How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love to Practice

Guest post by Jennifer Griffin Gaul

My mom used to tell a story about me. She said that she would lie in the bathtub at night and listen to me practice piano.

I find this story strange because I honestly have very, very few recollections of practicing. I know I played because I remember the irritation I would feel at competing with the blare of the TV, or my angry older brother yelling at me to stop making a racket. But then there was the idea of “practice”, which was a bit of a fuzzy concept for me. Was it playing things over and over again until I could play it perfectly? Or was it something else altogether? I didn’t really know and there was no one at home who understood it either.

I didn’t start piano until I was 9 years old. We didn’t own a piano and my parents only
experience with music lessons was my brother’s aborted attempts at trumpet, which
left them unenthusiastic about investing in lessons for me. The subject of piano only
came up because they received a call from my best friend’s mother. Mrs. Kim had
called to say that I seemed to spend a lot of time around her piano and she thought
they should have me start lessons. My father balked at the idea of purchasing a piano
for an 8-year-old so I was given a plastic recorder and signed up for recorder lessons. I played recorder for a year and when it became clear that I loved music, they figured
out a way to get a small spinet piano.

I adored my first piano teacher, Mr. Erikson. He was a tall, gangly, bearded man with a
raspy voice. He started me off and we worked together until I was nearly 16 years old.
Every week when my lesson rolled around I’d feel a flurry of emotions. Anticipation was usually the biggest one. Sometimes a bit of shame for not doing the music worksheets he would assign. And also for not “practicing”. I didn’t like to let him down and I knew that practicing was important. I just wasn’t sure how to do it. But I also didn’t want to ask him what it meant because it seemed like I should understand it already.

Something magical always happened in those lessons with Mr. Erikson. Our work
together would absorb me completely. The lesson would flash by as I immersed myself in each new intricacy of music-making and sound. I progressed steadily. I must of practiced, right? How do you progress without it? And yet why didn’t I understand
what it was?

My musical life stumbled after a tearful parting from Mr. Erikson when he moved to
California. Limited for competent piano teachers in my small town in Rhode Island I
had begun lessons with a music professor at the local university. That relationship was life-changing. My weekly lessons became agony. There was no flow or understanding during lessons. Just a series of orders of what I was supposed to do. I was unable to focus because I was so frightened of this teacher. My ability to immerse myself in the music and grow and learn evaporated. Each week became worse as I was berated over and over again with my musical (and perhaps personal) deficiencies.

By this point, I had been accepted into the university at age 16 to pursue a Bachelor of
Music. He was the teacher I needed to work with in order to get my degree. He was
annoyed with me for this early acceptance, which he had been against. He said I
wasn’t mature enough. He was also annoyed with me for being accepted into the
Young Artist Piano Program at Tanglewood over the summer before I started at
university. He had told me I would be wasting the time of the audition committee if I
applied and would never be accepted. I auditioned anyway and spent a month
studying with Robert Taub, surrounded by amazing young musicians who were far
better than I was. They practiced! I was starting to get the concept.

And I DO remember practicing for him. I practiced a lot! But I just couldn’t seem to
progress. I couldn’t connect with the music. And each time I sat down to practice,
determined to show him what I could accomplish, I would just become more
discouraged. I ran scales. I did technique exercises. I worked on the assigned music.
Joylessly and with trepidation, driven by a sense of his seemingly endless disapproval.
It all came to a head during a lesson when I was mucking up the Mozart Sonata he had
assigned. By this point every time I played for him my hands would shake, my eyes
would have trouble focusing and my brain would go blank. In a fit of irritation he told
me that I had no capacity for hard work and I was just someone who liked music but
would never be a musician. He then told me to play it again for him. I couldn’t because
I was crying so hard I couldn’t see the music. He sighed and said “This proves what
I’ve said. Go home.”

I was devastated. My teacher Mr. Erikson came back for a visit that fall. I played for him and he just stared when I finished. “What happened?” he said weakly. Not only could I not play fluidly or with any musicality, I had developed so much tension that I was losing the feeling in my arms and hands. All that practice had done significant damage.

Before he returned to California, Mr. Erikson helped me to make some changes. I
altered my program from a Bachelor of Music to a Bachelor of Arts in music because
that allowed me to drop piano lessons.He had a long consultation with a friend who
had a D.M.A. from Eastman School of Music and set me up with this new teacher. I
began commuting to Boston every Saturday for lessons. I had to relearn how to play
again. Gradually I began to heal. Gradually I started to play again (or was it practice?). I adored my lessons with my new teacher. The sense of ultra focus and immersion
during lessons returned and I made enough progress to be accepted into University of Texas at Austin’s music program where I earned a Master of Music in piano.

So how does this impact my own teaching and the advice I give to parents and
students about the importance of practice?

In my opinion, at every level students need help understanding what they’re trying to
achieve when they practice. That understanding needs to be age appropriate. And it all springs from the quality of the teacher/student engagement during lessons. Working together in a way that feels collaborative, exploratory and uncovers each student’s connection to the music sets students up for better success on their own. Lessons that include regular, honest, and non-judgmental conversations between a teacher and a student about what (if anything) the student achieved in the week. We all know lesson time is precious because there just isn’t enough of it. But it is time well spent for students. Learning to self-reflect. Learning how to engage with sound. Learning to recognize how technique is tied to the sound produced. Learning to immerse themselves in a process that, when it goes well, can make an incredible difference.

Many years ago, I heard a friend joke that “you don’t need to practice if you just play
every day.” And I realized I finally had my answer to how I had made my progress.

Jennifer Griffin GaulJennifer Griffin Gaul is a US-based pianist and educator. She holds a Master of Music in piano pedagogy and performance from the University of Texas at Austin.

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