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! 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Thoughts upon returning home from seeing "The King's Speech"

Fortunately for you, it's almost 11pm so I'm going to keep this post short.

I just got home after seeing the movie, "The King's Speech."  My husband and I had heard nothing but rave reviews so I wasn't surprised to find myself completely pulled into the story.  What I am surprised by is the lesson I brought home with me this evening.

King George VI was a performer, just as so many of us are performers.  But unlike most musicians, actors, dancers, comedians, he wasn't performing because it was his passion; he performed his assigned role because it was simply and unquestionably his duty.  And just as we spend hour after hour practicing, studying, perfecting our musical and artistic voices, this king faced hour after hour of hard work with his speech therapist so that he could stand up and simply get through one of his main job requirements - to address his nation.  For a man with such an incredible speech impediment and who must have dreaded speaking in a public way, especially, I can't imagine the terror he must have felt as he stood in front of the microphone before making the speech at the onset of World War II.  It must have been similar to my worst nightmares - walking onto the stage knowing that I can't make it through the piece up to tempo; not knowing what piece I'm supposed to play; having a humongous memory slip in front of a full house.  And what struck me as I listened to this king's brilliant triumph over his stuttering problem, was how fortunate we are as musicians, to have passion and desire to see us through when we are facing our own fears in the practice room and on the stage.  I am a musician because I cannot imagine myself as anything else.  I am a musician because I want to be a musician.  I choose to work through my nerves, fears, and doubts because I have made that choice to be a musician.  

Tonight reminded me of what a privilege and blessing that is.  

The next time I start to buckle under pressure or doubt whether or not I can successfully carry off a piece of music, I hope that I will remember the example of King George VI.  If he could fight off his own demons enough to play his part in history, then so can I, in my own small, musical way.  

Note about this youtube video:
I found this video on youtube which I believe is the recording of the original speech that King George VI gave over which someone has then overdubbed the Beethoven's 7th Symphony Allegretto movement which is what is used in the movie, "The King's Speech."   So the voice you're hearing is really King George VI's, not Colin Firth's.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A critic among friends or a friend among critics?

Image by Wakalani, on Wikipedia Commons
Warning #1:  This may be another post that will ruffle some feathers.

Warning #2:  This post will reveal yet again my love of being optimistic and perhaps idealistic so if you don't tend do be this way, well, keep reading, but just consider yourself forewarned.

OK, now that we've gotten that out of the way, here goes.

I have a really hard time understanding why it is the world still finds a need for critics, especially in the classical music world.  I'm not just talking professional critics, I'm also referring to the everyday critics among us musicians, professional, amateur, whatever.  In a time when we so many of us are trying to find ways to continue performing in the midst of budget cuts, shut-down organizations, and lost funding, shouldn't we be doing whatever we can to encourage a positive outlook on our profession?  And shouldn't we let our performances speak for themselves and let audiences just listen and take away from a performance or a recording what they are inspired to take away?

About a week ago, one of the world's most renown string quartet's came to our tiny town of Blacksburg in the foothills of the Appalachians of southwest Virginia.  This created quite an amazing flurry of excitement and not surprisingly, the concert was sold out.  It was the place to be that one night.  Faculty members from the music school at the local college were there, private teachers were there with their young students, amateur chamber musicians were there, chamber music afficionados were there.  I was delighted that I was also able to attend and I too was swept up in the excitement, especially because I had never heard this well-established ensemble perform live.  What an honor.  

And then what a shock, when I was still grinning from ear to ear after the first half, to overhear many individuals expressing their incredible disappointment with this group of musicians.  I was stunned.  Completely stunned.  And angry.  We were hearing and seeing a group of individuals that have found a way to make music-making a viable way to live; a group of musicians that is invited around the world to perform this repertoire; a group that has amazing skill and experience.  Yet this is what I heard:
"They don't move enough."
"There's not enough visual communication between them."
"They weren't even together some of the time."
"I don't like [so-and-so]'s sound."
"I have to say I'm really disappointed."
Aack!  I really, really wanted to cry or scream, take your pick.  First, because these comments were coming from people that were clearly not enjoying the performance which was a shame and second, because these comments were being made in such a way that members of the audience could hear them and possibly absorb them into their own hearts and ears for the remaining piece on the program.  Don't get me wrong, of course everyone is entitled to their own opinions but I was saddened that people felt a need (or a desire?) to be so critical and that it was shared in the presence of others in the middle of the performance.  

Not every performance can be stellar.  Not every performer or performance can be loved by all.  But why can't we at least think the best of every one of our colleagues?  Why can't we just be supportive even when we're not in our comfort zone?  Why do we have to sound like we are more knowledgeable than those around us?  Isn't it possible that these types of attitudes only help in giving our world of classical music a snobbish, uppity, and not-fun reputation?   And when we're the ones performing on stage, is it any wonder that anxiety runs high and that fear of criticism can undermine any performer's best intentions?  It doesn't work to explain such criticism away, saying, "Well it's not like the performers knew what I was saying about them."  Think again!  Most performers have an uncanny ability to sense an audience's vibe in a given performance situation and when it's a bad vibe, there is practically nothing worse.  Who wants to play for an audience that is clearly passing judgement with every note played or sung?  

Not me.

Let's think twice before we decide to step into the role of critic.  Perhaps there is a better, more productive way of passing on our love for the music that we so love to hear and a more supportive way to encourage our musical colleagues.  Can't we be friends among critics rather than critics among friends?

Our future just may depend on it.