Friday, May 04, 2007

audition aside: thoughts on practicing

The other day I noted Andy Anderson's diligent practice habits, with a mixture of guilt, envy, and horror. I probably should have talked a bit more about my own practice habits though, and how they might differ from Andy's. If I had to complete Andy's sentence about preparation, "I don't feel like I really know the piece until....", I would say this:

I don't feel like I really know the piece until I've explored several bowing and fingering combinations, and settled on the most functional; I've learned the harmonic and rhythmic context of my part; I've chosen a direction and shape for every phrase; I've found an image or idea to associate with each passage, to give me a feeling for the character and style; I've played it for several people, and established a level of conviction and comfort with my performance of it. I want to be able to sing my line with as much confidence as I play it - and to have my ideas come through with the same clarity, even in my pathetic, untrained singing voice!

Those are my goals - I'm not saying I achieve them all, but they provide a destination for my preparation. I feel like practicing is a kind of alchemy, transmuting a page of notes, and instructions into physical gesture, intellectual clarity, and emotional impact. It's obviously in our best interest to use certain tools along the way - not just the metronome, tuner, mirror, and tape recorder, but our own pedagogical foundation, all the instructions and guidance we've been given over the years by teachers and friends.

All of those people and things can make for a crowded practice room! Sometimes I imagine my teachers looking over my shoulder, telling me to move my bow towards the bridge, use flatter hair, rework that shift, etc. At some point though, I think we have to recognize that these are just tools, the scaffolding in which we are creating something with form, power, and life. Andy noted this as well - when we overly rely on tools, we end up sounding robotic, stiff, and tool-like ourselves! So I think it's vital to keep the finished product in mind: a performance that is not only precise, honest, and faithful to the score, but dynamic, spontaneous, flexible, and responsive to all the fluctuations inherent in any performance.

Readers have mentioned that they appreciate all the geeky excerpt advice I have to offer, and I'm very grateful to have such readers! I'm afraid, though, that if I started to write out all my ideas for every note and phrase, either all the life in those ideas would dry up or whither, or else I would never finish writing. Since every page of music feels different each day, I feel like the really exciting thing is to just keep deepening one's knowledge of those pieces, one's familiarity with those composers - and always looking for new ways to relate your own personality, mood, emotions, and the physics of the space you inhabit to what you're playing. Just to leave you with something though, here are some of the pieces on the Calgary list, and some words that helped me to get into the spirit and set it in motion.

  • Bach Bourrees: rustic, joyful, simple, unaffected; 2nd Bourree, melancholy, falling and resigned, but still reaching and yearning
  • Vanhal Concerto: elegant, Mozartean - articulate, joyful, welcoming
  • Beethoven 5 Scherzo: a dark, floating sound, maximum contrast - always feeling the impulse of 3-1; Trio: joyful, decisive, direction carrying through to the 4th bar
  • Beethoven 9: a proclamation to mankind - bold, imploring and compassionate - a sense of stretching and returning to form, like a big rubber band
  • Britten Young Person's Guide: joking, fun, playful - a sense of surprise and foiled expectations
  • Mendelssohn 4: beginning light and boisterous, feel strong accents on all the rests!
  • Mozart 40: a sighing lament, but now it's become bold and strong - think of the dialogue with the violins, following the intricate harmonies
  • Schubert 9: dancing, propulsive, direction of 3-1; feel the harmonic motion
  • Strauss Ein Heldenleben: the hero's signature theme, courageous, full-throated, every note purposeful and singing

1 comment:

Jason Heath said...

Thanks for adding the podcast player to your blog, Matt! It's great to hear your thoughts on Andy's practice and preparation habits. I just did an interview with Lawrence Hurst tonight, and it was cool to hear the advice he has and to compare it to the other people I have interviewed.

Looking forward to your next audition story installment!