To Stop Or Not To Stop?

I recall an infuriating time with a house guest who found herself confined to the kitchen while I was practising in the living room. Every time she heard the playing stop, she came in to ask a question or otherwise pester me.  In the same way that the rests are as integral to a piece of music as the notes, so silence can also be a vital part of practising.

That silence between bursts of sound is where our conscious mind steps in, where we figure out why we went wrong, or why we didn’t produce the sound we wanted. We also need to know precisely what we intend to do to change this. Am I repeating a phrase because I want to reinforce an intended result (to make this into a habit), or am I repeating a phrase in the hope that the right result will somehow leap out at me by magic? I don’t recommend this second approach – it reminds me of the monkey and the typewriter and the complete works of Shakespeare – but judging from my eavesdroppings outside institutional practice rooms, it is much favoured.

When all is going well, performing can feel like surfing a wave (or as I imagine surfing a wave would feel). It is an exhilarating sense of doing virtually nothing, of just going along for the ride. But this state of mind is mystical, and we can never predict when it will be with us. Certainly we cannot conjure it up at will. Most times, we will probably feel more like the tightrope artiste who needs to concentrate, who might wobble and who might even fall off (why else is the circus such a spectacle – we almost hope they do fall off, or get eaten by lions, or something). In both these scenarios, we are committed to the finishing line.

Practising a Performance

If performance precludes any stopping at all, and practising seems to necessitate it, how can we bring some of the ingredients of performance into our practising?

We can use the concept of practising a performance firstly for short sections (phrases even) quite early on in the learning process. So many stops happen because of accidents, but I am thinking along the lines of soundbites – a predetermined section of the music with the stops planned beforehand, and with full musical meaning (not just going through the motions).

The old adage (amended) “practice makes permanent” warns us that we had better be very careful about running through our pieces prematurely as we will simply be ingraining those habits that already exist, good as well as bad, and after a while it will be quite impossible to correct them*. And yet there is a paradox here! No amount of slow or careful practice is going to establish the reflexes we need for performance, or to hone our artistic vision of the piece. My solution to this is a process whereby we have a stretch of several days where we alternate practising a performance with spot practising. Spot practising is simply homing in on very specific areas that need attention because they have not withstood the pressures of a performance.

Do the first round of this only when the notes are secure and the fingers know what they are doing. Abandon your slow, careful (and comfortable) practice for a while – you will go back to it soon enough!

For this to be effective, you need to make a commitment never to stop when something goes awry, tempting though it will be. Also, resist the urge to begin a practice session by quickly going over yesterday’s troublespots. Make sure you are sufficiently warmed up then launch yourself into another come-what-may performance with full commitment and energy, as though an audience were present. Record yourself if this helps, if you can bear it. In order to avoid disillusionment, know that the first time you do this there will be many mistakes, many sketchy or patchy moments where places that you have practised assiduously buckle under the pressure and collapse totally. THIS IS NORMAL!

The tendency is, after this first run-through, immediately to go back to the security blanket of slow practice or to separate-hands practice (or whatever else) thinking that we haven’t done it enough times for long enough. No, we now need to develop different reflexes that can only come from repeated play-throughs, and this is a process all its own. The first run is bound to throw up issues and the best thing we can do is to move away from the instrument, sit somewhere comfortable and go through the score making a list of matters that will need our attention. Having done this, don’t go to the piano and start practising. Commit to another performance, together with post mortem. Do this a few times. If the same areas are still troublesome, prioritise these and the next day work on those areas in isolation.

As a postgraduate student studying the Liszt sonata, I went through a stage where I aimed to play the piece through six times in a row, back to back, every day for a week. When I played the last note I immediately went back to the beginning, without any break in concentration. Some of these run-throughs were full on (in other words they had all the proper dynamic levels, all the emotional content and all the fireworks) but others were deliberately cool and understated, like a singer who saves their voice by marking their way through an aria mezza voce. I did this in the mornings (since the piece is about thirty minutes long, this took three hours), over lunch I sat with the score and a piece of paper to make notes, then spent a couple of hours in the afternoon going over the spots. After a week of this type of work, the piece actually felt not only easy (well, inasmuch as the Liszt sonata is ever going to feel easy) but also short and firmly within my grasp on every level. My experience of it had totally changed. I think this is bordering on sports science, the kind of thing that marathon runners do in the build-up to a race. Certainly I had undergone a training process. Do this with individual pieces, then with whole exam or recital programmes.

*I’m not going to say what, but a piece I learned long ago contains a practised-in wrong note and to this day I know I am going to play that wrong note, there is seemingly nothing I can do to correct it. Fortunately it is in the middle of a dense sea of semiquavers and goes by in a flash, and nobody has ever said anything about it (but if they ever do, I shall claim authority of the Nempnett Thrubwell Urtext edition).

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