Why Practice?

Version 2I was in my senior year of my undergraduate studies, during my apprentice teaching semester. I shared an off-campus apartment with two other men, one a music major the other a psychology major. One day, after I had been practicing my clarinet, the music major said to me, “I don’t like listening to people practice.” Naturally I asked him why this was and he said that it was because when the people he knew practiced, they paid little attention to tone, and most of their attention to practicing notes. I asked him if that was true of me too, and he said that it was.

All these 39 years later, I have recently remembered those words and reflected on them. I have realized that the practice sessions I enjoy the most are the ones in which I am being most expressive; the ones in which I lose myself in the music and “play my heart out.” On the other hand, my least favorite practice sessions are those that are aptly described by my former room mate’s words; the ones in which I am merely practicing notes, drilling myself over and over until I play a passage with the correct notes. Of course, this kind of attention to right notes is necessary, but it is a temporary departure from what should be the main point of playing a musical instrument in the first place, which is to express something of the human heart and spirit.

Suzuki, the famed violin pedagogue, often spoke of the intimacy between heart, soul and music. To him, music was as essential to life and human compassion as the air we breathe. How unfortunate that some teachers have cherry picked playing by ear from the totality of Suzuki’s philosophy and method, forgetting or laying aside the development of beauty of tone and expressiveness in favor of playing dry renditions of Twinkle ad nauseam. Ever since the National Core Arts Standards were released with the pervasive presence of expressive intent throughout them, I have found it both energizing and challenging to frame every musical experience in the context of expressiveness. Yet that is exactly the point of art in general and music in particular–to express something personal from one musician to other musicians and beyond them to audiences. It has also caused me to call into question the premise that performances of classical music must be “authentic.” If a musician’s primary mission is to convey someone else’s expressive intent, then musicians are left with an enterprise that is marginally relevant to them at best. Whether the mandate is to reproduce a composer’s intent, or to follow strict instructions from a conductor, preparing performances to present to an audience without the creative freedom to convey personal meaning is rendering music study largely superficial, and limiting the true power and benefit of musical study.

If someone tells me about something about which they have strong feelings, those feelings are conveyed to me in body language, voice inflection, as well as the words themselves. Their feelings then interact with my own feelings born out of my own experience and interests, and are given an additional meaning that is personal and somewhat unique to me. If the person is telling me about a life event they have celebrated and are happy and excited about, anybody hearing them talk about it will get that the feelings being expressed are happiness and excitement, but my version of those emotions are different from others’ based on how I personally feel when I am happy or excited over a similar life event. The same is true with music. Whereas musicians may universally agree that Beethoven was expressing anger, or Haydn was expressing humor, individual musicians or non-musicians will relate to that anger or human in unique ways, influenced by life experiences only they have responded to in unique ways.  So it is here, in the mixing of life experiences and music that we as music educators much grant our students the freedom to interpret music they hear and perform in our rehearsals and classrooms in personal ways even when those ways are different from how we would dictate an interpretation to them were we to assume the role of traditional maestro.

In granting this freedom, we must prepare our students to create such interpretations by giving them ample experiences with music of the same idiom as that which they are preparing for performance or are listening to for responding to music activities. They must develop a “feel” for the music of Beethoven so that they can relate their own lives to what Beethoven invested into his music. The same is true of any composer of any idiom or time period. Interpretation is the melding of two contexts: that of the creator and that of the performer. The later must understand the former, but be left the latitude to understand the former in his or her own cultural and personal contexts. The more the students have a “feel” for a composer’s music, the more they will be able to understand it based on how they feel when they play, sing or hear it.

When this is applied to practicing or rehearsing, more attention is often given to details. For example, when students are focused on beauty of tone, they are concentrating on the expressiveness of perhaps only a single note, or a single phrase of music. This point is famously made in this moment from the movie Amadeus.

Salieri’s attention to that first sustained note is exactly the focus on expressive detail that is necessary for music to be understood as an expressive power. For Salieri, the miracle of this music is not in the specific pitches or even in the literal dynamics, but in the way in which these things are used for expressive effect. It should not be necessary for children to wait until they are in college or even high school to experience this level of musical sensitivity. The vibrant imaginations of children are perfect for exploring music in all of its expressiveness, much more for than for exploring the names of lines and spaces and the memorizing of vocabulary lists. These too must be included in our music instruction, but they should not become the primary focus.

Thoughts on Practicing

2011 Symposium2

I have spent a lot of years practicing when I didn’t feel like it. I practiced my first year of playing the clarinet because my mother made me. She went to great lengths to make it fun, but I was all too glad when the required practice time was over. When I reached middle school, and my playing finally sounded something like what it was supposed to sound like, I enjoyed practicing because I liked the teacher and I liked playing in band and wanted to do well. Then I started taking private clarinet lessons. I liked that teacher too, and he was very demanding. I think he was the first music teacher I had that actually believed I could become a really good player. He gave me confidence, and newfound hope and motivation that all of this was worth while after all. I remember he was particularly excited when I began to learn the Neilson concerto. I think he considered it a feather in his cap to have a student who could even seriously attempt to play that demanding work, but that didn’t matter to me. He was excited about what I was doing, so I was excited too.

I went to undergraduate school, matriculated as a music education major. Being surrounded by music courses, music lessons, music coaching, and music ensemble rehearsals was amazing fun. I couldn’t get enough of it all. This is what I had wanted to experience, and now I was there, doing it all, or so I thought. But as happens when you leave a small pond as a big fish, and enter into a big pond as a small fish, eventually my short comings caught up with me, and I was no longer practicing because I couldn’t wait for the next lesson or rehearsal. I was practicing because I had to. I was practicing because I had a jury coming. I was practicing because that was how I was going to make to the end of the now arduous task of graduating from a music conservatory. Things didn’t improve for me until I insisted on changing clarinet teachers. The one I had didn’t have very high expectations for me, and the fact that I was not a performance major but a music education major made me not quite worth his while. So I convinced the best teacher at the school I could find to take me on. He had high expectations for everyone. I didn’t know it that day, but switching to him would be the most life changing decision I would make until the day I proposed to my wife.

He wasn’t just about teaching clarinet, he was about teaching life. He wasn’t just a Picture1virtuoso clarinetist, he was a student of pedagogy and of human psychology. Some couldn’t take the pressure of his demanding ways, but somehow we understood each other in a way that was different from the other students in the studio. He knew I would never be his star pupil, but he found reason to invest his teaching and influence in me anyway. There is no way I can describe what that meant to me in words, except to say that it is from those kind of relationships and investments that students rise to excellence, and achieve things beyond their expectations, and occasionally even beyond ours.

I don’t perform much anymore on my clarinet, but I practice regularly, and have never enjoyed doing so more. Why? Because I enjoy being able to play better than I ever thought I would be able to, enjoy playing pieces I once though were out of the question, and I just love playing my clarinet because after all those years and all those hours, I’m pretty darn good at it. That’s a pretty hard sell to a lot of students today, who are used to receiving perfected music instantly on their phones, and used to “playing” music perfectly via pre-recorded loops and perfect sampled sounds on a keyboard. But when I play for my students, there is always, and I mean always, a wow factor. They want to know how I played like that, and I tell them. I tell them I started 49 years ago, and have practiced probably somewhere around 15,000 hours or more in those 49 years. Like me, those who “want it” bad enough are inspired by that, while those who don’t shrug and decide they really don’t want to go through all that.

There always has to be a balance between what a student wants to achieve, and how much time they are willing to put into achieving it. Not everyone wants to practice even an hour every or most days, but a few can’t be retrained from practicing more than that. We can’t influence every student to give their life to practicing and perfecting musical performance, nor should we even if we could. I’m convinced everyone has a special and unique relationship with music that they must find, if not on their own, at least in part on their own initiative. We as teachers can and should inspire, encourage, motivate, and offer ourselves as examples of what is possible should they choose a path similar to the one we followed. There are always those who rise to the top because they were forced to practice, and hated every minute of it, and perhaps never really enjoy music from the heart, but just enjoy the accolades of those who think what they’re doing is terrific, unaware of the inner misery. And there are others that seem to rise to the top in a way that is so effortless, and the result of so little practice, that people like me just shake their heads and feel like it’s all so unfair. But talent never outlasts effort, and those who never have to work for it often don’t finish the race or truly value the gift.

In the end, students and I suspect most of us as well, practice because of the joy of music before us, because of the promise of completing an expressive act that our whole humaness longs to convey and enjoy and share with those who want to share in that expressive act. We all make music for ourselves and for others. We give much more than we receive in terms of time, much like a chef spends much more time preparing a gourmet meal than diners spend enjoying eating it. But that meal, that musical performance is so exquisite, so sublime, that we embrace the chance to prepare again and again, over and over. Any student with this joy set before him or her will want to practice. It is up to us to be expressively focused and builders of musicianship so that music is to our students much more than dubious honks and squeaks of a beginner, or sterile platitudes made of over rehearsed scales and chords. I would gladly accept a wrong note in exchange for a masterfully shaped phrase. It is that way of thinking and teaching that produces students who practice.

An Antidote To Boredom

2011 Symposium2

With the new year nearly upon us, many will make resolutions to do better in some area of their life. Many of these fade within a few weeks as our human tendency to settle back into the familiar and comfortable takes over. This is, I think, at least partly due to focusing on the action and ignoring the benefit of that action. For example, if we want to lose weight, we tend to focus on what we eat or how we exercise. But without the motivation of the health benefits and more attractive body we will surely have, the unpleasantness of dieting and exercising wears us down and eventually puts an end to our resolution.

The same principle can be applied to things like practicing a musical instrument (including voice). I find this equation useful in understanding boredom: boredom = repetition + irrelevance. A dry regimen of scales, etudes, orchestral excerpts and challenging repertoire will wear us down. Eventually we find ourselves hating to practice, and only doing so if we absolutely must. When sent home form a lesson with an assignment of scales and etudes, these will become boring if we do not understand the benefit, and have a goal in mind that we believe is desirable and attainable. Abstract goals, like “you must build technique” or “you must learn these before you will be able to play more challenging repertoire,” may motivate the teacher, but they don’t do much to motivate the student, who may very well ask, “why do I need to build technique, I have all the technique I have to play the music I want to play?” Or she may ask, “what more challenging repertoire do you want me to be able to play? I don’t have time to practice for the Van Cliburn competition, and I really don’t want to do that anyway.”

Compare this to telling a student that you are giving him these scales practicebecause those are the keys the all-state audition piece is in, and they are also on the required scales list. A student who wants to do well on the all-state audition will practice those scales because there is a purpose to doing so–a goal that they have bought into and that they want to achieve and will benefit from. It is a student-generated goal and the teacher is helping the student achieve that goal, not the other way around.

Scales can be practiced with variety, which will further reduce the onset of boredom. They can be practiced with different articulation combinations, with different starting notes, and can be run one into another until all twelve major or minor scales are played. They can be played in segments that ascend diatonically or chromatically. They can be used as an articulation exercise, played rapidly all staccato. They can be played expressively with a variety of dynamic contrasts, or several modes can be played consecutively from the same starting note (i.e. d major, d minor, d dorian, d mixolydian, etc.) Of course, chords and arpeggios can be treated in a similar way.

The more variety is used, especially in articulations and mode, the more flexibility and overall mastery of the instrument will be attained. Chromatic scales are particularly useful in building overall mastery, because they include all possible pitches. Whereas a diatonic scale excludes non diatonic tones, chromatic scales include them all. For the instrumentalist, this requires them to navigate to all keys on their instrument, and practice a much more diverse set of fingering combinations. A good use of the chromatic scale in this regard is to play chromatically ascending and descending the interval of a tritone. Play this several times, then move the starting note up a half step. This now places the weaker second pitch on the stronger downbeat. Shifting the metrical placement of pitches develops evens. This exercise can be combined with changes in articulation, which also influences how we audiate the relative importance of each tone.

Through all of this, scales and arpeggios are being played many times over, but in so many different ways that it does not seem like much is being repeated. Then, when the benefits of this kind of fundamentals practice quickly migrates to repertoire practice, the student is delighted with her progress, and willingly puts in more time on the pieces. A mix of well-defined goals that the student also desires, with built in variety is the perfect antidote to practice boredom.

Why Do So Many Music Students Hate To Practice?

2011Symposium_1_2I hated it, others music teachers I know hated it or even still do, and many of our students hate it–we a have all hated to practice our instruments. I find this disturbing and strange. I no longer hate to practice, in fact if I go many days without practicing, I can’t stand to be away from my instrument any more. So it may be fruitful to attempt to answer the question of why so many hate to practice by comparing why I used to hate it, to why I don’t hate it anymore.

My experience with this has had three stages. I hated to practice when I wasn’t very good. I struggled for my first couple of years of band in school, and because I didn’t sound good and was struggling to do in my lessons what most of my friends were doing without much effort, I became discouraged and didn’t want to practice. This resolve on my part may have been enough to end my playing right there were it not for two inescapable facts: my mother, who had studied piano as a child, refused to let me give up, and insisted on sitting with me while I practiced, and helping through my assignments. She did everything she could think of to keep me playing;  I even remember her dancing around the room while I played “The Merry Widow.” The other fact was that although I hated the struggle I was in, I loved music. Just how much was made evident when finally my failures and the band director’s advice finally convinced my mom that there really wasn’t much point in my continuing. But then something unforeseen happened: I began failing at everythingpractice else in school. Luckily, an alert teacher made the connection, had me placed back in band, and immediately my grades went back up. I don’t think even I knew how much I loved that clarinet.

With new hope, and a glimmers of future success peeking through, I began my comeback, until everything finally “clicked” and I was on my way to being successful playing the clarinet. The better I got, the more I enjoyed practicing. In high school, I couldn’t get enough of clarinet concertos by Weber and Mozart. At that point, I used my study halls to come down to the music suite and practice. No one had to force me to practice anymore. This was the second stage.

The third stage, which I am still in, started when I began my studies with Kalmen Opperman. If there was ever anyone who could one moment make you feel inadequate and small, and the next moment like you could be a world renowned clarinetist, it was Kal. He didn’t just teach clarinet, he taught life. He knew that if you had your head on straight, that was half the battle. He knew that nothing would come easy, even for the very best, and that the only guarantee of success was to simply be so good, even those who didn’t want to hire you would be forced to admit they had to. I grew as a clarinetist while studying with him more than I could have hoped or imagined would be possible. What he gave to me was worth more than perhaps even he ever knew. The ghosts of my past failures were finally put to rest. I believed in myself, and would never allow myself to loose what I now had.

piano practiceI enjoy practicing today because I have reached a level of playing that is satisfying,  and good enough to play professionally. But I know that mediocrity is only weeks away if I neglect my instrument, so I gladly practice often. So how can my story benefit your students? Here are some suggestions. First, play for your students, not to show off, but to let them see what you can do, and what they can do if they follow your teaching closely and practice diligently. Second, convince them that it’s only a matter of hours. Practice is infinitely more valuable than talent and natural ability. I have a modest amount of both, but have achieved a great deal more than my talent and natural ability, whatever that is, would indicate.

Third, set your students up in really exciting performances. Maybe a community volunteer theater needs a musician for their show. Push for your student to play there. Maybe there is a festival band or orchestra with entrance by the school director’s recommendation. Talk to the director and convince him or her to recommend your student. Fourth, go to your student’s school performances, regional and all-state concerts. The personal investment in them that this kind of support demonstrates is powerful. Students will do practically anything you ask when they see that you are genuinely interested in them and what’s important to them beyond your classroom or studio.

If you are playing professionally yourself, introduce your student to other musicians you play with, and arrange for your student to substitute for you at a performance now and then when you are unable to play. All of these things are encouraging, motivating, and really important to a young player trying to get a start in a tough business. Once presented with these kinds of opportunities, and the affirmation that they are capable of playing in these situations, a student will run to the practice room. All of us have very little difficulty finding the motivation to things we enjoy and that bring us affirmation from others, especially significant others like teachers, parents, and friends.