Writing about practice, the Russian piano teacher Heinrich Neuhaus described the following scenario. You want to boil a pot of potatoes. So you set a pot of water on a fire. Before the water heats up, you remove the pot from the fire and do something else. Later, you put the pot of water back on the fire. Then, again, you remove the pot before the water heats up and do something else. You repeat this many times. Obviously the water never heats to a boil, and your potatoes never get cooked. Neuhaus’ point was that, when practicing, you have to stay with something long enough for the water to boil. Only then can you get something done.
So for the rest of this month the pot will sit on the fire. My 30 minute alternation sessions have boiled down to this:
Having worked on my right hand project for two and a half months, I’m amazed at how bad my alternation now feels. Individual rest strokes feel quite good to me. But the instant i and m move simultaneously in opposite directions—a defining characteristic of alternation—my hand feels very different, and the difference isn’t a good one. Yet I see this as an encouraging sign. An early stage of ingraining a new good feel is that the old feel to which I was once inured is now intolerable. To be sure, this isn’t a fun place to be. Indeed, it’s a kind of no man’s land: I’m not where I want to be, and I refuse go back to where I was. Well, sometimes life is unbearably tragic.
I need to be careful of long and uninterrupted practice sessions. While I’m not doing speed work, it’s very easy for me to fall into a zone of continuous play for 30 minutes at a stretch. That’s the kind of thing that caused trouble in the past. I keep reminding myself to take frequent breaks to relax my right shoulder. So far, no trouble to report on that front.
Compelling to me is the fact that, done right, play and release apparently bypasses questions I earlier puzzled over. For example, I earlier wondered if I needed to tinker with my hand position to equalize the different lengths of i and m. With play and release, this question melts away to irrelevancy. My fingers fall into a comfortable groove, and their different lengths just seem to sort themselves out with no real effort. This, I hope, is the hallmark of a good approach. When problems seem to sort themselves out, one might be on the right track.
Lest we forget, my right hand arpeggio work is proceeding apace. Until this week, I’d kept the speed of my arpeggios very slow. But now I’m inching up the tempo a bit. (For you non-Americans, that would be centimetering up the tempo.) I’ve no great improvement to report, but my arpeggios do feel a tad better than before I began this project. But it’s a small improvement, possibly a product of wishful thinking rather than real accomplishment.
So I’ll continue with my practice sessions and staring at the water pot.
Apropos of nothing, I’d like to close this post with a brief conversation I had with one of my students, an eleven year old girl. She was trying to play her assigned piece and making a botch of it, repeatedly starting and stopping. It prompted this exchange:
Me: “I’d like to hear this once before I die.”
Student: “You’re not gonna die.”
Me: “Well, thank you!”
Student: “Wait, how old are you?”
——[My next post will be on March 28, 2011.]——