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Practice Your Heart Out

Apr 20, 2021

Does practice always make perfect?

'I'm going to get it right first, and then I will play it with feeling.' Ever heard that before? Could we risk losing music to the discipline of perfecting music?

Remember that first time you played the music

I think we can 'get it right' and 'play it with feeling'... from the very beginning. I teach my students that even our initial attempts at learning a new piece can be played musically. What is this thing called music, afterall? The process of 'getting it right' carries with it a high risk of drilling the music right out of the experience. 

The poet Wallace Stevens once wrote 'Music is feeling, not sound.'
Have you ever experienced that delicious feeling when you attempt a piece of music that you really want to learn, for the very first time? Be it an imperfect sight read, or a halting attempt to recreate a piece by ear, there is a finger tingling joy in the potential of what that music promises to give you even before it moves through to its completion. Then comes the practice, the repetition of phrases, the crafting of the rhythm, the coordination of fingers. This disciplined practice can result in the loss of that first love, the musical heart of the piece that drew you to it in the first place. By the time we have perfected the piece, we have forgotten the thrill of it.

For generations students have been taught that playing is primarily a set of skills and techniques, that the 'art of music' is what follows if you achieve proficiency... and are musically gifted. This approach advocates that students should drill scale and finger exercises such as Hanon for strength and dexterity. Czerny has been prescribed for finger drills down through the years, yet it's interesting to note that he actually created his books as inspirational material for creating melodies, much like our motifs are created as inspirational material for improvisation. Many students are taught that music will emerge if they are disciplined enough to master these skills over time and apply them to pieces. But it may have cost us a multitude of creative musicians who never stuck at it long enough to discover their own musical joy.

I believe that if we can first capture a student's heart with the joy of playing, of creating music, then the technique and mastery of tone and touch can be nurtured naturally out of this musical expression. When I sense that a student has practiced the music out of a piece, I know it's time to put the story back into the music.

Story is key

I was teaching a 12 year old boy a few weeks ago who was playing Fur Elise... like a military march! It was perfect in every way, except it wasn't music. It's sounds were perfect, but there were no feelings. There was no music! No-one really knows who Elise was. We believe Beethoven had written this piece out of love's broken heart. But show me a 12 year old boy who can relate to that! I had to find a way to give him a meaningful story that would allow him to play the music. So sitting at the piano, we wandered down an impromptu lane of 'I wonder if'...

'Living upstairs in an old apartment, Beethoven was deaf, lonely, frustrated and often angry. It is thought that there was a young girl who lived with her family downstairs. She brought him his meals and may have been his only contact with the world, especially when he was deeply immersed in composition.

Beethoven never acknowledged the young girl as she timidly opened his door and slipped his meal tray inside. She was frightened by his noisy stomping to the rhythm of his symphonies as he paced the wooden floor, conducting the music in his head. Yet she had a tender heart for his situation and was in awe of his obvious musical passion.

One day Beethoven turned and saw her just before she slipped away. Her fleeting smile was like a breath of fresh air to him, and I wonder if, on that smile, Fur Elise was composed.'

Story changes everything 

The next week both his mum and I were deeply moved as we heard the smile in Beethoven's Fur Elise. What a difference a feeling makes. His mum made the comment that this shift in perception was authentically life changing for her perfectionist son.

My heart for my programs is that students... musicians... will find a place to create music that is motivated by their own stories of life; the joy, the pain, the fascination. And will in turn experience true musicianship in everything they play, where ever they are on their journey.