Tuesday, September 29, 2009


My first piano teacher preached thusly: Practicing consisted almost entirely of repetition of the entire piece. The magic number was 10: You played everything 10 times, with the metronome -- five times slow, three times faster, and two times fastest. Each week, the metronome marking was advanced to the next notch. Memorizing was a mysterious process that just happened after you had played something enough times. She used to write in my lesson notebook, "In Repetition There Is Security!!!" Well, okay -- I guess you would kind of learn a piece this way, more or less, eventually.

Playing the cello, in contrast to playing the piano, really forces you to take music apart and look at its separate components. There's no way around it. When you play the piano, you sit at this big machine and press the keys and the sound comes out, but you don't have to think about it much. When you play the cello (or any stringed instrument), you are more intimately connected with how the sound is produced. The left hand and right hand do completely different things. You have to learn to listen to the results of what you do with each hand: The right hand, so that you pull the bow in such a way that you don't get squeaks and scrapes, and the left hand, so that you put your fingers in the right place and produce the right notes that are in tune.

And then, once you've gotten some ability with all of that and are playing real music, you find that in an orchestra, for example, your part is just one small component of the whole, and you have to learn to count and feel rhythm so that you can play with the other people in the group. I think learning a cello part is more conducive to understanding the guts of a piece than learning a first violin part because cello parts are almost always bass lines -- which are the foundation for everything else. Even when you play "solo" cello music (unless it's truly solo, like the Bach suites), you are humbly beholden to the pianist or orchestra that is accompanying you.

So in my case, learning all of these things, though I learned them slowly over many years, gave me much more understanding of what practicing is for and how to do it. My first cello lessons as a music major were something of a shock. Again, my natural talent was far, far ahead of my knowledge or discipline. My teacher and I had many a struggle before I started figuring things out, at least a little bit.

Even after earning three music degrees and performing in many concerts, I don't think it was until the past five years or so, with my return to the piano, that I have really learned how to practice. Although I knew some of this before, it has only been recently that I've come to feel it viscerally. What I understand now is that learning a piece of music is a combination of close attention to thousands of small gestures while developing a concept of the entire sweep of this piece, what it means, how it flows, the harmonic structure. You draw the outlines and slowly fill in the details.

In a sense, my first teacher, was right, though the way she taught it was crude. Ultimately, some form of mastery comes from spending time with whatever it is you want to master, and the more time, the better the result. However, how you spend that time is as, or perhaps more, important.

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