“Practicing”?

I sat at the piano, daydreaming about a conversation I had with a friend earlier that day, when suddenly, I realized that my fingers were moving across the keyboard using only muscle memory. I stopped and couldn’t even remember where I was in the piece. This is what many musicians call “practicing”, quotation marks included. There’s quite a noticeable difference between “practicing” for 4 hours and deliberately practicing for 4 hours. Many people even say that “practicing” for two hours is equivalent to deliberately practicing for even less than thirty minutes. To be the most effective while practicing, musicians must value quality over quantity–practicing smarter, not harder.

Let’s start by talking about the general way to practice. Like anything else in your life, your practice time needs to be scheduled, planned, and organized. You might be thinking to yourself, what if I end up needing more time? or, what if I finish earlier than I planned? In these cases, allow yourself to finish whenever you need to, but only when you’re just starting out with using this method. As you keep on making planned schedules for your practice every day, you’ll start to understand yourself better, and hopefully, get to know the ideal amount of time for you to spend on each piece. Don’t be fooled though–the planning part of your practice might be harder than you think. Think over everything you have to do and start from there.

As you plan out your practice, make sure you’re planning breaks within your practice time. As Professor Kageyama said, “Practicing more than one hour at a time is likely to be unproductive and in all honesty, probably not even mentally or emotionally possible” (Kageyama, “How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice?“). No one can possibly hold intense concentration for more than an hour at a time without getting extremely exhausted, especially if you have to practice for around five or six hours a day. If you were playing a sport, there’s no way you can play non-stop for six hours at a time, or else you would probably end up collapsing. The same thing goes for playing an instrument. Practicing any instrument requires physical work, just like playing a sport, but also a lot of mental work. Give your body and brain a break!

Now that we’ve covered the planning aspect of your practice, let’s dive into the actual practicing part. Tsioulcas made a good point in her article, “10 Ways to Optimize Your Music Practice”, by saying that, although playing through a piece from the beginning every time you sit down to practice may seem effective and feels satisfying, focusing your attention on parts that need work is much more beneficial in the long run. She also said that practicing a piece from beginning to end will lead you to inconsistent performances, where your playing starts out strong, but then slowly declines in quality.

One mistake that many musicians make is their lack of patience. You need to have the willingness to sit down and perfect each section, note by note, until you’re happy with the end result. The best way to achieve your goal is to practice slowly and with a metronome. Your teacher has probably told you to do this millions of times, and for good reason. Again, this method requires a lot of patience, as it can be tedious and annoying. However, not only will it help stabilize your memory of the piece, but it will also allow you hear and fix all the little details in your playing, which will improve your overall performance.

The next time you sit down to practice, try to include some of these tips so that you can say that you really, truly practiced, without having to put air-quotes around the word. Using this new and improved way of practicing can boost effectiveness, and you’ll find that you’ll get a lot more done in a much more efficient manner. Many of these tips apply not only to practicing music but also to doing anything else that requires practice. These tips have been analyzed over and over again by many psychologists, and it’s guaranteed to help you prepare for anything, whether you’re practicing for an interview, public speaking, or even just learning a new skill!

 

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Taking Chances

My eyes slowly drooping closed, I sit in a chair backstage, half asleep. My head tips down further and further until I jerk awake. After blinking a couple times, I try to focus on studying the music score that has slipped off my lap. The Bach Prelude and Fugue in F sharp major. I play it over and over in my head, my brain spinning and grasping to remember whatever notes I can. I stare at the music, trying to soak in whatever my half-open eyes allow me to.

My hands are freezing cold as they rearrange the sapphire blue tulle of my dress. I press my palms against my neck and face, letting the heat from my hot, flushed skin transfer to my hands. Having never gone to a competition before alone, a sudden rush of sadness comes over me, and I miss the typical presence of my mother, who would usually be comforting me. The competitor in front of me plays the last note of her piece. The stage manager calls me up and tells me that it’s my turn. Standing up suddenly, I feel faint and teeter over to the entrance of the hall in my skinny silver heels. Taking a deep breath, I step out onto the stage.

I feel as if I’m walking on a tightrope as I struggle to balance on my heels, tentatively walking across the stage. My head is in a cloud. I’m slowly gravitating towards the center of the stage, almost as if by habit. As I sit down, I hear the judges’ voices asking me what I would like to play.

“Chopin’s Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise.”

“Ready when you are.”

I close my eyes, and my body sways from being off-centered. I can hear nothing other than the deafening sound of my racing heartbeat, pulsing fast in my ears. I concentrate my attention to the keyboard. All of a sudden, I feel the cloud lifting, and everything turns crystal clear. I am abruptly aware of where I was. Without the film of unawareness protecting me, I’m suddenly very exposed, sitting onstage, with the eyes of four judges boring into me, feeling more timid than I ever have before. I’m scared to death, and my breathing pace ascends quicker and quicker.

I’m not ready.

Everything escapes my mind, even the starting note of the first piece. I forget all the music that I had just memorized this morning. Almost in tears, I squeeze my eyes shut and wish desperately for a hole to open up beneath me and swallow me up.

It doesn’t matter.

I open my eyes, startled.

It doesn’t matter what the results are. It doesn’t matter what people think of your playing. You’re not playing to please other people. You flew all the way from Texas by yourself just to take a chance at this competition. When you got on that plane less than twenty-four hours ago, your pieces weren’t even memorized, yet you were willing to come here and play onstage. You’ve done all that, and now you want to back out? Just take a risk. Is the worst that can happen even all that bad? Just enjoy yourself.

A voice pops into my head, and at once, my whole mentality seems to relax. I pick my confidence up from off the ground and let it sink into my mind. I lift my hands to the keyboard, my fingers trembling from excitement. The first note rang out, like wind chimes singing in the breeze. I pour my heart into the music, letting every note and dynamic sweep me away to another world. I see glistening water, endless space, and incredible amounts of sparkling stars flashing across my vision. There’s darkness, which drags me into melancholy, and then there is light, which brings tears of joy to my eyes.

“Thank you for your time.”

The judge’s voice interrupts my trance, and I look up and suddenly snap back into reality. What felt like five seconds was really twenty minutes. I stand up and float off the stage in amazement by what had just happened.

I took a risk, and this time, it paid off.

Still in awe, I wander through the next couple of hours in a daze. All I can think about is my performance. Never had I experienced anything like it in the past. I close my eyes again and again, transporting myself back into the world that I had been in as I was playing, and the gorgeous music surrounds me, enveloping me.

Totally forgetting about the competition itself, I’m surprised when I get a text message from my other friend, who happens to also be a competitor. It reads: “Congratulations! So proud of you.” Anticipation spreads through my body again.

“What do you mean?” I type, my hands trembling.

Bing! “You won.”

My eyes stop focusing for what seems like the longest time, and everything around me blurs.

Hands still shaking, I pick up my phone and dial my mother’s number. I heard the line click.

“Mom.”

“Honey, I can’t talk right now, I’m at-”

“Mom, just listen to me. I got the results of the competition.” I try to keep my voice as steady as possible, so she won’t suspect anything.

“Okay, so what are they?” I can tell that she’s trying to hide her anticipation, but it still shows through in her voice as it rises higher in pitch.

“I won. I got the scholarship.” I break out into a huge smile, even though I know she can’t see me. Silence fills the other line. Even without being able to see or hear her, I know that the smile on her face matches mine.

“Oh sweetie, that’s great! I’m so proud of you!” I hear her voice crack and imagine the tears welling up in her eyes. “So maybe taking this chance wasn’t such a bad idea after all…”

The rest of her words drone out. I set down my phone and I smile. I hear her words again in my head: So maybe taking this chance wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Maybe it wasn’t.

 

Alice

If Alice had known what was

to happen,

would she have jumped down

the rabbit hole?

 

If I had known what was

to happen,

would I have submerged myself into

the mysterious world of

music?

 

Probably not,

but then we wouldn’t have

such a breathtaking fairytale or

such blissful sound.