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.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Learning to productively say, "Forget you!" in the practice room

You may already find yourself saying this a lot in the practice room...

"FORGET YOU!$&%&$*&*&%*&#!!!!!!!!!!!!"

In most cases I suspect that phrase isn't being used in the most productive way.  I'm here to turn that around.

Picture's practice time and you've decided to tackle that nasty passage you have yet to defeat. You give it another go...and then another... but you're still getting tripped up every time. Most people I know will diligently persist in this vein until they are ready to tear their hair out. Trust me, I know because I've been there myself. What I've learned to do instead is to ask myself a question such as, "Is there a better fingering?"  This question is a great way to lure me down a different path,  away from the one that ends at a brick wall with my head banging against it.   Often times it only takes a few tries to discover a fingering that enables me to play the passage correctly, comfortably, and musically after only one or two attempts. I love those moments!  Who doesn't?  It makes me feel like I rule the world, that I am the master of my own domain, and that I can do anything.  Corny?  Perhaps...but I'm sorry, it's true.  Must be that adrenaline rush that comes from success and from saying (or shouting enthusiastically), "FORGET YOU!!" to or at your old fingering.

It's not always a less-than-idea fingering that is the issue, by the way.  It depends on the instrument and the moment.  Here's a general list of the options to play around with based on the instrument:

Pianists:  fingerings, hand distribution (which hand is playing which notes)
String players:  fingerings (including which string to play on), bowings
Wind/brass players:  fingerings (that's why there are alternative fingerings!), breath placement
Singers: breath placement, placement (falsetto? chest voice? head voice? a mix?)

While you're practicing, if you are stuck, check to see if you can move past the issue by changing one of these factors.

Exploring more options and daring to move away from the composer's, a teacher's, or editor's own choices, especially after some experience and successes, can be a fun and effective way to practice because it is a sure-fire way to ensure that my mind is engaged.  Problem solving like this can also be incredibly empowering as it reminds me that I have actually learned something through the many years of working at my instrument.   It also saves endless time and frustration in the practice room which is a really important asset of this technique because as I always tell folks, it's what we do in the practice room physically and mentally, that we'll carry onto the stage when we perform.  If we have practiced a passage ad-nauseam without success and with a feeling like the passage owns us, we are going to walk onto the stage feeling apprehensive and wondering what's going to happen.  This technique allows us to take the reins earlier on in the process so that we can feel like we are in control of the piece, even the tricky bits.

I want to end this post with a little story that demonstrates the power of this technique.  Over the past few years I've had the opportunity to play piano at two masterclasses that have been taught by the cellist, Zuill Bailey.  Time and time again he has asked students about shifts that are obviously giving them trouble.  He likes to ask why they are doing it the way they are.  Have they considered another fingering or bowing?  Usually the student can't really respond with a good answer besides, "Because it's in the music" or "My teacher told me to" to which he then asks them how it's working for them.  How often do they get it right in the practice room?  Usually they respond in the negative which leads everyone in the audience and on the stage into a bit of a chuckle-fest.  Why?  Because it's so obvious when it's addressed in this way.  Why should we keep trying something when it's clearly not working?  Why should we expect something to magically work when we're on stage performing in front of a world class artist?  Mr. Bailey then follows up by offering a possible alternative and having the student try it.  Once they hit on one that produces success he then has a little contest between the old fingering or bowing and the new one.  Whichever one enables the student to play the passage three times in a row consistently is the one that wins.  More often than not, it's the new version that wins, surprise, surprise!  In this demonstration, the power of having a choice and of being able to say, "FORGET YOU!" to something that's not working is so clear.

Now we just need to bring it into the practice room and to see how fun it can be to tell ourselves a nice way, of course!

Quick note to folks that try doing this but are still frustrated.  Half the battle is knowing where the problem spots are so pat yourself on the back for at least knowing that!  Then take it to a teacher, a friend, or a friendly practice coach (like me!) and ask for some suggestions.  I'm sure whoever you ask would be delighted to help out if they can.  And if they don't want to help you, you know what to say.  "FORGET YOU!!"  (Just joking...kind of.)



  1. Heifetz used to say that "there is no top." What he meant was that things could always be better. He could say that because he was Heifetz, a dazzling virtuoso since he was 13 year old. However, not everyone is a Heifetz - or a Perlman, or a Midori, or a Steinbacher, or a Kavakos or a Capucon or a Paganini or a Francescatti or a Hassid or a Menuhin, etc, etc. etc. Ordinary musicians should (and I think they do) realize that there are limits to what they can accomplish, even if they practice the same thing six hours a day for a year. Not every pianist can be a Horowitz or a Brendel. Not every orchestra can be a Berlin Philharmonic either. Nonetheless, perhaps there is no harm in trying, as long as you are willing to put up with a lot of frustration.

    1. Violinhunter,
      That's actually why I love playing music so much - the adventure never ends and as you reminded me what Heifetz said, "there is no top." Exactly! That's also why I write this blog - because I want to share with others my enthusiasm for practicing because I see it as a daily game, puzzle, and or mystery that happens to involve music that I love and playing with other musicians, one of my favorite activities. I feel so very fortunate! My hope is that somehow we can find ways to practice that alleviates that frustration.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!


  2. I've definitely had this issue multiple times. Sometimes I now go back to old pieces I use to play, look at a passage that seemed impossible before, and think "what the heck was I thinking with this fingering!" I noticed my ability to see better fingering as a pianist gets better with time. Now I make sure that one of my major concerns when learning the piece for the first time is if my fingering will work. I hate having to switch fingering later, it's always so hard to get away from old habits.

    1. Brian,
      You are DEFINITELY not alone with that experience with what seems to be crazy fingerings. Sometimes that happens the day after I come up with a "brilliant" new fingering. ;-) I'm trying to get quicker and quicker at evaluating my fingerings though and I try to just laugh at myself when I find myself scratching my head in complete wonderment.

      Thanks for reading and for sharing your own experiences!


  3. You know, when I first read the title of this post, I was thinking that it was an interjection said in frustration, à la when you cook up a new fingering that works well, and in the heat of the moment on stage ... the old one bubbles up from some subterranean memory well. I remember listening to one of Rachel Barton Pine's podcasts where she talked about sussing out some cool new fingering for a piece she's performing, and when she's on stage, if she's not careful sometimes some ancient fingering she did when she was 12 will pop out, and she's like, "Where did THAT come from?!" It's amazing the old junk lurking in the crevices of our heads that we don't even know is still up there sometimes.

    1. Well I have to admit, Janis, that I do use that same phrase for the reason you're talking about plenty too. ;-) And it's good to know that Rachel Barton Pine has the same issue on occasion.

      Side note...every time you mention RBP I have to smile because when I attended this string camp in the summer a long time ago, out in the middle of NOWHERE, she was one of the younger campers there. She had to be in the Main house, where Mrs. Galamian lived. Kind of an amusing memory.