Tag Archives: teaching

Reflections on the 40 Piece Challenge and the 100 Piece Challenge

A new year means that I had to decide whether to redo the 100 Piece Challenge or to issue myself a new Challenge. It also gives me a good excuse to talk about what I learned last year and to revive this blog yet again. For details about the 40 Piece Challenge I issued my students and the 100 Piece Challenge I gave myself, please see this post from exactly one year ago.

The 40 Piece Challenge was a big success with my students last year! Even though there were also a lot of students who didn’t pass, I can safely that for all of my students:

  • Sight-reading skills noticeably improved.
  • Ability to solve problems (both musical and technical) independently improved greatly.
  • There was a definite increased motivation to both bring current pieces to a high level and to continue to learn new pieces.
  • They became mentally stronger and better able to manage time.
  • Since they were exposed to more rhythms, coordinations, and different musical situations in general, they developed greater stylistic awareness and learned faster overall.

I have decided to continue issuing the 40 Piece Challenge to my students every year. Each student does the Challenge on their own time – in other words, their start and end dates vary a lot and they can restart the Challenge at any time.

With both the 40 Piece Challenge and the 100 Piece Challenge, I used many of the new practicing methods that I have been developing over the past two years. In the case of the students, of course, I taught them these methods in order to help them achieve their maximum potential. I hope to continue revising and strengthening these strategies and to finally write more about them this year. I also have confidence that many more students will pass the 40 Piece Challenge this year since they (and I) have much more experience now.

In terms of uploading the 100th video, I publicly competed the 100 Piece Challenge on October 20th, the 100th Piece being Chopin Prelude Op. 28 No. 15, the “Raindrop” Prelude. I uploaded piece #133 yesterday night (December 31st, 2016) as the final piece of the year. I don’t have a custom YouTube URL, but if you search “david chang 100 piece challenge” on YouTube, you will find all of the videos.

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I have a lot of scattered thoughts and reflections about how the Challenge went. Some of these thoughts will directly address the requirements that I set myself in my post from one year ago. Some of them will ponder over what I learned from the Challenge – both the expected and the unexpected. And still other reflections will be on mental and emotional obstacles, what the purpose of the Challenge actually was, and how issuing a new Challenge is at all useful or relevant in the context of larger goals. Here they are in no particular order:

Regarding my saying in my original post that “I am able to learn music five to ten times faster” than before:

  • This is certainly no exaggeration at all in terms of the number of pieces I ended up learning, but it’s true that the length and difficulty of the pieces in a solo piano recital program are significantly greater.
  • I should also note, though, that in the past it would be months before I felt I could learn and memorize even a simple piece of music. It would take incredibly long to work out the technical difficulties, to make all of the musical decisions (such as shaping and touch), to feel like the memory is solid, and then eventually to get up the nerve to record and listen to myself. And then I certainly wouldn’t share or perform the piece once I had finished learning it. In this sense, the fact that I ended up able to share newly learned pieces so often truly supports my claim of “five to ten times faster” than before.
  • As a result, I feel much more confident now that my methodologies really do work.

In my previous post, I said regarding the 100 Piece Challenge, “I must keep all of the pieces in my memory. This means they become a permanent part of my repertoire.”

  • At the time, I meant that all of the pieces would be ready to play at any time, and indeed, for most of the year, I attempted to have every single piece from the Challenge (and others from before the Challenge) at my fingertips at all times.
  • If I had to have the first 100 pieces simultaneously ready to immediately perform in order to pass the 100 Piece Challenge, then I was in fact not successful last year (though I was close).
  • It is also difficult to give a strict definition of “ready to play”. To me, “ready to play” did not mean that a piece would be played flawlessly, but rather that the piece could be performed musically and convincingly without too many errors. But “without too many errors” can also mean many different things when you compare, for instance, an audience of laypeople with an audience of pianists.
  • As the Challenge went on, I found that I could maintain more and more music in a performable condition (over five hours at some points… for laypeople at least), but it became increasingly difficult to maintain ALL of the pieces while continuing to learn new ones.
  • I now feel that while keeping all pieces “at the fingertips” is possible, it is simply too time-consuming and takes too much energy away from learning new pieces and from achieving other goals.

I am therefore revising “permanent part of my repertoire” to mean “ready to revive at any time” rather than “ready to play at this very moment”.

  • “Ready to revive” could mean anything from 20-30 minutes of review for a simple piece to several days to a week for a major piece.
  • To make sure that the piece is ready for performance, it’s important to forget and re-remember it in sets several times (or many times) as described in my earlier posts, so it’s best to allocate a day or two to be safe if it’s an important performance.
  • I know that a lot of high-level pianists have a similar conception of how to maintain their repertoire.
    • Many learned their pieces well enough that they can revive them in a very short amount of time.
    • Having previously learned (and revived / re-learned) music so slowly, I always assumed that they had some sort of superhuman ability.
    • The way I learned pieces for the 100 Piece Challenge is so thorough, however, that I now feel confident in my short-term revival ability.
      • However, obviously technical difficulties can still arise if I didn’t solve all technical issues in the piece at the time of the learning / recording.

In my next post, I will continue my reflections on the 100 Piece Challenge.

The 40 Piece Challenge and the 100 Piece Challenge (2016)

The idea for my personal 100 Piece Challenge came from the 40 Piece Challenge, which was started by the amazing Elissa Milne. You can read more from Elissa Milne here. I am also very grateful to my friend Walter Aparicio, fellow pianist, for telling me about the challenge in the first place. Basically, the idea behind it stems from a problem that many piano students and teachers face. When a student begins taking piano exams, there seems to be no time to learn additional pieces, and the student ends up focusing on only three to six pieces the entire year. Elissa had the fantastic idea of using a repertoire-rich approach in which students must learn 40 pieces in one year. Here, I quote the results from her blog:

Students were sight-reading ridiculously well. Their initiative to source new pieces to learn had gone through the roof. The volume of pieces wasn’t slowing down their capacity to progress onto more difficult work. And when they did progress onto more difficult work they had this growing stylistic awareness that is the fruit of much experience. It was amazing!

The Cross-Eyed Pianist, another important blogger, had this to add: “Known learning outcomes from the exercise include improved sight-reading skills, greater independence in learning, and enhanced musicianship and music appreciation.” Indeed, the 40 Piece Challenge exploded in popularity and has been used successfully by many teachers worldwide.

I already am very careful that each of my students develops the skills they need to teach themselves music and play at a high level as soon as possible. And for about nine months now, I have been developing techniques – both mental practicing and other ideas as well – for learning and maintaining music as fast as possible while not sacrificing quality. By teaching the kids all of these techniques, I found that my students actually helped me to fine-tune said techniques and improve upon them week by week. (Sorry, I really do hope to blog more about those topics soon!) But I digress.

The point is: a lot of my students, especially those who have been studying with me for some time, are already quite independent of me. And the idea of having them learn many more pieces actually is perfectly in line with all of the techniques I have been teaching them over the last year. I am confident that they will reap all the benefits described above and also be much happier now that they won’t have to focus on only a few pieces. So, I did, in fact, issue them all the 40 Piece Challenge, and gave them all a sheet last weekend that I found online:

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Reactions ranged wildly, but for the most part students were either indifferent or enthusiastic. I honestly was pleasantly surprised. The trick, of course, lies in continuing to give them those “challenge” pieces, but in also finding a lot of repertoire that is at or below their current skill level. In other words: learn a few big pieces while learning many small pieces.

The other part of the story is that teachers began giving themselves the 40 Piece Challenge. “After all, if my students can do it, shouldn’t I be able to as well?”

Keep in mind that at many music schools, the idea of preparing an hour-long recital of big pieces each year and then immediately forgetting all of the repertoire to learn new music for the next year is extremely common. The idea of learning music in addition to your recital repertoire sounds very nice, but often seems impossible. At least, it seemed that way to me. At this point, I don’t even agree with the idea of “completely forgetting pieces to make room for new ones” anymore, but that is a discussion for another time.

So it is not surprising, given their experiences as music students, that many teachers would ironically find themselves caught in the same trap that their students are caught in. From what I have seen, those teachers who managed to complete the challenge reaped many benefits of their own.

As excited as I am to give my students the 40 Piece Challenge, I have to say that I am just as excited to give myself the 100 Piece Challenge, in which I must learn 100 pieces in one year. As far as I know, this has never been attempted. I have a lot more time than most people since I teach mainly on the weekend and I purposely do not teach many private students during the week. In addition, since I feel that I am able to learn music five to ten times faster than one year ago, this is also a chance to prove that to myself. In a way, I have been preparing for this challenge ever since I started developing new practice techniques back in March. There are a few important rules that I am setting for myself, however:

  1. In the original 40 Piece Challenge, pieces are not required to be memorized. However, I must memorize all of my pieces.
  2. In the original challenge, one could move on from the pieces once they have been learned. However, I must keep all of the pieces in my memory. This means they become a permanent part of my repertoire.
  3. I saw that quite a few teachers chose to record themselves. I will give myself the same requirement and post all recordings on both YouTube and Facebook.

There are other things I would like to say as well:

  • I will allow myself to revive old pieces for this challenge (I saw that other teachers had also allowed themselves the same thing). In fact, as long as I do not have a recording of the complete piece on my YouTube channel, I can record the piece for this challenge. However, since I have posted quite a few recordings, quite a bit of my repertoire (and almost all of my recent repertoire) is ineligible.
  • I am not limited to classical repertoire. However, I must uphold the same high standards if I learn pieces of other genres.
  • Pieces can be very short as long as they are legitimate pieces of music. Many of the recordings I saw teachers posting were only one or two minutes long. There were also quite a few under one minute long.
  • For me, a “piece” means that it must typically be considered one complete piece. Many teachers that did this challenge would post separate movements of sonatas as “pieces”. Obviously, this makes sense because of the length of the sonata and I do not fault them for it. However, you would normally say that a sonata is only one piece of music. Thus, a Beethoven sonata that lasts half an hour is to me only a single piece. However, the 24 Chopin Preludes are 24 separate pieces despite their brevity (because we would refer to them as such).
  • I think that this entire process will make me much more comfortable with the idea of recording and sharing. I had avoided sharing more music before because it is too troublesome for me to sync audio from an external device to video and because I only have an upright piano at home in Westchester. But since this is not for an audition or any sort of formal purpose, I am content with just balancing my iPhone on a music stand and recording my slightly out-of-tune upright. 🙂 I have removed the pressure of a perfect setup, and it feels great.
  • I do not have the time to obsess over perfect recordings. I will try my best to produce quality recordings, but I won’t let my pride stop me from sharing. Because music is meant to be shared!
  • I basically have to record around two pieces each week.
    • The idea is not to start each week thinking: “What should I learn this week?” I am always learning many pieces simultaneously – some very challenging and/or longer and many that are easier and/or shorter. Some may take just one week to learn, while others can take six months, a year, or even longer. There will simply come a week at some point where I think, “OK, this is ready to record / perform now.” In other words: I have been working on many pieces to prepare for this challenge already. This is how attempting to learn 100 pieces is possible. I expect that many pieces that are not ready to record this year will also spill into next year.
    • I believe the key to success in this challenge is to constantly learn new pieces, constantly record myself, and constantly record as many pieces in advance as possible. I should be at least two videos ahead at all times… hopefully more!
  • I will not let this challenge interfere with the maintenance of all my other pieces, my musical standards, my constant volunteer-performing that I am doing with the wonderful organization Sing for Hope, my other musical goals, or any of my other goals. This challenge should be a logical complement for everything that I am already doing. If I approach it correctly, really shouldn’t feel any extra pressure. Rather, it should help me learn pieces even faster and feel even better about my playing.
  • I probably will not have enough time in 2017 to attempt a challenge like this since I am planning to apply for piano doctoral programs this fall. So this is the time to do it!

I hope to continue my long-forgotten posts about mental practicing soon. I will post updates about the 40 Piece Challenge I have given my students and the 100 Piece Challenge I have given myself every few months or so. Looking forward to a fantastic year of music!!

The Sing for Hope Pianos, Part 5

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Piano 25: DUMBO Archway

  • Thursday, June 11th (continued): On the first day of the Sing for Hope Pianos event, I had come to this location to discover loud music blaring over the speakers. I had felt at the time that I should really only play the piano if I could be heard without music in the background.
  • Perhaps I should have just played the piano at that time, because this time there was music playing through the speakers again! I found out from a nice girl working there – Kaylee – that apparently I just had bad timing. Often there were events going on at the Archway in the evening.
  • There was a group of five or six people gathered around the piano, so I politely asked if they could take my picture. They were very enthusiastic about my playing.

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Return to Brooklyn Bridge Park

  • It was such a beautiful day that I decided to celebrate the halfway point of the adventure by returning to Brooklyn Bridge Park to play for a while by the water.
  • Performed a lot of new pieces with varying degrees of success.
  • Met Jean-Michel, a middle-aged man from Paris who played and sung quite well despite not having done so for a long time. We had a really warm conversation.
  • Met an old man and his middle-aged son. The old man spoke very little English (mostly only Spanish), but he was very friendly and kept making the joke that I had to pay $50 to hear his son, Mozart (his son was unfortunately just hitting the keys randomly and making noise for fun!). He said the rates would increase the longer I listened. I found it all very amusing.
  • On my way to the subway, I passed back through the DUMBO Archway. Kaylee, the girl from earlier, said that she had enjoyed my playing and that I should come back to play again.

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Piano 26: Goddard Riverside / Bernie Wohl Center

  • Friday, June 12th: Met Susan, a Piano Buddy (one of the people that takes care of the pianos) and the one who had applied to have a Sing For Hope piano at this location. She explained that every piano opens and closes at different times depending on the Piano Buddy. In order to encourage a sense of community and openness, she had decided to simply leave the piano unlocked during the duration of the event. She had also attached a note asking people to cover the piano if it rained and if it was very late at night. After she heard some of my playing, Susan took down my information and also took pictures and recorded video. She was very friendly and warm.
  • Met Nancy, an older woman who stayed and listened to my playing for a long time. She was very sweet and kept saying how listening to the piano had “really really” made her day. It seemed like she had been having somewhat of a rough time beforehand. I was really pleased that she had been so positively affected by the music.
  • I also met up with my very good friend Rocío at this location. She performed a solo piece and we had a good time sight-reading some four-hand music together!

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Piano 27: Riverside Park North – Rotunda at 151st St.

  • I used to live just two blocks from the 168th St. subway station in Washington Heights. It was very nostalgic to return to this area, especially because I used to run through Riverside Park from 165th St. to 145th St. and back every morning!
  • Rocío and I both performed solo pieces here, but nobody was around except for a couple being rather intimate nearby. I feared at first that we were interrupting their moment, but ultimately decided that it was the couple who had chosen a bad location, not us.
  • Met Matt, a classical guitarist who owned a music school nearby. He shared with us the information that Franz Schubert (the famous composer) had apparently been a guitarist and had done much of his composing on the guitar! Rocío and I were both very impressed with this knowledge at the time. Unfortunately, I did some research afterwards and it turns out that there is no direct evidence to support this controversial claim…

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Piano 28: Highbridge Park Recreation Center

  • Also in Washington Heights
  • No one was really around this location when we showed up.
  • Rocío was kind enough to record Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost Rag for me, and some parts of it went surprisingly well even though the higher register of the piano was very out of tune and I had a few memory issues. Thankfully the piece does not use the high register of the piano very much.
  • The lovely couple pictured above showed up at some point. I thought they were just two random people who had happened upon the piano, but it turned out that the girl was Deanna, the one who had painted the piano! And the guy was Blake, her boyfriend and the singer-songwriter whose songs had inspired Deanna to come up with the design!
  • I had never had the good fortune of meeting one of the actual artists before, so this was a really pleasant surprise.
  • Blake played and sung a wonderful, moving song for us that he wrote himself.
  • I answered by playing and singing Stars from Les Misérables. Unfortunately it didn’t go quite as well as I had hoped it would, but I was overall still happy with the performance.
  • Deanna told us a lot about the message of the piano and a lot of the little details. She says: “I choose music, color, love, and joy to lead the way.” Her message is very, very beautiful. You can read more here.
  • I began to realize that even though there is a good amount of information about the design of each piano on the Sing For Hope website, it really is so different and so moving to hear about the pianos directly from the artists!

Rocío and I were planning to head to Joyce Kilmer Park in the Bronx, but I had also planned to see my student Skylar perform that day. Just when Rocío and I got to the subway station, Skylar texted me that she would arrive at the Lincoln Center piano soon with her parents. So Rocío headed home and I returned to the Lincoln Center piano. Unfortunately, Skylar’s family misjudged the time and ended up being very late. During this time, I watched a bunch of people playing. But for me, the highlights were:

  • A girl of perhaps 10 or 11 playing Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum from his Children’s Corner suite. Played rather slowly but quite well!
  • A girl with piano bag – probably a college student – playing Chopin’s 1st Scherzo. She had quite a few memory problems though. I think she became very nervous when people started to gather around her.
  • A man who showed up with his baby daughter in a stroller and then proceeded to play great jazz!

Skylar finally arrived with her mom and dad. We attempted to patiently wait our turn, but I advised her to ask politely to play if the man continued for much longer. Unfortunately, a teenage boy showed up and cut in without noticing Skylar. There was a large group of teenagers with him – his friends and classmates, I assume. He played bits of pop pieces and then tried to play the beginning of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, but it seemed he had too many memory issues to continue. After waiting for a bit, Skylar finally got her chance to play!

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Skylar at Lincoln Center

  • Skylar proceeded to perform Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude and Ocean Étude, both new pieces for her. It was the first time she had performed either of them!
  • When she started to play the Revolutionary Étude, the teenagers that were leaving became very vocal about the difference in skill between her and the previous kid and said, “OHHH!!! Get WRECKED!!” I felt kind of bad for the guy, but it was still rather funny.
  • People gathered around to listen to Skylar and were very responsive. It wasn’t the most solid performance, but what do you expect out of a first performance of Chopin Études? I was very happy that she still remained calm and played strong to the end.

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Skylar at Central Park – Literary Walk

  • Skylar performed the Études again, this time more successfully. I am very proud of her for adapting to new situations and for performing these notoriously difficult pieces so professionally.
  • I met a man named Sid who loves fugues (a type of composition with usually three or four different melodies occurring simultaneously, basically). He was not a professional pianist, but he apparently was only very passionate about learning fugues on the piano. He had at least 24 of them in his memory (!!!), including fugues from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. He also knew a lot of fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, but didn’t care so much to learn the Preludes that preceded each one. Pianists know that fugues are often incredibly difficult to memorize. I thought: there must be very few amateur pianists in the entire world that know this many fugues!
  • I performed one or two piano pieces, and then Skylar recorded Stars for me. I was quite happy with most parts of this performance.

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Skylar at Central Park – Glade Arch

  • This was the piano where I had met David, Steve, and Todd four days ago (it seemed like so much longer!)
  • Unfortunately the pedal was broken this time around (!), so Skylar decided not to perform her Études.
  • Instead, Skylar played two pop songs and I sung along with one of them even though I didn’t know it that well.
  • As a lesson in both how to adapt to any situation and how important it is to practice without pedal, I performed my Castle in the Sky arrangement for Skylar and her parents with no pedal at all. I relied only on my hands to play legato and express clear musical thought.
  • Somebody clapped and responded very favorably to my playing. It turned out to be the artist of this piano, Stefan Sierhej, from Poland! It was such an incredible coincidence that I had somehow met two artists in one day. For whatever reason, it would later turn out, sadly, that I would not meet any other artists after this point.
  • The page on the Sing For Hope website about Stefan mentions that he used the Gold Leaf technique to design this beautiful piano, but it doesn’t express his personal thoughts on the technique at all. When we talked to Stefan, he talked more about it and also explained that it was quite a difficult project for him because he had never used the technique before. Well, obviously it had turned out beautifully!
  • What is the story behind each work of art? Each piece of music? Each place you visit or person you meet? Talking to Stefan about his secret struggles reminded me that beneath the surface, there are always many details hidden away, waiting to be discovered. And that is part of the wonder of the world.

My phone was almost out of batteries at this point. I led Skylar and her parents out of Central Park, and we proceeded to have a very nice dinner together. I hadn’t planned on spending so much time with them, but I was happy that I gotten to bond a little with my student and very pleased that she had grown so much as a musician. With very little time left in the day and no batteries remaining, I decided to call it a day despite having visited only three new pianos. I started to wonder if it would really be possible to find all 50 pianos in time…

What is Practicing?

I honestly would love to start talking right away about my current experiences in learning new repertoire, but there are so many things that need explaining before I can do this. You know how some people will get sidetracked and ramble on and on and on about many different topics, completely forgetting their original point? I am like that, except that the ramblings are carefully organized and always serve some sort of overarching purpose. Conveniently, I also don’t forget my original point.

I thought I could first ramble about the idea of practicing in general. I think it’s always a good idea to understand the nature of a problem (in this case, the entire idea of practicing) before proposing a solution.

Like any other serious musician, my current practice methods are the result of years of trial and error. Some components of my current practicing have worked well for me since high school (I’m 26 now, by the way), other components I’ve been using for barely a month, and many other components fall somewhere in between. For a classical musician, the “practice method” must somehow address the vast difficulty of bringing several (or many) pieces from zero to performance-ready and then maintaining a certain amount of pieces in one’s repertoire.

Practicing, in one sense, can be described as simply noticing something that can be improved and then improving it. For many years, we often need an expert teacher’s help to even acquire the ability to notice these problems in the first place. We also need the teacher’s help with the solution to the problem. Let us say, for instance, that the teacher says:

“It is very uneven and the hands are not together. Try playing very slowly, paying special attention to your left hand”

This may be a comment given to a fairly advanced pianist (a Bachelor’s or Master’s student, perhaps). It would not be helpful at all for beginners because it is not specific enough. For laypeople, the fact that a Bachelor’s or Master’s student at a conservatory might receive this comment may be puzzling. If this is a “fairly advanced pianist”, why would the teacher have to give a comment such as this? Shouldn’t something as basic as hands being together be achievable even for “intermediate” pianists such as diligent teenagers or children? The answer is: yes, it should be, but it often isn’t for various reasons. Here are some possible explanations:

  • The student is already fully aware of what the teacher has pointed out, but the piece is very difficult technically. The student has already done exactly what the teacher has asked and has also tried many other practice methods. Despite putting in many good, quality, intelligent hours, for whatever reason the passage still does not go correctly.
  • The student has simply not practiced enough.
  • The student is not practicing intelligently.
  • The student actually didn’t even notice the unevenness and the hands not being together in the first place.

Of course, the preceding list makes many general statements and leaves unanswered many questions. How could the student not notice the unevenness and/or the hands not being together? What does “practicing intelligently” mean? And why might the passage still not go correctly even if the student does everything the teacher asks and more? The idea of intelligent practicing, for me, is something like this:

  1. What is the nature of the problem? Musical? Technical? Memory-related? Something else? What are you focusing on right now?
  2. Where exactly is the specific example you’re focusing on right now? It should be a small, manageable section. Or it could be two notes. Perhaps just a single note.
  3. What is wrong with that specific example? What needs to be improved?
  4. How do you go about fixing it? More focused listening? Greater imagination? More focused sense of touch? More relaxed body? Conquering a psychological issue? Researching the style? Understanding the character? Metronome? Rhythms? Accents? Mental practicing? Eyes closed? Hands separately? Something else? Some combination? etc. etc.
  5. Why did step 4 work? Or why did step 4 not work? Do I just need more intelligent repetitions? Or have I exhausted this method and I need to come up with a new idea?
  6. Keep going back and forth between steps 4 and 5 until the problem is solved. OR: move on for now because the muscles, memory, and/or spirit need time for the information to sink in.

Whatever level of musician you are, you have some standards. You have a standard for something being “performance-ready”, a standard for something being ready to play for a teacher, a standard for something you are playing or sight-reading for the very first time, and many other standards. For instance, even if you are sight-reading, you would probably not allow yourself to misread 80% of the notes or rhythms because the piece would be literally unrecognizable. Practicing is forever about trying to bring your current abilities up to your current standards. This impossible task is compounded by the fact that lessons with a good teacher improve your current abilities and raise your standards simultaneously. Sometimes the gap between your standards and your abilities will become much wider than you are used to if you study with a very demanding teacher. This is the case even if you are improving at a desirable rate.

When a student’s standards are too low, s/he may fail to notice issues such as unevenness, even if the problem is extremely obvious to his/her teacher. Continued lessons with a great teacher (combined with conscientious effort) will make it much easier to notice problems in one’s playing over time. This also means that without a great teacher (in 99.99% of cases, at least), at some point it becomes difficult or impossible to raise one’s standards, and therefore it is also difficult or impossible to notice problems in one’s playing on a higher level. I should also point out that it is very possible for standards to be in entirely different worlds:

Layperson: It sounds great! So even and clear!

Piano performance major: It’s a little uneven, but it’s getting better.

Master teacher: It is horribly, unbearably uneven. What are you doing?!

When a musician gets to be a certain level, s/he will begin to use past experiences and experiment with / research many different ways of practicing, including methods of his/her own invention. Even the best and most varied practice methods will of course require time to implement. And then there is the issue of how to maintain technique, musicality, and memory once a problem is actually solved. There is also never any guarantee that a problem will ever be completely solved.

I search and search and search and search until I find a solution to a problem. I then determine what sort of “maintenance” it requires. On a daily basis, I then search for answers to questions like:

  • Does this require daily maintenance? Every other day? Weekly? etc. How can I improve it to the point that I can afford to maintain it less often with the same results?
  • Is there an even better, more elegant solution? How can I save more time? How can I accomplish this task in 15 minutes instead of 25 minutes?
  • How can I use this problem to solve other problems faster and more efficiently in the future?

Practicing, in another sense, may be seen as an open-ended question – one that happens to be fantastically beautiful. Everyone comes up with a different solution, and no two people will completely agree on all matters. There is no one-size-fits-all. But I started this blog because I wanted to share my personal, ongoing solution. Also, they say that the ability to teach or explain something requires that you understand it deeply yourself.

Next time: Some thoughts about memory!

The Beginning of a Journey and Introduction to Mental Practicing

On matters such as piano, music, teaching, and many other topics related to my life, I have realized that I almost invariably have a lot to say. Actually, probably anyone who has held a serious conversation with me for more than five minutes has realized this. So it’s a wonder that I didn’t start writing this earlier!

The purpose of these writings is going to be quite up in the air. A lot of these posts will surely be most relevant to professional musicians, especially pianists. But a lot of the ideas I will talk about will hopefully help musicians of all levels, including those of other instruments. Posts about teaching may possibly be useful to teachers of all different subjects, not just music. And perhaps anything that I share about my life or music philosophy may resonate with someone, somewhere, for any reason. Even if nobody reads this, I feel that to keep a journal of some kind will be very satisfying and grounding in some way, especially one that is public. I am certainly not a world-class pianist, but I have worked hard enough that I think I can share some of what I have learned.

There have been several instances in my relationship with music and the piano where I experienced some sort of huge, fundamental shift in my practicing philosophy. The most recent one began approximately one month ago and was one of the main inspirations for starting this blog (along with reading the blog of a very good friend of mine). It truly has changed my entire approach to practicing… with very dramatic and favorable results! I partially arrived at my answer through a lot of reading, research, and experimenting in my practicing in the one or two weeks following my most recent recital at the end of February, but many of the questions I answered had been dancing around in my mind for years. Needless to say, this is a very exciting time for me right now and I am enjoying the learning of new repertoire MUCH more than before. So, one of the main methods I will use to communicate my ideas will be chronicling the effectiveness of this new methodology on pieces I am learning right now!

Here are some questions I’ll probably explore at some point relatively soon, in no particular order:

  • What exactly is mental practicing and why is it so incredibly important and useful?
  • Why is practicing and memorizing separate hands so incredibly important and useful?
  • How do I learn / memorize music quickly, yet thoroughly?
  • How do I keep up a lot of old repertoire while learning new repertoire?
  • Is the metronome good or evil?
  • How many hours a day is actually useful and when should I practice?
  • How can I possibly find the time to fix something fundamental about my technique?
  • How can I use these ideas to help my students?

And so on. You are also welcome to leave comments / questions  / suggestions on topics and I would be very happy to answer to the best of my ability.

Mental practicing, since it is at the core of my new practicing approach, will be explored at length in my posts over the next few weeks. I will also write a lot about the importance of practicing separate hands. These are NOT my original ideas, but perhaps I can present them in a unique, easy-to-understand format. Also, since a lot of the posts I read online during my research were directed more at beginners, the pieces cited as examples in those posts were generally much simpler than those in the standard piano repertoire. I hope that as I document how I use this method to go about learning new (generally much more advanced) pieces, it will prove useful in some way to my pianist friends (and to any other pianists reading) in particular. Of course, I will also share all the things that don’t work as I learn new repertoire!

Even beginners at the piano can probably picture the piano keyboard to some extent (and if you can’t, you can “cheat” by first looking at the piano keyboard or at an image of one). Let us say, for instance, that you play “C, D, E” on the piano. If you close your eyes or look away from the keyboard and imagine that you play those same notes, ask yourself: “Do I SEE myself playing those notes, HEAR the notes in my mind, and FEEL the sensation in my fingertips?” This is mental practicing! But really, how much use could this neat little trick actually have, and why should it be used? After all, when you first try to mentally practice pieces that are currently difficult for you, it is often very hard to see and feel them clearly in your mind’s eye. It also doesn’t help that, when done directly, mental practicing can be exhausting! If practice time is so limited, why use it at all? Some of the most obvious reasons include:

  • You can practice ANYWHERE, at ANY TIME (within reason)! This means getting some work done while lying in bed, making good use of time spent waiting for mass transit and practice rooms, actually enjoying sunny days, and many other perks besides. It also means being able to greatly increase your practice time even when you are short on time!
  • The possibility for injury is greatly reduced.
  • It is one way to greatly speed up the rate at which you learn new music.
  • It is one of the best ways to maintain repertoire in the memory.
  • The possibility for memory slips is greatly reduced.

More to come soon!