At the beginning of this year, my son (24) passed his driving test, his achievement made more remarkable by the fact that, due to the covid restrictions, his test was postponed 6 times over the course of 18 months. He displayed a dogged pragmatism towards the disappointment of the cancelled tests (he was ready to take his test in July 2020) and simply carried on practicing his driving whenever he could – in my car, his own car, and with his driving instructor.
While my son was having his lessons, I was reminded of my own driving lessons, some 30-odd years ago, and how my instructor stressed the importance of “time at the wheel” – that any driving practice was useful. My son certainly appreciated this and we enjoyed lots of excursions in the car which relieved the monotony of lockdown while also giving him useful driving experience.
While we were out and about, I pointed out to my son that one of the most important aspects of having lessons is so that one learns how to pass the test. A good instructor knows what needs to be covered to ensure the candidate is well-prepared. I remember my instructor made me practice manoeuvres like parallel parking and three-point turns over and over again so that the all the processes, physical and mental, became fixed in my procedural (muscle) memory, were almost intuitive, and ensured that I was not nervous on the day of the driving test. The same was true for my son – his parking abilities impress me no end (especially as I can no longer parallel park successfully!)
What does this have to do with the piano and music practice? Well, playing an instrument, like driving, is a series of movements and processes, which utilise and train the procedural memory. Most of us know well the old adage “practice makes perfect”, but, more importantly, practice also makes permanent, so that movements, processes and gestures become intuitive – we do them without (apparently) thinking.
This permanence comes, of course, from practicing – not mechanical note-bashing, (or mindlessly driving around Tesco’s carpark) but from thoughtful, careful practicing to ensure we are well-prepared.
The great Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz apparently had a little phrase which he repeated ahead of a performance – “I know my pieces” – meaning he knew he had done his preparation. It’s a helpful mantra, and one which I have used in my own preparation for performance.
It is this preparation which gives us perhaps the most useful skill of all – confidence – which enables us to perform to the best of our abilities in an exam or concert situation, can help allay nerves, and ensures that the odd error or slip will not derail the overall performance.
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