A friend of mine, who subscribes to this blog, asked me recently, “What I want to know, Fran, is how the F— do you find the time to write all that stuff?!”. Another friend said, “Why write it if you don’t know if anyone reads it”, evidently completely missing the point of why one writes anything. In anwer to the second question, I write because I enjoy it, and I find that writing about the music I am learning or am interested in, helps to crystallise my thoughts and feelings about it, allowing me time to consider it away from the keyboard. Also, my visits to my teacher are very precious and valuable, and I would rather work with her than muse about music.
I am often asked how much piano practise I do; when I reply casually, “Oh, about two or three hours a day”, this statement is met with much exclaiming and pulling of eyes: “How do you find the time for that?!”. Sometimes, I am tempted to point out that Liszt allegedly practised for 12 hours a day, and that the average professional pianist puts in at least five or six hours per day, every day. The old adage “practise makes perfect” is definitely borne out by hours of repetitive practise: it’s the only way to improve muscular memory and it breeds a familiarity with the score – its shapes and patterns – that is invaluable. “Thinking time” away from the keyboard can also be classed as practising, as well as reading the score, going through it with a pencil, and listening and reading around the subject.
Regular practise gives structure to my day (and I am the world’s greatest procrastinator when it comes to boring reality tasks!), and a productive practise session can leave me on a “high”, with a self-satisfied sense of a job well done. And, as those who live with me will attest, not being able to practise – for reasons of absence from the piano, illness, tiredness etc – can leave me very grumpy indeed. The sheer physical effort of piano playing is akin to going to the gym: both activities release endorphins, the happy hormones which induce feelings of exhilaration, the so-called “runner’s high”.
During term time, when my time is limited by my teaching schedule (some 8-10 hours per week), my practising has to be highly organised. I don’t do exercises, in the traditional sense of 20 minutes warm up with scales and arpeggios, though I do create my own exercises out of the pieces I am working on (the Chopin Ballade has some useful arpeggiated passages, while the Gershwin Prelude No 1 is an exercise in syncopation and pulse). With at least three pieces on the go at any given time, I set myself clear targets for each practise session to ensure I cover everything I have set out to do. I set my iPhone to “airplane mode”, which means no one can call, email or text me, and try to ignore the doorbell. Then, armed with a mug of Lapsang Souchong, I begin.
Advice from my teacher about good working habits has been invaluable; also the book The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green taught me useful concentration and confidence-boosting techniques, which I now try to encourage in my students, especially the adults, who seem far more nervous and unsure of their abilities than the children I teach. But by far the biggest encouragement to keep going is actually being able to appreciate how much I have improved in the last eighteen months: I can hear the difference! And my confidence has been sufficiently raised that now when I open new music, I don’t immediately think “Ooh no, I couldn’t possibly…..”. I do admit, though, to being slightly fazed by Evgeny Kissin’s performance of the Chopin Ballade I am learning: I made the mistake of listening to him playing it only a few days into my work on the piece. It left me feeling utterly demoralised, but now, six weeks into the learning process, and roughly halfway through the piece (with all the really stormy, speedy passages still to learn!), I am delighted with the progress I have made, and am actively looking forward to playing it for my teacher next month.
And I’ve stopped listening to Kissin….