is practically a love affair it can truly be a wonderful thing.

    It's also wonderful to meet another pianist that is braving book 2 of the WTC. We'll have to keep each other posted about where we are and keep each other honest. In answer to your question, no, I've never played the Toccatas. Perhaps when I'm "done" with the WTC! Ask me in, say, 20 years. :-)

    I'm so glad that you've discovered this blog - please do keep reading and commenting. It is so very helpful to hear from those that are reading. I get a lot of inspiration from all of you.

    Happy practicing!


  13. Many thanks Erica, The post is informative and inspiring. And this quote in the comment "Art matters, even if it doesn't pay well," was just reinforced in my practice this evening. A blog post - The Switch - details my transition from today's negative thinking to a much better place due to practicing guitar ( Keep making art Erica, both in music and words.

    1. Thank you, Patrick. It's always so wonderful to hear from you! I'm glad you found some inspiration in this post. And thank you as well for sharing your own blog post - I've been in that same place so many times but I often end up just walking away from the situation. Your words encourage me to stay put but to simply try a different path.

      All the best,

  14. This is the kind of practising I love. It happens very, very often for me, in fact. I'm so glad that I'm not alone.

    1. Yay, Jessica! It's great to find another practice addict :-)

      Thank you for reading and for joining the club!

      Happy practicing,