This article was part of a workshop given in May 2003 and contains suggestions by the participants, Libby Francisco, Pat Malmgren, Pat Onufrak, and Deb Selby.
Listening to students talk about their practice, I hear of many insidious feelings that I failed to fully appreciate, even though I experience them myself. I’ve touched on the feelings throughout these chapters, but they deserve more focused attention. They create a problem of, “How can I feel good about myself and my work when I play and practice? It seems so easy to feel inadequate, frustrated, bored and overwhelmed by the task.”
There are different manifestations of these reactions and they stem from varied sources, but few students escape them entirely.
Our Own Baggage
We bring a staggering amount of negative self-judgment to our practice. This may have nothing to do with music, but work on piano seems to bring this out in people, even those not used to experiencing the feeling elsewhere.
When I don’t do my exercises in the morning, I’m disappointed with myself; yet I rarely congratulate myself when I do them. When I go out to dinner and eat too much, I’m upset with myself; yet when I restrain myself and don’t eat too much, I don’t give myself three cheers. When I’m out hiking and trip, I say, “stupid,” before I even know I’m going to speak, yet I never acknowledge all the successful steps I take. It’s like all the right notes I don’t acknowledge.
When we were very young children we learned that it’s impolite to say good things about our own work but it is polite to say good things about other people’s work. And then the opposite, nobody got mad if we said bad things about our own work — they might even have applauded our “character” — but they called us rude and impolite if we said bad things about other people’s work, even when what we said was true.
Given this set up, do we even know how to feel good about our practicing? It’s easier to feel nothing or to feel inadequate.
But this is dishonest. We need to know what’s good about our work at the piano. It is inaccurate and damaging not to acknowledge that good work. We need desperately to know what we do well so that we can continue to do it. Practicing is not just about changing what’s bad. It’s also about maintaining what’s good so we can build on that. If we never acknowledge what is right and good, even wonderful about our playing, we risk losing it, forgetting what it was that sounded and felt good. And believe it or not, there are always good things present.
Our Teacher’s Baggage
Elsewhere in these pages are discussions about the meanness of teachers, intended and unintended, as well as the devastating effect this had on us as lifelong learners. There are other less devastating, but no less real, effects our teachers bring to bear. John Steinmetz has written a wonderful article called “Resuscitating Art Music.”
It is well worth reading. If you think only amateurs are unhappy with their performances, you will be surprised with John’s observations about his own history as well as that of other professional performers. About teachers in general, he says, “I believe we musicians have accumulated some professional baggage. As our teachers passed along the tradition, they also unknowingly passed along the baggage. It has been handed down through the generations of our profession…”
When we were music students, well-meaning teachers, hoping to raise our standards and help us meet our potential, pointed out our mistakes. Even the most loving, gentle, and supportive teachers spend almost all their time telling students what they need to do differently. I have taught this way, too, because that’s how I was taught. The collateral damage from this kind of teaching is that students become more or less deaf to their successes. The ability to recognize what is okay atrophies.
A musician friend told me that, in college, he had once burst into tears at a lesson. Sobbing, he asked his teacher, “Don’t I ever do anything right?” “Of course!” said the teacher, surprised by the question. “You do lots of things right, but I don’t have time to talk about that.”
As a teacher, if I don’t have some wise or meaningful comment for a student about ways to improve the piece or playing in general, I feel inadequate professionally. I feel I’m not doing what my students pay me to do. It’s just like John says.The story below, from the same article, shows a different approach.
A cellist who attended Gregor Piatigorsky’s class told me, “Piatigorsky encouraged us to play the passages we did well over and over. He said that no one needs to be told what he does poorly, but we all need to know what we do well. The sense of musical well-being could then ‘infect’ the rest of the music, including the difficult stuff.”
When I’ve tried this, it usually makes students nervous and they’ll ask, “Why are we doing this over and over? I don’t need help with this.”
Teachers are not the only ones who think the job of teaching is correction and critical comment. Students do too, and they have come to expect this from their teachers.
I have a student who refuses to accept this status. She always asks, “Well, is it better than last week…Is there any improvement…Do I at least get a crumb?” Almost always it is better or more comfortable. Why should she have to drag this out of me? I suspect students should ask their teachers questions like this more often.
On the other hand, students are afraid that their teachers will frantically search for something good to say and that the teacher’s comments won’t feel at all sincere and conversations about positives will become stilted.
How can all this not effect students when they sit down at the piano to practice? They not only don’t know how to feel good about their efforts, they know their teacher will find something wrong, no matter how hard they work. Students must feel somewhat hopeless facing this fact. Why should they try their best? At least they won’t be fooled into believing they’ve done something special. That way, when the teacher finds “problems,” they won’t feel smashed.
To add insult to injury, students know they don’t play their best at lessons.
It takes great courage (rarely appreciated) to march forward against this expected weekly “assault.”
When we experience one of those nasty but inevitable plateaus, it can be very hard to feel any sense of accomplishment. We do our best, we sit there doing all the “right” things, we are disciplined and virtuous, nothing gets better. Who wants to practice during times like this? It’s not fair. It’s infuriating. But, it still doesn’t get any better.
I believe the answer is to be angry and furious. It isn’t fair even though that’s the way things work. Sometimes the fury releases something that allows a breakthrough. Sometimes just giving up for the day releases something when one goes back the next day. Sometimes giving up for a few or several days, even weeks or months, is the answer. But it all takes trust, trust in ourselves and trust in the process of learning.
We are not usually taught about trust. We are taught the virtues of hard work, great effort and the rewards that result. After all, they say, you can’t get something for nothing. True, but not nearly as true as we are taught. Too bad we are only taught that we must spend all our time overcoming bad tendencies of both mind and body. Too bad we are not taught how marvelously curious and acquisitive the mind wants to be and how amazingly responsive the body is. As a result, we never give them a chance because we’re always working so hard or feeling so guilty.
Similar is the failure of one day’s work to be apparent the next day. Some works seem especially vulnerable to this phenomenon though it can be experienced anywhere. Great accomplishment achieved on Monday just isn’t there on Tuesday and it feels like starting all over. Wednesday doesn’t seem much better and Thursday is really discouraging and then it’s like the plateau with little to show for the work.
As a teacher, I have to say that while the day to day progress may seem nil, the week to week progress (which is all I hear) is not. There are improvements that work in depth that are not easily apparent to students and I usually know that progress really is happening. When I tell students about this they seem grateful but look like they really don’t believe me, they just think I’m being nice.
The Guilt of Faulty Practice
There is the problem of guilt about practicing itself. Seated at the piano, students know, not inaccurately, that if they had practiced more and with greater effectiveness, they would be playing their pieces a whole lot better by now. They get consumed in anger at themselves and their ineffective habits and lack of discipline. Then practice time is so wrapped up in self-incrimination and guilt that it has nothing to do with music at all. It’s all about self-accusation and worthlessness.
There’s no escape from the limits of inadequate practice because it’s real. Then again, there are none who wouldn’t do better if they practiced more effectively or for longer time.
The negative self-judgments are a waste of time as far as learning music is concerned. It doesn’t help. Guilt is a distraction and doesn’t make learning the pieces any better. One has to forget the past to focus on the music of the moment.
Actually, a little self-forgiveness is in order because what’s done is done and cannot be changed. The distraction of guilt just adds power to that past and interferes with work in the present. One can only go forward from this very moment because that’s all there is.
In the best of all possible worlds, I shouldn’t have to practice. In that I do, I shouldn’t have to work so hard. I should learn things much faster than I do with each day being better than the day before. It seems as if everyone else learns faster than I do, even the little kids. Ah yes, there should be no boredom either, it’s such a pain. What’s wrong with me? There must be a secret I’ve missed. I want magic. Alas, the magic is not to be found even though what does happen is miraculous in ways other than I seek.
This seems childish and immature because it is. That doesn’t mean we don’t carry it with us into adulthood. I confess to feeling this way myself at times. The resentment is both caused by, and in turn, creates mammoth frustration within students, especially when the boredom and tedium of practice are confronted.
I have come to realize that I do learn. I do play better, even at my age. So I continue and know music is not about my inadequacies but about beauty and the unexpected experiences and pleasures along the way. Again, trust is very important.Now I know enough to practice expecting nothing, demanding nothing and even enduring the recurrent boredom. What will happen will happen. I am as aware as best I can and my best varies from day to day. My moral judgements about my work are put aside. I know practicing will make things better but I also know that it will not be in the time frame I want. It never has been and maybe it never will be. Acceptance of this has actually made my learning more effective and more rapid. If I play better today, I know I am not a better person than I was yesterday and if I play worse than yesterday, I know I am not a worse person than I was yesterday.
But some days are wonderful and amazing and they help make the other days easier to endure.