Guest post by Dr James Holden

I’ve always really enjoyed playing the piano. However, I’ve always avoided doing my piano practice. This spring I decided to put an end to that. I was particularly motivated by the start of the annual 100 Day Project, in which people commit to doing something creative for 100 days. I determined that my project would be to teach myself how to play Chopin’s Nocturne op. 27 no. 2, a piece I’ve always loved but lacked the impetus and dedication to learn. To do this, I committed myself to practising for at least 30 minutes every day. What’s more, I decided to make myself publicly accountable by streaming my practice sessions on my Twitch channel.

In case you’re not aware, Twitch is a streaming platform usually used by gamers to broadcast themselves playing videogames. However, it’s also used by artists and other creatives to stream their ongoing work. At any one time you can usually find several pianists playing live in the ‘Music & Performing Arts’ category. These players are often watched by hundreds of viewers as they perform arrangements of popular songs and other tunes, improvisations and more.

If these pianists are giving online concerts, they are less like modern concerts than they are nineteenth-century salon performances. Twitch allows real time interaction through a chat window which means that these pianist-streamers can engage with their audiences in real time between and even during pieces, and are therefore able to perform requests, respond to suggestions and otherwise chat with viewers.

My own Twitch streams are a little different. Firstly, my standard of playing is generally lower: I am an intermediate level amateur at best with limited repertoire (largely the result of my limited practice!). Secondly, I’m not attempting to give salon style performances. Instead, I’m ‘just’ broadcasting my daily piano practice.

Practice is normally private not public. It’s what precedes a performance; it’s not the performance itself. And yet, the simple act of streaming it on a public media platform means that my private practice does take on a performative aspect. Even if no one is watching – and that’s often the case on my channel – people could be watching. And that makes all the difference.

The performative aspect of my streams has necessarily altered my relationship to my practice. It has introduced an implied need to make it enjoyable to watch. This means, in the first place, choosing to work on a piece that will appeal quickly to viewers surfing between channels. The Chopin nocturne I’ve chosen is a beautiful work with relatively immediate appeal. However, it simply doesn’t have the mass recognition or popularity that a cover of a hit song would have. Secondly, the need to make my streams an enjoyable watch potentially risks altering how I practice. It feels as though I should play the work through coherently ‘in flow’ rather than working in a more deliberate, detailed fashion. It’s just not that much fun to watch someone play one bar over and over, or play a phrase slowed down to the point of unrecognizability. And yet, that is the kind of effort that is often required when practising.

On the plus side, Twitch’s interactivity means that it’s possible to get immediate positive reinforcement during practice. I was genuinely thrilled when a viewer typed in chat that my playing sounded good. The comment led me to think about the broader possibilities of learning on stream. I can imagine a practice session becoming something like an informal masterclass with knowledgeable viewers offering encouragement and advice.

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Given my chosen piece, I can’t help thinking about all these issues in relation to the Romantic virtuosos. Chopin himself, of course, was a brilliant performer but famously averse to giving large concerts. Perhaps he would have enjoyed playing in the privacy of his own home to an invisible public audience on Twitch. I’m not sure how he would have felt about making the private work of practice public though. I certainly know how the older Liszt would have felt. It’s probably true that during his years as a touring virtuoso the younger Liszt did much of his practice in public on the concert platform itself. However, in later life as the stern master of Weimar he was famously dismissive of pupils who displayed poor technique during his masterclasses, berating them with the declaration: “Wash your dirty linen at home!” I am literally counting ledger lines during my streams so am certainly, musically speaking, washing my dirty linen in public.

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Franz Liszt in concert in the 1840s

I’m only a short way into #the100dayproject. Despite the complications it has introduced, the decision to stream has already had several positive effects. Firstly, it has given me the necessary commitment to keep practising. My advertised stream schedule makes me publicly accountable for my practice in a way I’ve never been before, not even when I had lessons as a kid. I have, as a result, stuck to the task far more than I would have done otherwise, and my playing has genuinely improved as a result. I’ve certainly made solid progress with the nocturne. Whilst it’s true that I’m still stumbling over the more challenging passages and continue to play wrong notes, I at least play them better than I did before. It turns out that regular practice really does make a difference!

A second consequence of my decision to stream my practice is that I now have a video archive of my progress. I can compare the video of my day 1 stream with, say, that of my day 21 stream and quickly see the progress. This is a source of positive reinforcement that offers continued motivation when things seem challenging. More immediately, the fact that Twitch makes streams available as VODs means that I can watch myself back straight after I finish my practice. I can listen to my playing divorced from the act of playing itself, which means I can hear things much more clearly. The critical reflection for which this allows feeds back into my following practice sessions.

Thirdly, I have become somewhat used to the idea of others watching me play (if not perform exactly) – which was a rare occurrence before. In particular, I’m more accustomed now to the idea of people seeing me struggle with a piece and play wrong notes. I’ve had to get over any embarrassment about my lack of technical ability or competence, and my playing is probably becoming freer as a result. I think, overall, that streaming is making me more forgiving of my mistakes.

I’m excited about where my 100 Day Project is heading. I’m certainly looking forward to hearing the improvements I’m sure to make in the days and weeks ahead, and to exploring new pieces alongside my current choice of nocturne.

I’ll be streaming my practice on my Twitch channel at 6pm UK time for about 30 minutes every evening until I reach day 100. It’d be great if you could tune in, say hi in the chat and give me some encouragement. Please do give the channel a follow whilst you’re there too. Can’t make it at 6pm? Don’t worry, you can always find videos of all of my previous practice sessions, so do stop by.


James Holden is an independent writer and academic. He is a Lisztian, a Proustian and a Nerd. He is currently streaming his piano practice every day at 6pm on his Twitch channel. Find out more about his work and publications on his website. You can also follow his progress on Twitter and Instagram.

Guest post by Jack Kohl

Piano practice is like having a dog. If one has lived long enough with such an unnecessary but at the same time critical circumstance, one wonders how others live without it. Thus even when concert work figuratively dies for me – when I have no cause to go to the piano for considerable stretches of time – my hours and days are still ruled by its compulsion, just as my life continues to be a ruled by a dog who has recently passed away. I rise before I need to rise, for fear that he who is now only a ghost may need to go for his walk.

And when I do not practice, my mind is still hounded by the Liszt Sonata in B Minor. I think about it, and it still influences my daily conduct even when I have no obligation to the quality of its sonic or physical recreation.

It is always the ghost dog, the Man’s Best Friend, of my midnight walks in my village near New York. But in the case of the sonata, it is I who is led by a mystic tether. One’s walks are then guided by the unseen, as one is pulled away from the obvious and straight courses of sidewalks and streets – sent overland and over-yard to any shrub or tree that beckons.

The Liszt Sonata pulls me that way. It is the piece I practice even when I do not practice, when I do not listen to its recordings, when I do not consult its text, when I do not hear it in red velvet recital halls. Only after all these activities are in the past does the best part of music study take effect. The Liszt Sonata in B Minor influences my conduct beyond my responsibilities as a pianist – and acts as a reference point for my ethical and practical choices. For it is the principal tuitional grist I carry about in my conscience, the principal written record from another mind that I consult outside of my own stake in the great pool of Reason.

I discovered Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor in my early teens, when an itinerant uncle stored his records in the family home. From out of his crates I pulled Agustin Anievas’ LP recording of the work. I was made a pure apostle after one hearing. By age twenty I first performed the Sonata. And nearly thirty years later, just this past summer, I made a study of all the commercial recordings of the piece I could find. My survey placed Krystian Zimmerman’s recording among those at the top, as this clip will demonstrate:
But how does a piece of musical abstraction influence my conduct and beliefs?
So much has been written about the sonata that I will only pause at the doors of the temple to make my case as to its personal influence. I cite only the two complementary descending scales delivered in the opening bars: G-F-Eb-D-C-Bb-Ab (bars 2 – 3); and G-F#-Eb-D-C#-Bb-A (bars 5 – 6). Even one with rudimentary piano skill can easily play these two scales. We need not give the theoretical names usually applied to them, nor the precise registers or rhythms of their rendering in the score. The notes alone will do. The Liszt sonata is the sole work in which I find the subtle yet vast potential of modality to be nothing less than a suggestive miracle.

Note the static letter names shared by the two scales. But the astounding chromatic differences between the pair steal across the ear like the founding of a Faith! The two scales stand in analogy to translations. Of late in my runs in the woods I have thought that a translation is like a bushwhacked path that lies near and parallel to a blazed and groomed trail. The blazed path is the original; the parallel bushwhack trail is the translation. For the latter has the same course and distance as the former, but it forces leaps and jumps and differences upon a run of the same aim. One trail is in the language of man; the other is in the tongue of deer hooves. Or perhaps the bushwhack trail, with all its roughness and peculiar meanings, is the original.

The opening scales of the Liszt sonata are like such parallel trails; they are translations of one another. Yet they are both utterances of an abstraction. They are as translations wherein neither one nor the other is necessarily the original. The comparison of this pair in succession is the only passage in music that makes me cock my head like the RCA Victrola dog – and really mean it. But whose is the master’s voice I recognize?

There is vast debate in the historical literature as to whether the Liszt sonata follows a program. But if even just these opening scales fuel a thrall in the private mind that neither the one nor the other is the original, could the listener or player, then, via the most careful attention, identify with the impersonal scales in a proprietary spiritual sense? Is Liszt’s greatest achievement as a programmatic composer, as a tone poet, his mastery over a musical second-person language? Does he invoke sublime generosity? Does he tell your mind’s intellectual program over his motivic foundation?

And thus in making it uncertain which of the paired scales is the gold standard and which is the paper, does one start to feel the stirrings of a reassurance, that the body is not a mere original for a hoped-for spiritual complement?

By making the original of something in music uncertain – the same in letter-names, but different in exquisitely slight and magically chromatic ways – perhaps I have more faith that a mystic counterpart is also sure to follow or precede or coexist with my fleshy self? My body shares the same space with an enharmonic ghost? My modal soul shares the same space with a carbon shape? When I am outside of the temple doors again at the sonata’s end, and hear the final utterance of these scales, I feel no fear of the grave.
There is something of the better-or-worse optometrist’s question in these first two scales. One is still looking at the same chart of letters as both scales go by in the sonata’s opening, but Liszt is figuratively flipping the lenses on the same letters, on the same row in the chart – inviting one to look at a group of finite symbols through shifting chromatic prescriptions. “Sit still,” Liszt sayeth. “Yet I will make things grow within, though they seem to shift without whilst keeping their identities.”

There are intuitional means by which one may grapple with mortality. But the Liszt sonata is the only source of guidance from tuitional means that has reconciled me soundly to an end – to dissolution as necessary, in manner beautiful, part of the process of gaining comprehensive and ultimate humility.


mj_kohlJack Kohl is a writer and pianist living in the New York City area. He is the author of That Iron String (A Novel of Pianists vs. Music), Loco-Motive (A Novel of Running), and the forthcoming You, Knighted States (An American Descendentalist Western), all from The Pauktaug Press.

www.jacksonkohl.com

This post is inspired by an article on the Terribleminds blog of Chuck Wendig, a novelist, screen writer and games designer, which I found on Twitter. Although the original article is about the habit and practice of writing, I found much of what Chuck says chimes with the musician’s routines and practice of practising.

Practising is a habit. If we are serious about our music, our progress with our repertoire and our technical and artistic development, we need to establish good and regular practising habits, as regular as cleaning one’s teeth. No one, not even professional musicians at the top of the game, is born with an innate talent which negates the need to practice and to hone one’s skills. Regular practice equals noticeable progress.

The days when you don’t feel like practising are the days on which you should be practising. Even it it’s nothing, or it’s awful, or you feel you achieve little, it’s important to do it, to prove you can still do it, and that you are constantly feeding the artistic temperament, whetting the gears, keeping the grass growing.

The activity of playing and practising creates momentum. There is negative momentum in not practising. Miss a day, or two days, or three, and you might start to wonder why you bothered in the first place, whether this activity really for you? You stop being a pianist and turn into Not A Pianist. The more you don’t do it, the harder it becomes to convince yourself that you should be doing it, and the more likely you are to procrastinate.

Fight inertia with activity. Go and practise! Practising is energising. The physical activity of playing the piano releases endorphins, the same ‘happy hormones’ which produce that feel-good glow that comes from a good training session, or a race well run.

You could argue that forcing yourself to practise will be counter-productive. Believe me, it’s not. Even if you’re just doodling, improvising, playing chords, scales, cadences, it’s the act of doing that is important. When I was learning to drive, as an adult in my early 30s, my instructor told me to get as much time at the wheel as possible, whether I was practising three-point turns or simply experiencing the activity of driving. Piano practise is the same – and you don’t have to be working on set repertoire to be doing useful practising.

Practising is an act of doing, creating, living with the music. It defines who we are as musicians and gives us a reason for being. Live and breathe your work, begin every practise session with the question “What can I do that’s different today?”. Feel excited and stimulated by your music. Fall in love with it.

Remind yourself that it is a huge privilege to be allowed to play these great works, works that rank alongside Aristotle and Shakespeare in their magnitude and importance. One can feel like a conservator, or a gardener, taking responsibility for them, sharing them with others. It is a cultural gift, a gift to oneself, and a gift to those who love to listen to the piano.

On the days when it’s hard to practise, that’s when it’s most important to practise.

The days when you don’t feel like writing

1. Practice within your scope of ability

In the words of Robert Schumann, “Endeavour to play easy pieces well and with elegance; that is better than to play difficult pieces badly.” In other words, know your limits and keep within them. You may want to learn the Mephisto Waltz, but if you are not technically, physically or intellectually ready for it, you will feel frustrated.

2. Record and film yourself.

Recording and filming practice and performance is a crucial tool in evaluating how we are progressing. Our music sounds different when heard away from the piano. Never listen to a recording as soon as you’ve made it: wait a few days and then listen. Be positively critical and assess what you like and dislike about your performance. Make notes on your recording in your score or practice diary, away from the piano.

Don’t just listen once. Use repeated listenings to evaluate aspects such as rhythm, intonation, tone quality, expression, dynamic range.

A video is helpful for checking posture (in particular stiff or raised shoulders), gestures and mannerisms, grimacing/smiling, and stage presence.

3. E is for Excellence

When we practice, whatever we are practising, we should aim for ease, expressiveness, accuracy, rhythmic vitality, beautiful tone quality, focused attention. Do not play forcefully through difficult passages or at a tempo which is beyond us.

4. Mistakes are helpful!

Errors highlight gaps in our preparation, providing crucial feedback. Remember – there is a ‘perfect wrong note’! Isolate the problems, understand why they happened, and strive to solve them so they do not occur again.

5. Ask others for feedback

The views of teachers, mentors, colleagues and friends are all useful. Get into the habit of playing for others and actively seek their feedback. What did they like or dislike about the performance? We should ask others to critique not just our playing but also programme notes, concert attire, stagecraft and presentation skills. Take on board all comments and do not be perturbed by negative feedback; rather, use it positively to improve the performance.

6. Don’t cloud the vision

Most of us engage in music because we care passionately about it and love what we do. However, when evaluating our work, it is important to retain a degree of detachment, to stand back from the music and view it dispassionately, as if reviewing someone else’s performance.

Consider what you liked and disliked about this or that phrase, the ornamentation, dynamic colour, expressiveness, phrasing, use of rubato, etc.