The Art of Practicing: Introduction and Chapters 1-2

I mentioned in a previous post, which introduced the idea of providing a commentary on Madeline Bruser’s The Art of Practicing, that I had no intention of going into a deep analysis of this work. I stand by that, but I think my way of dividing up this series will be to cover 2-4 chapters per post (depending on chapter length). Skipping chapters might confuse people; for example, certain quotes, understood a certain way by me, and taken out of their context, might be misinterpreted by anyone reading this. So, this chapter by chapter commentary (I think!) works best.

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I finished the introduction and the first two chapters of this book while still in the Barnes and Noble I bought it at. I don’t usually bother to read the introductions of books, but this one had a certain hook to it. Being a concert pianist and teacher herself, Ms. Bruser is sympathetic towards the frustration people have with practicing. Take this quote, for example,

“Every piece of music presents new difficulties, and each time we practice it new wrinkles appear. One day we may feel comfortable with our instrument, and the next we may feel stiff and uncoordinated. One minute a phrase flows smoothly from our fingers, and the next it suddenly falls apart…In many cases the sheer physical strain from struggling for an ideal performance even leads to injury.”

-pg. 1

Yes! That’s me–well, sometimes. She then goes on to briefly explain her aim with this book,

“This book is about how to free ourselves from physical and emotional tension as we practice so that we can unleash our innate musical talent. When our fingers get tied up in knots in a difficult passage, we can loosen up and find a comfortable way to play it…By giving ourselves room to relax, we awaken our vital energies instead of stifling them.”

-pg. 2

The writing had an honesty about it that rang true with me. Many times, a particular bow stroke, lick or passage from a given piece works well on Tuesday, but come Wednesday it’s like you never even worked on it. Why is this?? It’s infuriating and discouraging all at once. Of course, we take a deep sigh, and then go back to work. However, this observation drew me in and made curious if the author had any wisdom to impart to her readers. I kept reading.

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The first chapter is rather short. It talks a great deal about the sentimentality that musicians feel towards their instruments and music itself. Reflecting upon this chapter, the thought that kept coming to mind is that music is not technical facility. Technical facility is like a car that takes you to a certain place, and the keys are the “passion, confidence, and vulnerability” (pg. 9) it takes to start the engine. Having one without the other misses the point!

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The author kicks off the next chapter by addressing some of the feelings of frustration musicians often have when practicing. Take this passage, for example,

We don’t know what to do with our freedom. We repeat passages in a joyless, desperate way to gain technical security. We adhere to a rigid plan for practicing a piece. We push ourselves to meet a deadline and feel inadequate when our work isn’t going well. This severity, this habit of being hard on ourselves, destroys inspiration, making it difficult to develop the joy and spontaneity needed for performing. Recognizing this gulf between the joy of performing and the drudgery of practicing led me to develop the Art of Practicing.”

-pg. 11

You’re preaching to the choir, sister. One of the three selections I played for my most recent college audition was the Courante from Bach’s 1st Cello Suite. I can’t tell you how many months I struggled and labored with it. After a while, I got to a point to where I could play the entire movement through in practice, but when playing it either for my teacher or a friend, it’d fall apart–finger missing the string, muddled trills, rushing…it was extremely frustrating. It had NONE of the spontaneity Ms. Bruser is talking about. I think this is because of the way that I practiced it, or maybe the way that I didn’t practice it. I would play the challenging licks within the movement over and over again, but the piece itself became nothing more than a difficult finger exercise–I forgot about the musicality because I was forcing myself to repeat these licks in a joyless fashion which crippled my musical expression.

Ms. Bruser then goes on to talk about some of her own struggles to cultivate spontaneity, and gives us an example of when she did,

I first experienced this spontaneity in a practice room at music school. I had been practicing for several hours when I suddenly realized that the sound was coming directly out of the piano. Instead of singing the music in my mind, as I usually did, and focusing on that imaginary sound, I heard the actual sound. I was shocked by its vividness and by the realization that although this brilliant sensory experience had been available to me for years, I had been missing it.”

-pg. 11

I became familiar with this concept recently. My teacher, Andy Anderson, told me during a lesson last week that, when he is about to play a solo or excerpt, he is actually singing the solo in his head before he starts. This isn’t the easiest thing to do. In an audition we’re under pressure to perform at our highest level, and we become anxious to satisfy a panel of people as quickly as possible. I did this at my Roosevelt audition this past Saturday, but only with the Courante. It was the first peice of the 3 that I played, and I was determined to be relaxed and demonstrate musicality. Maybe I became a little overconfident because it went so well, but, I didn’t do this ‘hearing the music before the music is played’ for the Koussevitzky Concerto or Bille’ etude. I wish I would have. I emailed Andy (who was at the audition) a few days ago, and asked him how he though everything went on Saturday. He said,

“The Bach went especially well, just a couple of little blips, but I thought the musical statement came through.”

Blips happen to everyone in the heat of battle, as it were, but for the most part, people don’t remember them. When somebody gives a powerful speech with a moving message, you don’t remember when they struggled to find a word or phrase to express what they wanted to say, just like how you don’t remember a little mistake a soloist made in your favorite concerto, you remember the way they phrased a melody, and the excitement and the beauty that came through because of it. I don’t mean to beep my own horn by adding what Andy said to this post–I just wanted to make the point that there is something to hearing the music in your head before you play. Andy specifically said the Courante went ‘especially well’ and more importantly ‘the musical statement came through’. I’m convinced it was because I was singing the song in my head before I dived in.

Anywho, moving on…

In the next section, the author goes on to explain how musicians can be way to hard on themselves, and the harmful and crippling results of doing so.

I sometimes point out to students that their frustration with a piece is an indication that they care deeply about it. One student told me it was one of the most helpful things ever said to him. He was able to stop berating himself and began to appreciate himself instead, which opened him up enormously to the music. We don’t usually use experiences of dissatisfaction as signals to be gentle with ourselves. Instead, we blame ourselves or become aggressive with the music. Tension escales, and the more we practice a piece, the worse it gets.

-pg. 15

She then goes on to highlight some of the common ways musicians create tension and the result of doing so. Here are a couple:

-Playing a piece too fast before you are ready.

Result: Your body tightens, which only prevents it from moving as fast as you want it to.

-Trying to play a piece pianissimo or fortissimo when you are just beginning to learn it.

Result: When playing softly, you might not produce a sound at all; or, when playing loudly, your muscles clench and become rigid, leaching their power and creating a strained sound.

– from pages 15-16

The most dangerous thing a musician can do to themselves, she explains, is to practice through physical pain.

“Pain is an indication that you are overusing a limited muscle group, using the wrong muscles, or using too much force. It is a signal to relax and slow down. The pain builds up until it becomes incapacitating. Injuries of the hands, arms, neck, back, jaw, lips or vocal cords afflict many musicians, forcing them to stop playing or singing for extended periods of time, and sometimes permanently.”

I remember a bass player who went to my high school that struggled with tension in his playing (I think most players do, as it is). He ended up getting accepted at Indiana University in Bloomington, which is a school known for producing quality players. From what I understand, he went off to Indiana, and after a year there, had to stop playing. I heard all of this through my orchestra conductor, who said that the tension problems in his right hand eventually crippled his playing. It’s a shame this happens to musicians–but especially this guy. When he was a senior, I was a freshmen, and at that point in my life bass playing was nothing more than a mildly interesting hobby, and an easy A to boot. When I got serious about bass during my junior year, I found out that he played Bottesini’s Concerto No. 2 with the chamber orchestra during his senior year. Intrigued, I did a bit of digging through the school archives with my orchestra conductor, and we found a recording of it. It was brilliant.

I’m guilty of practicing through pain myself. There is NO benefit in doing this besides superficial good feelings (I admit, though, they’re nice! But, however, shallow). When I start to feel tension now, I stop whatever I’m practicing and stretch, and maybe get a glass of water. It helps.

A final quote from chapter 2,

“All of these ways of practicing indicate lack of trust in our ability. We are afraid that if we just relax and let ourselves work naturally and comfortably, we won’t be good enough. So we drive ourselves, force ourselves, and hurt ourselves. In doing so, we lose touch with our most valuable asset as artists–the willingness to be vulnerable, genuine, and spontaneous, to communicate from the heart.”

-pg. 18

In the next chapter, the author describes many different stretches that help to reduce tension in your playing. I’ll talk more about these in the next post, but I’ve found them  very helpful and relaxing. I realize the above quote might sound a bit too sentimental, but to the sensitive musician (I think), there is definitely something to be gained by considering it.

 

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~ by benjamin86 on February 8, 2008.

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