In my quest to establish in the practice session as many of the reflexes we’re going to use in actual performance as possible, I have come to see that stopping for every mistake is troublesome. Surely the art of performance is to form an unerring arch from the first note to the last despite what may happen en route? And yet in our work, we cannot simply ignore the dings, faulty voicings, wrong notes and other blemishes that even the greats are susceptible to.
In the last post, I suggested a process whereby one does very deliberately play through all these things, but with the proviso that we clock them as they go by and deal with them later (and by later, I mean ASAP, in the next breath). If not stopping means we miss a couple of things and don’t get them all immediately, we can be sure that anything really dodgy will reappear and we can snuff it out then.
It is possible to get students to listen critically very early on, to ask them how they think they did and which parts need attention. I am always surprised at how much they notice. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising after all – our errors seem to stick in our consciousness like burrs, and stopping for each of them is a bit like pulling the emergency cord in the train when actually it can be dealt with more efficiently at the next station. So in general I am more in favour of planned stops rather than accidental ones, but it doesn’t always work out like this. Best, then, to have this as a motto than a millstone.
LEARNING THE NOTES
We will need to take bite-size chunks of the music and repeat them. If we take one bar plus one note, this gives us a very disciplined framework for the stops. I like this process:
- imagine the bar we are about to play (aiming to hear it internally as vividly as possible)
- actually play it
- evaluate our result
- re-imagine the bar in light of our evaluation
- play it again, etc.
Notice there are at least five active elements to this process but only two are concerned with actual sound. Inserting these silent stages, while it seems like a lot of extraneous work, will speed up the learning as we can repeat only the best of our efforts. The finished product surely has to reflect what we do in the practice room, and if we have avoided the mindless repetition of our errors we will certainly play better! I suggest, for those with the capacity for serious work, to follow this process until you reach a point where you are satisfied the result is not only correct and meaningful, but it feels and sounds good too. Then do the mental equivalent of CTRL+S and repeat a few times to form a habit. One last thing about this process – it will need to be repeated over the course of a few days.
A bar is a good amount of material to take in at any one time, based on the “7±2” psychological principle of the way we process information. If we overload the working memory with too much information, we lose it all.
Do the same with the next bar. Then combine the two bars into one unit and work with that. Two bar units lead to four bar units, to eight, then sixteen and so on.
Stopping practice is also very useful for improving technical control in shaky passages, as it strengthens the process of nervous activity known as inhibition (the partner to this being excitation). Plan to stop just before arrival places (such as downbeats or accents) – you can either take the hands off the keyboard or simply insert a pause. I have also experimented with deliberately adding an extra beat to the bar in troublespots, whereby the last event in the bar is elongated. I do suggest changing where you put the stops as too many repetitions will encourage the formation of new habits, ones that we don’t actually want.
For those who want to read more about the psychology of piano playing, I can recommend George Kochevitsky’s excellent book “The Art of Piano Playing” (not to be confused with Heinrich Neuhaus’ monumental work by the same name). It is published by Summy-Birchard Inc.