VIDAS: Hi, guys. This is Vidas.
AUSRA: And Ausra.
V: Lets start with Episode 146 of #Ask Vidas and Ausra Podcast. This question was sent by Paul, and he writes:
I've been giving your question about practice much thought. I've been playing the prelude and postlude at my church now for several months and find I'm still getting nervous. I usually choose a hymn for the prelude and probably practice them 50+ times before I actually play because if my nerves get in my way, or I start to lose my place in the music, my hands will keep playing until I find myself. My schedule of playing was every other week, but I've asked to play two weeks in a row with one week off thinking that more time behind the console will be beneficial.
A couple months ago I took a European vacation and was not in church for 3 weeks and dearly missed my practice. When I returned to play, I felt I took a step backwards because my hands were shaking as I played. Too much time away from the organ!
You have taught me that slow practice is the key, but it's so hard to do sometimes because the inner battle says, "The faster you play, the more times you can practice this piece and you will learn if quicker". But it's just not true. You really do need to practice slowly to get the brain engaged to learn. I've been stuck on the Gigout Toccata for a few months. I can't quite get the whole piece to 1/2 speed (of 110 BBM) in practice. The slow practice in the beginning showed me I am able to play the first two pages at full tempo, and it happened quite naturally to my surprise. I've broken the piece in 4-measure increments and work on it almost every day.
It's one of those pieces that will make me feel like a "real organist" when I finally play it in public. But then I'm sure another piece will come up on my radar.
You and your wife's advice has been valuable and I'm so thankful I found you two. Thank you for what you do.
V: Ausra, aren’t we grateful that people are finding that their use of our resources are actually growing in their practice?
A: Yes! It is very nice to know that our advice helps someone to improve, and to know that we are able to help.
V: Of course this process and progress is not an overnight success.
A: I know. You must work on it.
V: How long, Ausra, did it take you to become an overnight success?
A: Overnight success? What do you mean by ‘overnight success’?
V: This is the term. It takes about 7 years to be an overnight success.
A: Well it took me more than 7 years to be a success. You know I have played piano since I was 5 years old. Now I’m 41 so count for yourself. And I still don’t feel that I am an overnight success.
V: This term probably comes from the book publishing. Sometimes by surprise the stellar comes upright and the media picks up and celebrates the author: ‘Oh, it’s a surprise overnight success. We didn’t know about this author until yesterday. And now he is a millionaire, or she is a millionaire. And the order comes and tens of thousands of copies of the book are sold. Bestseller, right? But this is simply not true. That author probably banged on the keyboard for many years before anybody even noticed him. Right?
V: Ten, sometimes even twenty years pass before someone published that book, and they never stopped, they never gave up. Ausra, do you have, sometimes, a wish to give up and stop practicing?
A: Well, certainly, of course.
A: No, No! Sometimes even I get depressed like anybody else, but you know – life.
V: What are you frustrated about in those moments?
A: There are many things, sometimes, you know. Sometimes I just feel tired, you know, and have health issues, and sometimes I don’t have anything else, and I won’t give up practicing. Sometimes I think I am not living my life because I am spending too much time on the organ. Different thoughts, different reasons, as everyone does as well.
V: Isn’t organ playing, for you, sometimes an escape from the troubles of the day?
A: Yes, but not always.
V: When the reality hits that you do have deadline to meet and you have to prepare a recital, it is not a hobby any longer, right? You ae a professional.
A: I know.
V: So I guess it is good for you to set a professional attitude for yourself. Then you feel all the motivation in the world to practice. You would feel responsible, and just like Paul writes, you could probably practice those hymns and preludes 50 plus times and it’s is not enough, probably.
A: I know, and to know that when he writes ‘the faster you play, the more times you can play them’, that is an incorrect way actually. It is better to play them fewer times and to play them slowly and correctly.
V: I have to be very honest here and to tell everybody that I have the same feeling that Paul does, all the time. I want to play everything at the speed of - light or sound - or perhaps at concert tempo, because it sounds better to me when I play it faster. The music is so natural when I play it faster. But, at the same time, in my mind I know that this is not the best way to practice because the slower you practice the more you notice the details, and the more you control the details, right Ausra?
A: Right. And though I hear musicians practicing like this, they play fast and the music stops, and then they slow down their tempo, and it gets harder. And I know that quite famous musicians do that. But I don’t think that is such a good method. Because, after all, it might be difficult to keep a steady tempo during your final performance.
V: I can remember now that in our student days in the practice rooms at the Academy, I heard people in the practice rooms banging the piano keyboard for hours. The same passage over and over again...
A: ...and not making progress!
V: And extremely fast.
A: It is the complete opposite of what they should do-it is like banging their head against the wall.
A: I know! I think the best way would be that it does not matter how many times you repeat a piece, or a certain hymn, or a certain passage for the piece. You must, each time, have some goal. It cannot be just repeating for repeating, repetition for repetition. That is not a good thing. I think you know the worst choir conductor is the one who makes his choir sing the same piece over and over again without setting goals. Then after a while, you are thinking, I have to do it again from the beginning, I must repeat it. But know that each time you must set some productive goal – it might be a little goal and on what you will focus when repeating this piece. This will make real progress fast. And give a purpose to your playing.
V: It is called intentional practice.
A: I know.
V: It takes 10 years to do that.
A: If you practice with an absent mind, it will be no work.
A: Yes, because your fingers and feet must still be controlled by your brain.
V: So guys, remember that it takes 10 thousand hours to of intentional practice to perfect any kind of skill. Take drawing, take painting, take writing – you know, a skilled writer, you have to write for 10 thousand hours. So if you can write 3 pages per hour – that’s reasonable, right? -- that is 30,000 pages of material you must write. So Paul, I think doesn’t need to despair with a lot of repetitions. You just have to be patient and enjoy the process, and not worry so much about the result.
A: And I am so glad to know about his Gigout Toccata, that he feels like a real organist while playing it. And I think, you know, with the next piece it might get a little bit easier, unless that new piece is really much harder than this Toccata. But if he should pick up this piece that is similar and not a lot harder than the Toccata. Don’t you think so?
V: Absolutely agree. And I think of micromanaging your progress every day or every hour and checking to see if you are better hour by hour. It is a little bit pointless, don’t you think, Ausra, because it is like planting a tree and then digging up your seedling every day to see if it has grown overnight.
A: I know. It’s what Karlsson who lived on the roof did. He planted the peach and every day he would dig it up to see if it had grown and it had not because it did not have the opportunity.
V: What you need to do guys is to forget about your progress for at least 6 months, and come back to the old piece that you have not been able to master 6 months ago, and then play it again and you can measure your true progress.
A: I know. It is just like teaching my students harmony. At the 10th grade we started it, and at the 12th grade they finish it. They say in 10th grade it’s so hard. And you know if you would look at the 11th graders or 12th graders and to ask them about the harmony that we had in the 10th grade we just make some laugh: ‘oh, it was so easy’. Wait until you get to the 10th grade, then it will really be hard.’ That’s the same with organ practice.
V: Even teenagers can understand it. So adults, especially motivated adults, have the mental capacity to understand the value of intentional practice, but without any rush, right? You have all the time in the world that you need. Some of us will live longer lives, some of us will live shorter. It doesn’t matter actually. What matters is that we sit down on the organ bench every single day. Just maybe for 15 minutes, or maybe a little more.
A: But you know if you take a European vacation as Paul did, don’t feel guilty that you did not practice for that time. We need to have vacations, too.
V: Yes, and when you come back from the vacation you can pick up from the start maybe from easier spot of course. Stop blaming yourself because you only live once.
A: That’s true.
V: Thank you guys. This is Vidas
A: And Ausra.
V: And remember: When you practice...
A: Miracles happen!
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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