Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Conflicting advice on practicing?

As a pianist most of my hours at the instrument are spent practicing. A successful 30 minute concerto performance is the result of 20, 30, 100 hours of work alone in a practice room. So *how* I practice is one of the most important topics for me to consider.

As a teacher, "how to practice" is likewise a central subject of conversation between my students and me. They spend many more hours practicing on their own each week than they do with me. With this in mind, it is not surprising how many books and articles have been written on the subject of practicing. I myself have given presentations on practicing to various music-teacher's groups, and have more than once been a part of public "panel discussions" on the topic of practicing. Recently, there have been two articles gaining a lot of attention among musicians that both give good - but possibly conflicting - advice. I am sharing them both here for you to read for yourself and decide what you think.

First is an article from Time Magazine from August, entitled "Over-Practicing Makes Perfect" ( The basic premise of the article is that practicing well beyond the point of knowing something ("over"-practicing) is not useless repetition, but in fact is teaching our brains (and/or fingers) to do the task more and more easily. The ultimate result of this "ease" is that we can devote more attention to other tasks. In other words, if we practice a difficult passage of music enough, it will require little or none of our attention and we can focus on the musical expression or something else.

This article suggests that when we continue to repeat or "drill" certain tasks, it may appear that we are not making progress (beyond a certain point), but there is in fact something being gained. This is probably the advice we (and/or our students) would NOT like to hear - it implies that we all should be practicing MORE, that we should be repeating things more. We would all much rather hear that there is a shortcut, a quick way to learn things so that we can move on to other activities, like watching baseball games or blogging.

A more recent article ( from the interesting blog "Bulletproof Musician" is more immediately appealing in that sense: it suggests not a shortcut, but certainly a more interesting way to practice than mere repetition. The article is well worth reading yourself, but some of the salient points include the fact that our minds tend to "tune out" sameness - our brains are instead wired to be alert to changes, rather than things that remain the same. So when we practice in the same way (or practice the same passage of music) over and over again, we quickly become mentally disengaged and much of the work we do doesn't "stick," according to the article.

The remedy for this is not so easy to describe, but basically it is to vary - constantly - what or how we are practicing. For example, we can take a specific passage of music and practice it different ways in succession (first hands separately, then in rhythms, then slowly, then back to hand separately, etc.). Or we can intersperse the practicing of one passage with another (first a few minutes of the Liszt Sonata octaves, then a few minutes of the Fugue section, then back to the octaves, back to the Fugue, etc.)

At first glance, this method of practicing is very appealing precisely because it is very much unlike the way I have practiced, and the novelty is fascinating. It can, however, also seem a bit chaotic - rather than sticking with something until it's good, we keep going back and forth between different tasks. The purpose is to keep our minds engaged, but I can easily imagine that we can lose our focus and end up half-learning many things rather than fully learning a few things.

I do recommend reading both of the articles, and coming to your own conclusions. I welcome hearing your comments and ideas here on the blog. Do you think the two methods contradict each other, or can they coexist?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Convincing others (or ourselves?) to take music lessons

For about a year now I've been teaching the Piano Pedagogy course at Boston Conservatory, a requirement for undergraduate pianists. It's been a learning experience for me, as I never actually took a course on the subject – my own abilities as a teacher have been formed by experience and by seeing the examples of many wonderful teachers who taught me.

But one of the particular challenges as I think about helping conservatory students become better teachers is that most of their future students are likely to be less gifted and ambitious than they are. Only the most interested and talented students end up attending music school for college or graduate school, but many of these will end up spending at least some portion of their careers teaching students who may not even want to be there. They may have parents who drag them kicking and screaming to their lessons, or (if their teachers are lucky) they may want to play the piano but will not be willing to put in the work required (I can relate to this myself – I don't always WANT to put in the work needed, but I have learned through experience that hard work makes me play better, obviously).

A further challenge to the future incomes of these students (who, by the way, are spending quite a lot on tuition!) is that piano lessons are not something every kid (or parent) is interested in, and I would guess that the numbers have decreased over the past 10 or 20 years (though I don't know for sure). There is certainly no doubt that funding for music education in schools is lower than it once was. The debate over funding for arts education is constant, and it has led to a variety of studies attempting to show the benefits of music, for example, beyond the attainment of skill at an instrument or the increased appreciation for Beethoven Quartets. Recently, my Facebook friends have been gleefully sharing this article about the recent Nobel Prize winner (in medicine), Thomas Sudhof, who credits his bassoon teacher with teaching him his most valued skills (work ethic and listening).

I would certainly concur that childhood music lessons teach much more than music (though that it in and of itself is valuable and enjoyable of course). What I don't know is how much is specific to music lessons and how much is gained by the mastery (or the process of mastering) any skill. My daughter, for example, spends about 2 hours a day, 6 days a week, at the ice rink, and I'm proud of her accomplishments. But while it would of course be an amazing (and unlikely) achievement one day to go to the Olympics, the real benefit of all those hours (and all those thousands of dollars spent on coaches) is that she is learning to be disciplined, to perform in public, to cope with nerves and disappointment, to have courage (it's pretty scary doing a double lutz), and of course it's also good physical exercise. Some of these same skills or personal qualities might be developed in music lessons. And these life skills are clearly beneficial in many fields, as the Nobel Prize winner Sudhof said. On the other hand, more time spent on music means less time spent on, say, computer programming, or some other potentially useful skill.

Another article making the rounds on Facebook is on a familiar subject: what kind of qualities or activities separate the great achievers from the rest of the world? This particular article uses high achievers in distinct fields (Mozart and Kobe Bryant) to illustrate some key elements of success: The two main points are that when we practice, it will take time (10 years, in fact) before we achieve greatness, and that our practice needs to be with a specific purpose (something I've been telling students for years). Mozart is cited as an example of the first point, and Kobe Bryant as an example of the second.

Do articles like these help to persuade parents to sign their kids up for music lessons? I think there are some who look at kids' extracurricular activities as a stepping stone to college admissions. There are many kids who diligently practice an instrument only to stop the moment they arrive at Harvard. The number of adults in community orchestras clearly is much smaller than the number of kids in youth orchestras. Is this because they don't have the time? (That is certainly possible! But many kids in youth orchestras get there only because their parents act as full time chauffeurs and secretaries). Is it because they now hate music? (That doesn't seem likely – I assume their appreciation for music would be greater). Are there a lack of community orchestras for them to join? (Possibly, depending on the community where they live).

I think that aside from the time issue (which can be real – some adults work multiple jobs, and/or have children to care for, etc), I think adults simply don't value their own “extracurricular” time as much as their kids'. That is, they might set aside many hours (and dollars) to take their kids to take music lessons, but they themselves think “it's too late for me.” When it comes to sports, I can see this line of thinking – a 40 year old might hesitate to start learning to ski for fear of injury, whereas a 10 year old can heal quickly. And in music it is true that an adult learner will never be able to achieve what a 15 year old who started at age 5 can do. But I think many are enrolling their kids for “extra-musical” reasons (get in to college, develop a work ethic, learn an appreciation for culture) that isn't necessary any more for an adult (or so they think).

I have to express admiration for those adults who do see that education (musical or otherwise) can and should continue throughout our lives. I have an adult piano student who is 74 years old. I know some skating parents who take lessons once or twice a week (I took an adult class for a few months years ago, but it doesn't fit in my schedule any more), amazed to see how much braver their kids are on the ice than they are. My mother, when she was in her 60's, took the same introductory computer course two or three times in an attempt (not altogether successful) to be more comfortable with word processing and other basic computer skills.

Many years ago, as a college freshman, I was in New York rehearsing with a violinist friend in the home of the great pianist Ilana Vered. I was giving some musical advice to my friend when Ilana walked in the room and said “you should give the same advice to yourself.” Many of us devoted parents who take our children's mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual development very seriously might think about being good “parents” to our own selves.  

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

How to be a better teacher: keep being a student

I have taught at the Boston Conservatory for over 10 years now, and I have been teaching Piano Literature during that entire time. I am glad to say that it is a well-liked course, and that over the years many students have gained from it. My aim has been in part to give the students a detailed idea of what piano repertoire exists (it's a four-semester series of classes, required for undergraduate pianists) and also to focus their attention on some important musical features of different composers and their works.

Over the years of introducing, say, Scarlatti Sonatas or the music of George Crumb, I have gotten pretty comfortable with what I know and how to share that knowledge with the students. But there is no question that I am more engaging and more interesting when I don't rest on my laurels, when I share something that I myself have learned recently. The truth is that the class was a good class 5 years ago (at least the students thought so back then), and it would be easiest simply to rehash the same material in my lectures now. After all, Schumann's "Kreisleriana" hasn't really changed since then. But when I spend time to learn more (and believe me there is ALWAYS more to learn about great music), I know I am a more effective and inspiring teacher. Lately I've been reading (on the subway ride to and from school) a book called "Twentieth Century Piano Music" by David Burge, which has given me new insights, and I just checked out Kenneth Drake's "The Sonatas of Beethoven," from the library as I prepare to explore this subject with the students for the 11th year in a row. I think the students can tell when I am eager and excited to share something with them - as opposed to rehearsing one of my well-worn old lectures from 2002.

I have noticed the very same thing in my applied teaching. When I am busy practicing for a concert, I might be more tired in a lesson than I would otherwise be (and perhaps even slightly annoyed that my practice time is being interrupted by giving a lesson!) but I am a much more energetic teacher, with important musical and technical ideas on my mind that I am ready and eager to share.

So the moral of the story: to be a good teacher, keep on learning. My own teachers have all been wonderful examples of this.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Can music schools stifle creativity?

I haven't written a new blog post in nearly a year, and part of the reason for this was the chilling effect of a job interview. About a year ago I was being considered, along with over 100 other candidates, for a teaching position at a university with a fine, though smallish music department. In the end I was not offered the position, which spared me having to make a difficult decision (the position was thousands of miles away from where I live and work now). Fortunately for my professional growth, I was able, some months afterward, to get some feedback about my application. As this was a university and not a conservatory, the search committee wanted to insure that their choice could not only teach piano (where my qualifications are not in question) but also academic classes, like music history or theory. Although I have taught a number of academic courses (Piano Literature and Piano Pedagogy among them) at a college level, I do not have a doctorate that officially would certify my knowledge of academic subjects.

Some members of the search committee apparently looked at this blog and felt that it did not exhibit the level of academic rigor that they were looking for. But I am assuming that no one reading a blog is expecting (or wanting) an academic thesis! I certainly don't think of this anything other than an opportunity to voice my opinions and to hear others'. But as you can imagine, I have felt a bit paralyzed by the fact that someone – a potential future employer – might be reading this blog and finding examples of lapsed scholarship and statements made without citing sources.

It leads me to a subject that has been on my mind recently. Do music schools stifle creativity? This would certainly be a problem if true, and I think the general public tends to assume that arts schooling fosters and encourages creativity. But I think that for better or for worse, music schools (and perhaps other institutions about which I am less qualified to express my opinion) can be bastions of tradition – both a positive and a negative.

For example, I recently had two troubling conversations with students in a course I teach at Boston Conservatory. In one of the Piano Literature courses I teach, we have been discussing Mozart. During a recent class, I talked about the Fantasy in D minor (K. 397), which lacks a proper ending by Mozart – traditionally performers play eight measures written by someone named August Muller, though these were for many years thought to be by Mozart. The ending has always seemed unsatisfying to me, at least, and while most people play this ending, Mitsuko Uchida, one of the great Mozart interpreters of our time, plays a different ending using some of Mozart's music from earlier in the piece. (For a very interesting – and academically sound – treatment of this subject, read this DMA thesis by student at Indiana named Ephraim Hackmey:

The troubling thing to me was a question a student asked me in class: “But will I get in trouble if I play a different ending than the traditional one?” Mind you, this “traditional” ending is not written by Mozart, and really sounds abrupt and unsatisfying. But this student was concerned with what a jury of pianists – at a competition, at a music school entrance audition, at end-of-the-semester exams – would say if he played a a different ending. And truthfully, I understood why he was concerned. While individual musicians can be open-minded and interested in new ideas, it often happens that when you put a bunch of them together, the conservative ideas win out. There are right ways and wrong ways to do things, or so it seems when you get a group of pianists together.

In a previous meeting of the same class, we listened to a number of cadenzas to Mozart Concertos written by other composers. (Mozart wrote cadenzas for the majority of his piano concertos, even writing multiple versions for some, but several of the most frequently played, such as the D minor, K.466, C major, K.467, and C minor K. 491, require performers to find or compose one on their own). For the D minor Concerto it is most usual to play Beethoven's cadenza, but we listened to cadenzas to a variety of Mozart Concertos by Brahms, Alkan, Dinu Lipatti, Fazil Say, and others. I have not heard it but I believe there is a cadenza by Phillip Glass, which would be fascinating to hear. As a college student I wrote my own cadenza to the D minor Concerto, but it was definitely a student work and not quite good enough for my professional use nowadays. Still, it was a good exercise (and I did play it once as soloist with a student orchestra at Harvard when I was a sophomore).

After class, having discussed the myriad options for cadenzas, a student asked me which cadenzas were “permissible” for use at a competition. The official answer, of course, is that any cadenza is fine – but this student and I both understood, sadly, that the unofficial answer is that a competition jury will not always look kindly on an off-the-wall cadenza. Yet a concert audience might enjoy hearing something fresh and novel. In that way, the competition jury is not in sync with the kind of creativity or out-of-the-box thinking that is desirable in the “real world” of concerts. And it is troubling to think that while audiences crave and appreciate creativity (understandably), neither competitions nor music school entrance committees are always open to it.

There is, of course, a difference between being creative in a meaningful way, and just being “different” for the sake of being different. There is, for example, a male musician I have heard of who makes a career of playing relatively standard repertoire, but who dresses in women's clothing and wears his hair in a colored mohawk. I'm not sure how this aids or serves the music of Beethoven or Brahms more than wearing a tuxedo would.

I wonder whether these tendencies to be concerned with what are the “right” cadenzas for Mozart are also a function of the fact that we performers have become more and more divorced from the compositional process. Long ago, performers were composers and composers were performers. That is still generally the case in rock or jazz. But in classical music we have become specialists to a large degree. The performers job consists, in part, of accurately recreating music that someone else has written, and we engage in this process aided by an ever-increasing awareness of historical performance practice and the way earlier performers have played the same music on recordings. Of course any performer knows that there is a great deal left to us to interpret. Nevertheless, I think the preoccupation with being “correct” in our performances can cause us to miss spontaneity, spark, and excitement. It is no wonder that an audience can be bored by an orchestra that has spent a very limited amount of expensive rehearsal time primarily on insuring that the ensemble is together and in tune, and that the balance is good – but having no time left over to take risks, to try new and unexpected things. This is partially a result of finite money to pay for rehearsals, but I wonder if it isn't also part of a reluctance by classical musicians in the year 2013 to do something that might be considered “wrong.”

Please share your ideas and thoughts on this this subject. I'd love to hear from you!