Tumblr, with its vibrant musical community, already abounds in posts of this nature. But I posted this in another site, and thought it might bear reproducing here.
Practice at any musical instrument isn’t about quantity. It’s a matter of quality, and this is the biggest flaw in the “10,000 hour” myth. The only way quantity — in terms of hours, say — enters into the equation is to ensure that one establishes and maintains a certain amount of forward momentum. Even then, a relatively small amount of consistent and efficient practice is vastly superior to a large quantity of disorganized, unproductive dawdling. Practice doesn’t pay by the hour.
I’m a big proponent of the value of sitting down at the instrument and just playing, because I think it deepens one’s relationship with the instrument, enriches the affinity for and fluency with music in general, and prevents us from bringing a mass-production mindset to the piano bench (where it certainly does not belong). The figure is somewhat arbitrary, but I’d say that for beginning and intermediate students in particular, something like 30% of one’s time at the instrument should be spent in this unambitious, exploratory manner. This, too, is practice, and practice of an important kind. To sit down at the piano, or any other instrument, with clear, hard and fast goals at all times is not in my opinion a healthy and sustainable approach to music-making, though some might disagree.
At any rate, I don’t think the desire to do this — to sit and play, for heaven’s sake, enjoying sounds and livening up the synapses the way a child would — can be forced where it doesn’t already exist. But if a person doesn’t find pleasure and knowledge in aimlessly spending time with the instrument in this way, then I do find myself questioning from whence comes his or her desire to play at all.
With that preliminary aside out of the way, I’m happy to share some of the ways by means of which I try to ensure efficiency and productivity in piano practice:
Ein musikalischer Spaß (A Musical “Joke”), K. 522
II. Menuetto e Trio
III. Adagio cantabile
Returning this morning to one of my favorite works of music. It’s not clear exactly why Mozart composed his “Musical Joke,” but it’s worth keeping in mind that the piece is dated 1787 and was composed during work on Don Giovanni, at a time in which Mozart would not have been likely to complete a work without a performance near at hand.
Works parodying and satirizing inept playing have a long, sordid tradition — the Dorfmusikanten or “village musician” genre — extending back far before Mozart. Mozart’s offering is unique, though, in how thoroughly and artfully it also pokes fun at inept composition. Ein musikalischer Spaß is written for a somewhat unusual ensemble of horns and strings — whether a quartet or a string orchestra was intended is up for debate, though the effect of the satire is, I think, increased by augmented forces. Mozart’s village orchestra is not the best, but his village composer is just about the worst; the more familiar is the listener with the conventions and practices of the period, the more riotous the fun will be.
Here is just a part of the festivities:
Presumably, many performers would use theoretical insights to deepen their interpretations. But unfortunately, the marked separation of theory, composition, and performance into different disciplines has become a key feature of modern musical life. In contrast to the past, people in different walks of musical life often have very little to do with each other. I find this development rather sad.
Overspecialization is a very serious problem. I think it has many causes. It’s related to the state of composition nowadays and the fact that most performers are very detached from what most composers write. Then, there is certainly a pervasive tendency for people in academia to intellectualize about everything and to feel that collecting quantities of information and categorizing it is in itself valuable. And of course there’s the widespread use of computers, which keeps many people in music far away from real music. One finds many people going into the field of theory who may not have much musical talent — who have bad ears or don’t play anything or don’t know the literature very well — but who do have the kind of self-discipline and intelligence that enables them to get through graduate courses, write some kind of dissertation, and teach. Specialization is meant for such people because it means they can work with some little corner of music theory and thereby hide their general inabilities. The same thing happens in every field. Of course, music theory deals in abstractions—that’s what it is—but the person who’s doing the theory ought to know what an abstraction is and what it is being abstracted from. For many of these people, the abstraction is the only concrete aspect of music. I think this is very bad."
"Breathe. Focus. Try again."