Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Not again :(

I had time this morning for a good two and a half hour practice session, which included a slow warmup followed by scales and intonation exercises, then a quick run-through of the odd-numbered Suzuki pieces. After that, I turned to the practice points that I'd highlighted in my newer pieces, and worked on them slowly and repeatedly, without playing through the whole thing. I felt good about my practice session and actually expected this to carry through to this afternoon's lesson. It was a nice drive in the intense winter sunlight to Homer.

I started off showing my teacher the highlighted sections (little stickies before and after each "tough" segment - to block me from playing on - thanks again to Gottagopractice - trouble is, I've already memorized them, so the little stickies really don't do much except remind me to stop there.) She seemed pleased that I was using a more organized approach (she'd only been telling me for months to just work on hard parts). So we jumped right into the tough parts on "Witches' Dance". Only a few hours before, I'd played these fairly well (not perfect, yet, but at least I hit the right notes, and got the basic bowing right). But not now. I felt like I was playing with five thumbs. Nothing went right. I missed notes, I missed bowings. I stopped for a moment and vainly tried to clear my head (a vague zen-like thing that usually works at home) to let loose of whatever tension had found itself into my back and arms. (I'm not exactly sure where all this tension came from. Even now, hours later, it's still lingering.) It was only after four or five attempts that I could finally start playing these sections like I'd been doing at home.

I assume all teachers see this at one time or another. Maybe I was nervous that she'd think I hadn't improved enough since the previous lesson. I had begun to feel that I had really made some significant improvements over the last two weeks. You sure couldn't tell from my performance today. She was patient as I worked my way out of it. It took most of the hour before I felt relaxed and played a little closer to normal. Although I still made a few stupid mistakes on places that I'd long ago thought were sorted out.

Because my head was full on all those inner-dialogue comments, I really didn't retain many significant technique recommendations from the lesson - other than trying to simplify the "tough parts" a little more; set some specific practice goals - such as play each segment 20 times right, or to make it even more challenging, play each segment 20 times in a row right, and if I mess up, start over; etc.

After some messy screeching on my g-string while playing some Mooney pieces, she had me do some string crossings (g-string to c-string) and back, she pointed out that I was not lifting the bow fast enough and then I was letting it go too far, so that the bow dragged on the c-string as it left and then went over to just tap the d-string. After several slow, stepwise movements, I was able to see some improvement. But my mind was still trying to figure out why this was happening - at home it doesn't... (at least it almost never happens).

No new assignments, just work on the tough parts. Next time, she'll bring in some Christmas music to work on. I told her I'd ordered a rhythm book and would bring it next time to see if we can work it into our lessons. She suggested trying at first, at least, to not use the cello while counting, clapping, tapping, singing, or whatever. Only bring in the cello after I'd really sorted out the rhythm.

Gack. I wish I hadn't wasted my lesson this way. I'll have to process this some more.

I don't think you wasted your lesson. Everyone--really, everyone--gets nervous now and then. I still get nervous for my piano lessons, though not as much as I used to. Performance anxiety (whether it's fear of missing notes, or not sounding good enough, or not having improved enough, etc.) is like standing up on a high ladder. The more time you spend up there, the more comfortable you will be. Just like playing, performing takes practice. Try "performing" more at home; play for your family. Chances are they'll make you a little nervous, and you'll miss things you thought were easy. But do it again, and again, and you will get used to playing in front of someone else.

The other thing to bear in mind is that you will rarely perform as well as you practiced. When I was preparing for my concerto concert, my teacher instructed me to play my concerto from start to finish (it's 15 minutes long) about ten times, or until I was completely exhausted. She said that the 8th or 9th time would be about the way I'd perform it. Everything adds up (the different place, maybe a different temperature, the risk of playing for someone), and you probably won't perform as well as your best practice session. Sometimes it happens that you perform better than you'd practiced. It's fun when that happens, but it doesn't usually. The answer really is to practice until your worst practice session is good enough to be your medium to good performance.

Also remember that it's just a lesson. It's a performance, but not really a high risk one. It's all right to tell your teacher that you feel a little tense (she knows it sounds better at home; it works the same way for her, and for everybody else). They're not "stupid" mistakes--you're just discovering the parts you don't know as well as you thought you did, and often the only way to discover them is to perform, or play at a lesson.

Music is not an easy thing to do, nor is it scientific. You can't practice and prepare and then go perform and have it work perfectly. Some days will feel terrible for no reason. But some days will be magical, everything clicking into place.
Thanks, Jessica for your thoughtful and supportive comments.

I really do feel as if I've made some really positive improvements lately, but I am frustrated that I couldn't demonstrate that in the lesson. Today's practice was not good either, and I finally had to set it aside for the day.

Part of the problem is that my expectations are way too high, and when reality intrudes, I get frustrated, which causes me to tense up; and then it all spirals downhill from there.
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