6 Practicing Myths Dissected

You might have heard the old saying, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? ….practice, practice, practice!” Now that I am scheduled to Leonardo da Vinci copyperform there in February 2014, I feel qualified to weigh in on the topic of how to practice the piano.

Piano Playing is Complicated

Studies have shown that playing a musical instrument is “among the most complex skills of (human) motor tasks” (LG Meister et al./ Cognitive Brain Research 19 (2004) 219-228). Certainly learning to perform a complicated classical piece of music from memory in front of an audience is the hardest task I have attempted. Most other things have seemed relatively easy by comparison except for facing the prospect of dying young from cancer.

Plenty of Advice Available

Many books have been written on how to play and practice the piano specifically, and on how to master complicated skills more generally. They range from philosophical books such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Inner Game of Music to pragmatic recent publications such as Josh Kaufman’s The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast!, and Chuan C. Chang’s Fundamentals of Piano Practice, and YouTube videos by everyone and their brother. It seems like mastering the piano should be a relatively easy task given the vast amount of instruction available; there were 104 MILLION listings when I googled ‘how to practice piano’.

But Will it Work?

However, when the rubber meets the road, one is generally alone at the keyboard trying to figure out the solutions to various problems. As the American folk song “Lonesome Valley” puts it:

You got to walk that lonesome valley
You got to walk it by yourself
Ain’t nobody else
Can walk it for you
You got to walk it by yourself.

What’s Ahead

I have decided to offer my thoughts on some of the more widespread beliefs about practicing. Hopefully you will find something of value here to help you on your path.Next week I will dive into the first myth: Practice Makes Perfect.  In the weeks ahead,  I will commit myself in print about some other common thoughts on practicing,  such as:

You can learn anything with enough repetitions
Practice, practice, practice will get you to Carnegie Hall
Learn it hands separately then hands together
Listen to recordings enough and you can put together a great interpretation
Learn technic first then work on music

I’d love to hear from you.  Are there any other beliefs about practicing you would like to hear about?  Do you have thoughts on the process of practicing you’d like to share?

 

Houston, we have lift off!

I called New York again today. Talk about lucky timing.  My contact told me that just yesterday the board had agreed that I could play in Carnegie Hall on a masterclass program.

So it really is going to happen!  I had been feeling rather doubtful since my last call to New York.  But after a bad masterclass experience some years ago,  I had vowed never to open myself up to other’s comments in public.

I inquired politely whether I would be performing for comments,  or in recital.  He confirmed that I would be one of several performers on the program who were not getting comments from the master teacher.  I will need to prepare eight minutes of music.

So here is the date:

February  23, 2014 at 1:30 p.m.  

Time to get a move on!  Choose a program! get a dress that fits!  scare up some frequent flyer miles and a cheap place to stay!  Start letting people know about the date!

I’m actually fine with only playing eight minutes.  In my book, that’s plenty of time for a listener to decide if they like your playing or not.  When I am judging competitions, I can usually tell in less than 30 seconds whether I need to listen closely (this person might be in the top two or three) or focus on writing helpful comments.

I’m excited again about piano.

Gloomy outlook, June 26, 2013

I got in touch with the contest organizer today. First I went to the contest website to see what concerts they had announced for 2014,  so I could suggest they just add me in to one already on the books. Then I called him.

When he emailed me on May 13th, he had sent me a phone number.  So I called it. Turned out it was his cell phone, and he was walking on the street in Manhattan. He seemed a little surprised when I said my name, and it  took a while before he remembered who I was.

Forging ahead anyway, I said I wanted to firm up a Carnegie performance date for fall of 2013 or Spring of 2014.  I suggested maybe I could be added to one of the winner’s concerts for the 2014 contests, or possibly the Gala.  He replied,  ’Oh no, the winners’ concerts are for the winners the judges picked, and the Gala is a very special event – the Board only allows certain performers to participate.   But perhaps you could perhaps play on our vocal masterclass series.”

“Where would the event be held?”, I asked. “Liederkranz Hall”, he answered.

Years of feeling like ‘not a winner’ and not  ’special’ – not skilled enough, not enough money, unknown, too many wrong notes –  flashed before my eyes.  But I persisted. I’ve always been stubborn and have learned the hard way how to hang tough.

Politely but firmly I said that I could be flexible on the date, the length of time I would perform, or the repertoire,  but that I was only interested in playing in Carnegie Hall. No where else. It felt good to say that.

He said he understood,  but that he couldn’t commit to anything without checking with the rest of the Board.   Doing my best  ”you and me could be chums maybe” imitation, I said that having served on several boards myself, I understood.

We left things there.

I felt discouraged, but resolved that if I could get Chase Bank to agree to a loan modification, I could get this performance scheduled eventually. Just keep tapping into my long and wide vein of stubbornness.

Major Operating System Reinstall

Where does this go?  No,  don’t put the sweatshirt away with the pajamas,  no the nuts do not go in the refrigerator.  Frantically looking for the butter,  finally I find it right where I first looked – and didn’t see it.

My firm ware is going  through a major operating system reinstall.  The spinning beachball is displayed large and in the very center of my screen and it is hard to concentrate.

The place inside my neural net that knows it is valuable and creative and educated expressed itself just now in all three of the mornings lessons.   New insights, less apologizing about why I made suggestions, more willingness to follow hunches out on a limb through thin air and down a fruitful new avenue of investigation led to some breakthroughs for each student.

Wanda and I untied a very thorny knot inside Ravel’s Oiseaux Triste;  Veronica and I found a way for her to comfortably play two voices in the right hand of her Bach fugue,  and Paul and I discovered how to sense the radius and use it to unify the movements of the forearm. Exhilarating, but also calm and grounded.

The mother finch has continued building her nest behind the outdoor speaker, up against the support for the back door roof overhang.   She is just as startled and annoyed with me every time I go in and out of the back door, in spite of the fact (fact? really? ) that I am now an internationally recognized pianist who will play in Carnegie Hall.

(Student’s names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

Altered State, May 14th, 2013

It is less than 24 hours after finding out about the competition results.  I have spoken to my teacher, my mother, my sister, and a colleague.

Sometimes I felt normal today and almost forgot what had happened yesterday.  But tonight while at Zumba class,  I felt for several minutes in a row  that everything was o.k.  That I had become someone I have wanted to be for a very very long time.  Or, more accurately,  that the someone I hoped I was but feared that I was not actually did exist somewhere inside my skin and neurons and had been invited to Carnegie Hall to do something I had always dreamed of.

After dinner I checked the website to see if my name was in fact listed there.  A flash of joy and excitement 0- there I was, right after James Behr and before the other residents of the rest of the alphabet.    Who are these other people, I thought?  So I googled them.

Now my nerves are going crazy again.  This one played in Vienna.  This one studies at Indiana University.  This one is a professor. This one has composed all this cool music and released 4-5 CDs.  This one lives in Italy and has been winning contests for 8-10 years.  One is a young African American man who lives in North Carolina.  His site is mobile friendly.  One is a Korean American woman,  or maybe a Korean Woman,  can’t tell,  too many different women with similar spellings of her name.

But anyway, they all seem more experienced and with more visible means of support than I.

I wonder if  the river of emotion I am rafting down alone with no trained guides, full of boulders and white water, is similar to Kubler-Ross’s grief process? Maybe I am losing something here?  A self image?

To be continued.  Hope I can sleep tonight.   I bumped my toe badly this morning,  and hit my head for the thousandth time while vacuuming the studio.  Clearly I don’t know my shape and size anymore.

To be continued,  thankfully.

Web surfing yields Carnegie Hall recital: May 13th

While cruising around the web trying to figure out how to promote my classical music online, I found the website for the Bradshaw and Buono 2013 International Piano Competition. I submitted a 25 minute recording on April 22 culled from past performances and my American Retrospective CD . Winners were to be notified May 1 and scheduled to play in the Big Apple on May 19th. When I had heard nothing by the evening of May 2, I spent several days in a cloud of disappointment, and finally was able to shrug my shoulders and move on.

Come May 13th I received an irate email from the contest organizer saying “Where is your bio and program information for Carnegie Hall!?” After searching my email trash and archives, I phoned him immediately. Cutting to the punch line: the notification email had been sent, but lost in cyberspace. I would not play on Sunday’s piano program, but would be invited to play on another winner’s event in the 2013-2014 season.

I spent several days in a daze, and gradually the reality has sunk in. After thirty years of work, I will be entering the elite group of musicians who can say they have played in Carnegie Hall. I feel a new sense of self assurance and find myself more willing to speak my mind and put myself forward.

Now I am back online to connect with family and friends and let them know the big news. I am reinventing my marketing to do more online and hopefully reach a broader audience for my music.

The day before my world was rocked: May 12, 2013

For the last 12 days I have been intensely focused on the latest installment of my lifelong saga:  trying to figure out how to be a pianist, a creative soul, with time for deep work, and still be able to be financially secure. Everything took a much darker turn after my cancer diagnosis in August 2006. But that will be the subject of future posts.

The most recent chapter began May 2.  May 1 was the date that the winners of the Alexander and Buono International Piano Competition were notified.  I had felt such certainty that I would be chosen. The inner intuitive voice which sometimes answers my questions had been ADAMANT that I would be chosen, that I should send in my recording, that I should spend $150 on once again putting myself out there.  By 10 p.m. on the first, I had checked the website twice– did it mention anything about whether they would call or email?  Would they let those not chosen know in some way at a later date?  No information on these points.

May 2 and 3 were very sad days. I felt disappointed that my inner voice had misled me, but relieved, in a way, that I wouldn’t figure out how to get to New York on short notice with a limited budget, and get my repertoire and my nerves in shape post haste.

By May 4 I had convinced myself that it was all for the best. Now I could stop worrying finding time to practice piano again, or memorizing music,  or how to pay for time to think.  I could focus all of my energy on trying to develop a successful internet business.

So over the next eight days, I read extensively about ebook publishing;  spent 3 days researching Amazon ebook sales standings sorted by topic area to try to discover a profitable niche in which to launch my first ebook; read several books about ebook promotion; concluded that I should launch a blog BEFORE writing an ebook;  began the blog process by transferring domain names to a new host; read up a lot on WordPress and WordPress themes;  tried installing one theme; gave up, switched themes;  spent three days customizing another free theme with the help of some great YouTube videos.  Ok, if you followed all that, here’s what happened next.  I became aware( or perhaps just neurotic) that my adult student attendance rate was dropping and that I hadn’t had a new student sign up for 4-5 months.  Why would that be?  Then I put 2 and 4 together and got even more anxious – my piano studio website had dropped off the front page of the google results for “piano lessons= Berkeley”.   My conclusion was that I should start trying to apply some of what I was reading about search engine optimization to my piano studio website, you know, get some new students in the door to make it easier to breathe while I pursued this entrepreneur-retirement saving thing.

Today, I signed up for a $97/month SEO copywriting tool that helps you analyze your website copy and make it more appealing to google.  It’s quite a complicated process-  glad I went to U.C. Berkeley.  But to use the exciting new tool I had to upgrade my version of Word.  That was $120.  It took an hour or two to download all these things and then install Word.  Opened up Word – could NOT find how to access the $97 service.  Argh.  So, since it was available with a web based interface, I decided to try copying and pasting my text from my teaching website to the web based analyzer.  Then I spent another hour or two trying to figure out its advice and implement it.  Not an easy task.

Finally I gave up.  My ‘little grey cells’, to paraphrase Agatha Christie’s detective Poirot, were tied into knots.  Time to back off and take care of logistics like vacuuming and laundry.

Just another day in the life……