A guest post by James Holden
I am not practising but playing the piano.
It has not always been like this. I was younger once and like all pupils would be given my notes on how to play the notes. I would each week be handed a few handwritten, barely legible lines marking out my teacher’s expectations for the coming week: a list of scales to perfect, contrary motion; the names of the pieces to work up.
I am older now. I no longer have to decipher any comments or reach any point by a particular time. I no longer have to worry that my lack of practice will show. I’m not working towards any exams. I’m not studying for a GCSE or A Level. I’m certainly not building up to my Grade 6, Grade 7 or Grade 8. I’ve not had to pick any pieces from List A; I’ve not even looked at List B. And I’m definitely not looking forward to any concert performance.
I am older now and I no longer practise the piano. It’s not practice because I’m not practising the piano for anything. I’m not practising a work in readiness for some point in the future when I’ll finally be asked to play it, when I’ll be asked to perform it, when I’ll be marked, given a merit or a distinction or not. I’m not setting aside time at the keyboard now against some prospective moment. I’m not preparing for anything. No, I’m not practising but just playing the piano.
The difference is one of quality. It is a difference that I can feel in every note, even the wrong ones. I’m not practising the piano, I’m just playing it and that playing belongs entirely to this present moment, this instant as I press down each key. This is it; it’s happening now and not in some future time of a potential recital. It belongs entirely to me, even and especially when I play not the right notes but the wrong ones.
It is an experience that as well as being more immediate in time is also now closer in space. It is nearer to me. The playing begins and ends with me at the piano. There is no inevitable audience. I’m not playing to the upper circle or to any icy examiner but for myself.
The difference between practice and play is also one of quantity. I play the piano far more now than I ever did when I was younger. I play every day when I’m at home. And when I’m not playing the instrument I’m listening to recordings of other people playing it. The piano is no longer a distraction but the thing from which I’m distracted.
And with this increased quantity of time at the keyboard has come an increased quantity – or at least variety – of music on the stand. The difference between practice and play has been for me a greater freedom to choose any piece I want, from any List, A or B, any piece by Liszt or otherwise, from the most simple to those that remain beyond me at the moment, and may well always stay out of reach. It is equally a greater freedom not to choose certain pieces and to abandon any work I want. If I find a work unrewarding (which is different to finding it difficult) I can simply take the music down and put it away without any sense of failure. There is no longer any merit or distinction in playing something that more than challenging me is making me unhappy.
This playing still does not come easy. I’m only moderately competent at the piano. I still have to work out which note is which when there are multiple leger lines. I still have to work hard to eliminate those wrong notes which multiply themselves across the keyboard. And I still patiently have to work my way through complex passages hands separately first and then hands together after, counting in my head as I go, one and two and… getting a feel for the cantabile melody line before adding the accompaniment.
And yet for all these difficulties it is still a joyful and intensely rewarding experience. And so I would recommend that everyone diligently practise the piano and then whenever possible also make time just to play it as well.
© James Holden 2014
Dr James Holden was born in Ashford and educated at Loughborough University. He graduated with his PhD in 2007. He is the author of, amongst other things, In Search of Vinteuil: Music, Literature and a Self Regained (Sussex Academic Press, 2010). His website is www.culturalwriter.co.uk and he posts on Twitter as @CulturalWriter