Over the past few weeks in my teaching, I have found myself repeating what I consider a truism about practising, so I thought it might be worth writing about. Not only will I get it off my chest, but I will also be able to direct students here, thereby freeing up lesson time for other activities.

It is simply this:

The various practice tools we use for learning a piece in the first place need to be repeated very regularly in the early stages of learning, and are often the same tools we need to use on an ongoing basis for maintenance and upkeep. Slow practice is a good example of this.

There are some instances where a word of instruction can cause the playing to change immediately, but there are plenty of other occasions when we need to go into training to achieve a certain intended result. This is rather like a course of medication, one pill will probably not make that much difference – it is the cumulative effect of the whole course that counts. I also think of the parallel with an activity like Olympic hammer throwing, where the act of throwing the hammer itself is over in a flash but the training regime is all-encompassing, involving other activities than just throwing the hammer. I know this not from any personal prowess in this direction, but because the PE teacher at my old school went on to achieve fame doing this and we all got a sense of what was involved.

Another analogy is that of a gardener. If I am planning a new garden, I will first need to have a vision of how I want the thing to look when it is finished. Then I will need to prepare the soil, which will probably involve a bit of spade work and some hard graft. Now, the real gardener will tell you that all this is part and parcel of it, taking pleasure in all the stages from start to finish. There is a certain amount of patience needed to delay gratification and not to skimp on the first stages. If I don’t fertilise my soil, aerate it, add worms to it or whatever else gardeners must do, I can’t expect my plants and flowers to blossom and grow, and withstand the frosts and hardships of winter. So when we teachers outline a specific practising activity, maybe we should underscore the importance of doing this type of work daily with full concentration, resisting the overwhelming temptation to finish off the practising session by playing the piece at full speed. This can immediately wipe out the benefits of the careful practising, in one fell swoop. Have other pieces to play through.

Having put my seedlings in the soil, I will need to feed and water them daily, and protect the ground from pests, trusting that if I do this patiently, they will have the best chance to sprout and grow. Once the garden is in full bloom, it will take regular weeding and pruning to keep it that way. So it is with our playing of a particular piece, no matter how long we have known it or how many times we have performed it.

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While there is one more post in the last series on the baroque Urtext score that I want to put up, just for the sake of completion, I have been aware that perhaps this series has dragged on rather? I probably got a bit carried away with the enormity of the subject and lost sight of the original intention of this blog, which has its focus in what we do in our practising. To those I have bored witless, my profuse apologies; to those who might be wondering what has happened to the last post in the series, I am going to tack it on to what I have already written, but I will alert you to this and supply the link.

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PLEASE CHECK OUT MY ARTICLES “MIND OVER MEMORY” AND “TEN TIPS FOR MAXIMISING YOUR PRACTICE TIME” IN THE LATEST ISSUE OF PIANIST MAGAZINE (PIANIST 62, OCTOBER-NOVEMBER 2011)