We all know what it is like to work on a piece of music for a long period of time. Sometimes we get it right, the notes, the phrasing, and then give a good performance, but for some reason it never has that ethereal quality a professional performer gets in their performance. We may chalk that up to talent, but it isn’t. It is a continued quest well past initial performances. As technical and interpretive elements continue to be refined other elements come to the fore and are refined as well. Do enough of this and you can sound ethereal too. It just takes time.
Where You At?
You are in a different place than the pro that made the recording.
When you learn a piece you probably play it once in some sort of big performance. Perhaps you perform it a few times, but that is it. Then, at best, it sits in the back of your repertoire to be used at weddings for background music. Usually it is not played again until resurrected for some reason or another. Even though you may get all of the notes right it does not have that ‘special’ sound that concert artists do, does it?
When a pro performer learns a piece she plays it in concert night after night.
Only the audience at the first concert hears the first public performance, which occurs after learning the piece and after many mock performances by the performer, and that comes after many other real performances of other works in other years. The concert is a high-pressure environment where focus is intense (this is where most experience ‘stage fright’. the performer already knows she can pull it off so the intense focus remains, but the fright does not. Hint-you can choose to focus that hard in your practice!) Any performer will tell you that the performance of a piece after many concerts changes significantly as they refine small elements night after night. The legendary guitarist Andre Segovia once told one of his students, Christopher Parkening, how he would resist the record companies pleas to record new music right away, and insist on taking the music on tour for a year to ‘burnish’ it. “His feeling, and I agree, was that there is nothing that will refine a piece quite like performing it for some time.”
There is a level of refinement that occurs cognitively and physically once something is learned, and then performed over and over, under a focused critical eye that cannot be duplicated with isolated repetition, or anything else. I’ve heard that the concert guitarist Pepe Romero tells students, quite seriously, that they should play a piece 1,000 times before performing it in public.
Then you hear the recording done after all of this practice.
Do you see why yours sounds raw, and theirs so polished?
By the way this is one of the several great benefits of competition. Such events give us a concert like focused performance venue. Do several of them and you have created a mock version of a concert tour, and your playing will develop through that process.
Where You Start
When the pro learns a piece he can already play scales at light speed. You can’t – YET.
When he learns the Bach Chaconne he only needs them at 80% of his scale speed. He is not repping the scale passages like crazy hoping that his technique will develop in time for that One Big Performance.
When you learn a piece you are almost certainly stretching yourself beyond your ability. If you have a teacher you better be doing that. It takes a long time and a lot of reps for the neurobiological changes to occur that form solid technical foundation.
Sorry, but that is just the way Mother Nature set it up, and you can’t fool her.
I know you think that super talented person X or Y was born playing their scales at almost light speed and had to work from there, but they were not. Simply ask them, any of them, anywhere, if that happened. I already know the answer. Don’t use articles or internet writings that like to tell a good story, ask the person specifically. They will all tell you that it took a lot of time, and a lot of practice.
Developing pro-level speed and facility takes thousands of hours – period, no one is exempt.
So, you are simultaneously trying to learn how to give an effective performance and developing technique that does not exist yet. This is a crucial detail. It takes much longer to develop technique that does not exist than it does to adapt it to a slightly different situation (i.e. unique scale passage). This is another reason those with years of development behind them are able to learn music more quickly and perform it better. It is not talent, it is previous developmental time put in. By the way there is a great argument here for why playing scales, and technical work in general, is beneficial.
Playing is fun practicing is work, the more work you’ll do the more fun you’ll have.
All of this does not sound like fun does it? It isn’t. Faced with years of this some will give up and blame it on lack of talent. The few that remain seem unusually talented, the even fewer that see it through to the end (virtuosity) seem singularly gifted. It is always lack of time, and usually lack of proper or enough practice during that time. This is why it seems like most virtuosi have to start as ‘child prodigies’ (the subject of a future blog post). One reason for this is that
It does not really bother a five year old to rep, over and over, things like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star
allowing the time it takes for the neurobiological changes to slowly manifest themselves over years. By the time they are self-conscious about that stuff (teenage years or so) they are so much better than their peers that they do not have to play things like Twinkle. How old are you, again? Never compare yourself to others by age, always compare by time put in. If you are 20 and have amassed 4,000 hours of proper practice the 12 year-old with 6,000 will be better, a lot better. So you are only 2,000 away from them. Starting to see how this works?
And we haven’t even considered the seasoned professional who you now hear after many tours and recordings. As each element is addressed, spicato, legato, staccato, marcato (Ricardo!) other elements become more obvious over time. No wonder they can hear small details and offer solutions to things that most others cannot in masterclasses. That is when they are not telling you what your teacher has already told you a million times! (I’ve told you a million times not to exaggerate!!)
Where You Go – The Solution
First, make sure you have some pieces in your repertoire that you continue to develop over time. Perform them whenever you get a chance including regularly in practice (etudes are great for this, and there is plenty of other music that works as well). When you notice something that you would like to improve – tone, phrase shape, a note that isn’t speaking the way you want, whatever, stop and spend a few minutes working on it.
ENJOY THE JOURNEY
Second, you are growing and learning. Think of the pieces that you have played well. There was a time not so long ago that those pieces seemed impossible, and now you play them musically. So you are already there – you are making music. There is really no need to be upset that you can’t play more difficult advanced repertoire well yet, you’ll get there if you want, but it will take more time than you feel it should. Remember – Mother Nature never promised you after X amount of hours or Y amount of months that would be enough time to complete the process of changing your brain as needed to accomplish your goals. It takes as long as it takes (I’ve noticed, unscientifically, that it appears to take about 500 hours of practice, not including breaks, to make major leaps at the more advanced levels). To be able to perform all of the elements that go into more advanced music making, just like the needed skills you learned to perform your repertoire which once seemed impossible, you will continue to acquire skills that get you to more and more advanced music. There is no other way, and you cannot shortcut the process. Either do it, or not.
Embrace wherever you are at as you are making music, look at the big picture long-term, and love the fact that you are not good at many things that you wish you were. That is natures way of telling you what needs work so get to it, and perform whenever you can.
Go get ‘em.