(With permission to reprint from the Oregon Musician, February 2016, Issue 12)
Metaphors are something we use everyday in our speech. If I want to make a point of clarification or enhance the description of something, a metaphor can be useful. Essentially, it joins two things that are seemingly unrelated and connects them through an implicit commonality. Often, however, their shared relationship is far from obvious.
In the world of art, metaphors are vital, lending nuance and depth to our understanding of things that are often ephemeral. As educators, metaphors can offer us a kind of short cut to conveying information. Through metaphors, I can teach complex musical concepts and help students to navigate the rocky shoals of creativity, all by connecting to something they already know. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t utilize the power of metaphor.
Metaphors work well in the instructional world. That’s something to which all of us can subscribe. But there is another realm that metaphors can serve. The meta metaphor is what interests me these days. It’s self-referential. It’s metaphors about metaphors. Stay with me on this. Here’s how it is useful to us as artists and teachers. What I glean from my work in music becomes a larger metaphor for my life. The study of music informs us about living in our world.
So how does this work? Let’s focus on one key aspect of what we do as musicians — practice. It’s the essential task if you want to play an instrument. As I remind my students, all the brilliance, imagination, and insight alone will not bring you to a fine performance. My teacher Gyorgy Sebok use to say, “Sometimes we must chop wood and carry water.” That’s my favorite metaphor for practicing and I use it with my students on a daily basis.
Practice also requires sophisticated problem solving, carefully planned drill, scholarly research, psychological wisdom, awareness of the non-linear world, patience, a hearty constitution and a strong work ethic, humility, and on occasion, humor — all in service to something greater than oneself. Here’s what I know about practicing. It is essentially one thing: rehearsing effective solutions to technical and musical problems. If I am not continually aware of this truth, I will wander into the woods of distraction, unintentionally practice errors (so that I really have them), or simply engage in what I call “Piano P.E.” (moving at the piano while the brain is engaged elsewhere).
If I rehearse well thought out solutions, then I begin to discover all manner of mysteries and paradoxes. For instance, I may not practice a work from beginning to end but rather from difficult to easy. Think of those codas in the Chopin Ballades! Practice cells become useful tools for organizing what is essentially a non-linear task. Those problems I encounter must first have the right solution: no point in practicing a difficult passage if you don’t know how to play it with ease and accuracy.
Sometimes the solution can elude us. I send my students to the usual suspects: fingering choices, unconscious tension, the relationship between left and right hand (which hand needs most of the attention in a given passage?), hand and eye coordination (are you looking in the right place?), and so forth.
Once I am well ensconced in effective practice strategies I am then met with more ephemeral challenges. How do I sustain daily practicing? Sometimes we have glorious days where everything comes together. Those are easy. But what about those days when we struggle with fluency, doubtful of our abilities? Perhaps we encounter frustration and boredom with the whole process. That’s where a strong work ethic and patience can sustain us. One of my other Hungarian teachers, Béla Nagy, suggested that we simply get ourselves to the piano bench each day and that some days will inevitably be tiresome, unproductive, and even boring. He was right, of course. Daily effective practice, however, is the gateway to a fluent performance. The key is to first show up!
Psychological wisdom is essential because when we are practicing we are being our own best teacher. I often ask my students what they would think if I berated them, bullied them, or ignored them. And yet, when we are practicing, we can, out of frustration, fall prey to destructive self-talk: “I’ll never learn this piece, I am not like other pianists who find it easy, I have no talent, I can’t believe I played those wrong notes,” ad infinitum. Needless to say, progress will elude you with a bad inner teacher. In the larger scheme of things, practicing requires two overarching traits that I believe are non-negotiable. If you don’t have them, your life as a musician will be self-limiting. They are humility and humor. The first connects you to the numinous and the other sustains you.