Slow Practice

It’s Advent, so we are preparing for Christmas, and that means music. (Also shopping, and high-calorie food, of course. That would be a different blog post.)

Each year since we moved to New Mexico, I have accompanied the local chorus in their Christmas cantata. My part is a piano reduction of an orchestral score, which means basically that it’s not particularly piano-friendly and it’s not the kind of piano playing that I routinely do. The first year I really struggled with learning my part; the classically trained pianist in me wanted to get every note just so! That’s simply not possible when someone has put too many octaves-worth of music on the page!

Each year I have improved in throwing away the notes that are unnecessary, and also in my sight-reading of this style. It is no longer painful to learn this music. (And in case the previous reads like a rant: I have always loved my rehearsals with the singers and hearing the music come together. And the performances — that should go without saying!)

A decade ago, when I started doing this, it was very hard for me to let go of my concerns about not playing all those awkward notes quickly enough to maintain tempo. I was so worried about that, I neglected to practice slowly enough to actually learn the music. (Until the very last few days before the dress rehearsal, when in my opinion my   –poor– playing had reached a crisis point…)

There lives inside me a very young and tyrannical voice, who simply wants to “Play! Let’s play!! Hurry up and go! I want to hear the music!! PLAY!!!” She has been here since forever and let me tell you, she was a constant “issue” in graduate school. I think the metronome was invented specifically to tame her. She’s a great friend and, I believe, the source of much of my creativity and musicality; unfortunately, she’s not really here for the process, she only wants to PLAY!!!

I get more accomplished at the piano when I convince my friendly tyrant to calm down and just wait a day or two.

Over the years, I have learned (& even gotten grudging agreement from my friendly tyrant) that I don’t really need to practice fast ever (at least in the cantata).

What I must do is

  • slow down,
  • really see what is on the page in front of me,
  • really feel what is required to get from one (often awkward) voicing to the next (often equally awkward),
  • really hear the harmonies (especially so that I can fix the awkward writing),
  • slow down again, because by now I may have sped up,
  • turn on the metronome and slow… it…… d o w n.

For all the unpianistic qualities of the writing, usually the music* is not that complex, and when I let myself thoroughly experience it, I actually learn it more easily and quickly. At which point, I can play it at any speed I like. (Which my tyrant approves of.)

This year I am needing to slow down much more in my life away from the piano as well. R-T-G & I have so much piled on us at the moment, I want to dash through it all and be done (that done-ness thing again; haven’t I written about that before? How appropriate that I, who long to mark everything as completed, have a dharma where nothing is ever finally finished.)** 

When I hurry through my too convoluted life, the less I do well, or even at all. I need to re-do things I thought I had completed. I mis-prioritize tasks, so deadlines are missed. I am hopeless at modern multi-tasking, that’s just asking for trouble.

So in the meantime, I am reminding myself, almost hourly, that the tortoise wins this race, and with a much more pleasurable journey, too. I really don’t have enough time to hurry!

Slow practice at the piano. Slow practice in my life. And slowing down to truly live the holiday of Christmas.

Whichever winter holidays you celebrate, I wish for you a relaxed pace. Please, give yourself this blessing: the opportunity to savor the wonders of the season.

*The notes are not the music; I hope we can all agree on that. They are, however, the most important clue on the treasure map to the music, which is what the written score is: a treasure map. So, we ignore notes at our peril, but we shouldn’t imagine that we have played the music simply because we got all the notes.

**I even have marked on the calendar the date (a couple of months from now) when all the current commitments are — done. (And nobody gets to schedule anything with me on that date. Don’t even think it!)

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