Before you judge me, let me tell you, if you just knew what it was like, you'd completely understand! Even the thought of this technique exam gave people nightmares! Everything was on it - every scale in every direction, contrary motion, thirds, sixths, and octaves. I think Mr. Hanon was involved...Moszkowski too. And of course the metronome marking at which this all had to be delivered was practically off the metronome it was so fast. The routine went on and on in one continuous, devilish whirlwind of pianistic madness. I got knots in my stomach every time one of my studio mates performed it in studio class. That's right. Her students were expected to perform it in front of the entire studio.
Now don't get me wrong, I don't necessarily see anything bad about this requirement. I just didn't have the nerve to do it myself and it didn't help that I had always been told that I had good technique naturally. "Why bother?" I asked myself.
Of course this stealthy move of mine so many years ago regularly comes back to haunt me. It also makes me ponder how it is that I can have good technique even though I've never focused on it. I'm not exactly sure of the answer but I do have some thoughts that were reignited after watching a short clip of Leon Fleisher that Graham Fitch had posted on his Facebook page the other day. It is just over a minute long and really needs to be watched!
Here is my transcription of what he said...please forgive any inaccuracies. I think it's so good it needs to be in writing too.
“I think technique is the ability to produce what you want. The presupposition is that you want something. So before going to the piano and practicing, training your muscles which is a waste of time because it's not in the muscles - it’s in the brain, it’s in the inner ear. You have to hear, Schnabel used to say it all the time, you have to hear before you play. If you play before you hear what you’re going for, it’s an accident and then everything is built then on an accident. So want something, hear it…go for and experiment, do outrageous things. You know, when you’re in the privacy of your studio, what a luxury. No metronome police, nothing. You can try whatever you want. So experiment."So many great thoughts in a very short amount of time. Right now I want to focus on one little phrase - "training your muscles which is a waste of time because it's not in the muscles - it's in the brain, it's in the inner ear." I'm not just trying to make pathetic excuses for my lack of bravery or my laziness by pointing this out - I truly believe what Fleisher is getting at here. At least in my own experience, if I have the music clearly in my head, if I've determined exactly what I want from a particular passage, even a technically demanding one, there is very little I have to do at the piano to make it work right. Yes, I need to make sure I have good fingerings, which can largely be figured out away from the piano but paired with a complete understanding of each and every note and rhythm, accompanied by an internalization of what the music means to me, that's all I need along with a handful of repetitions. A handful! Not 100 like I've heard some people use as a benchmark for thorough practice. If that was my expectation, I would have quit music ages ago!
Some people might respond to my last paragraph saying, "Yeah, but that's you! You said it yourself, you've always had good technique!"
Right. But maybe I've always had good technique because I have always had a very good inner ear that guides my hands - I don't let my body get in the way. I have worked with so many students that don't appear to have a natural technique yet when I guide them through a process of audiating difficult passages in isolation and then encourage them to stop trying to physically control what they are doing at their instrument, they are amazed at how quickly all their problems are cleared up. They feel like it should be harder to fix. A few minutes of intense brain and ear work, which is usually a completely new experience for them, can make hours of repetitive practice and frustration obsolete. My conclusion after witnessing this work countless times, is that our bodies are smarter than we often give them credit for. Having a crisp, clear aural picture of what needs to happen is enough - the body can more often than not translate brilliantly what's in our heads and ears with far greater ease and accuracy.
With all this said, it makes me wonder if I should fess up to Nelita True and ask her if I can finally take her technique exam so that I can live the rest of my life without guilt. If I do, maybe I'll test my hypothesis about mental learning and try preparing for it away from the piano. You never know, it may feel like a piece of cake that way!
Or maybe not. Any votes on what I should do? And Dr. True, feel free to chime in yourself!