“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Pressure of the Practice-Room Peer

It's Not A Competition

A student traveling abroad wrote to me of his experience at Steinway, where he had rented a practice room. My student is fairly new to formal piano study, though he has worked on his own for many months. He has the advantage of being able to learn repertoire very quickly and is able to play quite creditably several of the WTC, all movements of the Moonlight Sonata and a few of the Chopin Nocturnes, all from a very secure memory. (I find this ability to be remarkable.)

He found himself in a room next to a much more experienced pianist who was practicing a modern, very complicated-sounding piece, which had an intimidating effect on my student. He apparently began to feel inadequate, even to the point of not being able to remember the pieces he had come to practice. 

So let me say this: Comparisons with other pianists are both inevitable and futile. It can turn you into a ghost. Try to avoid listening to other pianists playing your repertoire (I know!). If you do listen to recordings, listen to more than one performance of the same piece in order to prove to yourself there can be differences in approaches. This will give you permission to be your own pianist. Go to live performances when possible, as these are more human and can be very instructive. When I was working on the Liszt sonata, I had the opportunity to hear Emil Gilels play it in Los Angeles. It was a piece he had recorded and was known for. Well, it was a wonderful performance in many ways, but not at all pristine. Over the years, I've had many such experiences hearing the great and famous appear in public as human beings. Finally, try to limit your comparisons to yourself of today with yourself of before. Revel in your progress and this will give you courage. We have to evaluate our performances in order to make progress, so take note of your needs (notice I don't say weaknesses). Be kind to yourself in the process.

My student says he left early because he just couldn't concentrate; this practice peer had ruined the whole thing. And when he snuck a peek into the neighboring room he saw a young Asian man, dancing wildly at the keyboard, and looking everywhere BUT the keys. "Seriously I don't know how his fingers found the notes, he was moving so much." My student had the impression that this other pianist could play any repertoire with ease and his own efforts, my student's, seemed to pale in comparison.

The pressure of practice-room peers! This is something most music students in conservatories have to deal with. But since my student hadn't been in a formal music school, he had no experience of this. It takes getting used to. I remember the practice room days when there would be a constant awareness that someone could hear what I was doing. Sometimes, it was difficult to resist the urge to perform, instead of practice, which are of course two different activities.

What really is at issue is the ability to focus and concentrate on what you have before you. It takes a fair amount of discipline sometimes not to be drawn into someone else's work. But this is, after all, what we have to learn to do for successful public performance. And it is not a reasonable assumption that this other pianist would be able to do your work better or even as well as you. But even that is of no consequence. Your practicing is only about you. Patience with the self is a necessity for improvement. I advised my student to try it again.

Side note: It's not necessary to look at the keys at all in order to play with accuracy. We have among us exemplary pianists who are without sight.

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