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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Waiting for the Water to Boil

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:
You can’t get much more basic than this. But there’s a lot going on in this deceptively simple exercise. Every moment, I’m trying to keep the feel light and easy. On each stroke, my finger plays and immediately releases back to its starting point near the string. I’m aware that at this speed I’m not doing alternation—it’s more like separate strokes for each finger. In fact, I’m purposely trying to avoid alternation for now. I’ve found that when I try to bump the speed up to where it starts to feel like alternation, the easy and light feel vanishes. Instead, it’s replaced by my old familiar tense and clunky feel. That feel is no longer acceptable to me. Instead, I begin with a tempo of 100. When it feels free and easy, I up the tempo a bit. If it feels good, I stay there a moment and then up it a bit more. If it starts to feel bad, I retreat to a tempo where the bad feeling disappears. Rinse and repeat.

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.]——


Anonymous said...

It would be nice if a video with the instruction is posted. I know it requires a lot more work, but it would work whole lot better.

Tom Poore said...

I've had a number of people ask me to do this. So I've ordered a video camera. If the camera arrives in time, and I can figure out how to work it, my next monthly update will be a video. Wish me luck, as I've little skill with anything mechanical. Don't be surprised if my first video comes out upside down.