Friday, September 3, 2010

I'm dancing as fast as I can

It is so easy to succumb to the temptation to practice fast. You sit down to practice the piano, and you only have an hour, and there's all this stuff you want to get through -- so if you play it fast, you will get more done, right?


I do think there's a place for playing things fast. You need to do it to make sure fingerings work, to figure out what tempo you are aiming for, to get the flow and mood of the piece. But wow, one hour of slow practice is worth three of fast, at least. In fact, three hours of fast practice might even have a negative effect because you are simply playing from muscle memory without much intellectual involvement. Plus, you are often practicing mistakes, or glossing over any potential intepretive niceties that you might otherwise be able to add.

I can't even begin to recount all the times this has hit home. Most recently, my husband made the mistake of wandering into my practice room the other night, so I told him to sit down and listen to me play Bach. Talk about a shaky, messy, uneven train wreck. The prelude wasn't bad, actually, but the fugue fell apart completely. I did a lot of stopping and restarting and had to take a lot of running leaps to get over all the humps and make it to the end. And the thing is, I've been playing this through reasonably well for the past month, but having any audience brought my performance down to its true level.

I have been planning to schedule this piece for an AMSF recital soon, so this was a wake-up call to go back to the basics: small sections, fix stumbles by isolating them, hands separate, voices separate -- and all of this slow, slower, slowest. The metronome is my friend here. I've heard some people say they never practice with the metronome, but I think there's no better way to internalize a steady pulse. One's biological pulse is erratic and tends to speed up under stress, so it's not a reliable guide.

Further, I realized I've been pushing all of the pieces I'm working on, trying to play them up to tempo without preparing. What happens is my muscles can sort of do it, but there's not enough input from consciousness, so when something goes awry (a finger slips, I play a wrong note, etc.) I don't really know what I'm doing enough to stay with it. There's no real control.

This is of course a common problem. The difference in my case from the average amateur is that I do know how to avoid it; I've just been lazy while at the same time desperately wanting to just be able to play this stuff already, dammit. But there really are no shortcuts.

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