I’m always looking for ways to improve my life — my writing, my reading, my cooking, my piano playing. The search is not daily and endless. I’m never looking for the ultimate answer — the one that will solve all issues once and for all. I just want to know if there’s a little change I can make that will improve my personal work. Once I happen upon something that might help me, I put it into practice — to see if it works. It may be a long time before I search for anything else. It’s how I work.
The other day I ran across teaching videos by pianist and professor Dr. John Mortenson. I like his teaching style — straight forward, cut-to-the chase, on point, no fluff. His video series on practice methods and techniques caught my eye. Because I spend multiple hours every day at the keyboard, I want to know how to use my time most effectively — to get the most bang (hopefully music) for my buck. His points actually apply to any skill you’re trying to perfect — whether it be tennis or writing or knitting or cooking or photography. The principles are the same. Here are a few things he said:
Practice with the sound you want. Endlessly pounding out a passage will not produce a musical phrase. Mindlessly slamming a tennis ball against a wall will not create a smooth serve. I have to practice the exact moves and the exact tones I want when performance day comes. Elegance, smoothness, clarity, hearing, and vision must begin with my first moments of practice — no matter my discipline or art.
Practice slowly. Practice should be a slow, but perfect, version of the final piece. Mortenson says 80% of your practice time should be slow. I thought I was doing well with 20-30% slow practice. I set my metronome at a slow speed to keep me steady and methodical. Then I jump the speed up 10 notches and go at it again. At my last lesson Dr. B suggested I increase the speed by only 4-5 notches at time. Our downfall is that we’re always in a rush to play fast — to get to the finish line. Without slow practice, we may get there, but with glitches and mistakes and uncertainties.
Don’t practice wrong notes. In response to a question about his flawless performances, a concert pianist replied, “I never practice wrong notes.” Enough said.
How you practice is how you will perform. When we’re left to our own devices we often forget what we’re trying to accomplish. We think if we put in enough hours, perfection will appear at performance time. Such magic doesn’t happen. What does happens is that you perform exactly how you’ve practiced, perhaps worse, because nerves and anxiety often appear in stressful situations. Set your mind on the goal, then work like a tortoise.
It’s not enough to just love the music or the game. How you practice matters.
Until next Tuesday . . .