Technique: its mental, too.

Lately I have been thinking: what makes a virtuoso player, well, virtuoso?  Talent?  Hard work?  Natural physical ability?  Crazy fingers?  This question is always on my mind, because technique is something that I have struggled with for nearly my entire musical career..  While I was at Eastman, I often felt like I had to work significantly harder on it than my peers.  Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure this is because I didn’t have a strong technical foundation when I was younger – I took only about a year of lessons in high school, and even then I barely practiced.  Actually, I was the student that I hate having now – always coming to my lessons not prepared.  But I definitely had a natural ability over most of the other kids in band because I was at the top of the pack, while putting in minimal effort (albeit it was a rather mediocre pack, LOL!).

That all changed when I got to college – all of the sudden I was thrown into weekly lessons where I was actually accountable for my preparedness (grades).  So I finally practiced on a consistent level!  While I was doing my masters degree at Eastman I was absolutely amazed with the work ethic of some of the freshman kids.  I was definitely not like that when I was a freshman (I believe I even ditched a lesson or two…)  Anyways, fast forward a couple years – I became involved in an orchestra that is no longer in existence.  But I ended up playing with some really good players…really good players, and I truly realized how out of my league I was.  If I was to make this a career, I had a very long way to go.  I actually had a slight identity crisis…I even considered changing majors.  Good thing I didn’t.

I didn’t truly get into major technical practicing (scales, scalebooks, etc.) until I started lessons with Abby.  I took lessons with her over the summer in 2005 to get ready for my senior recital in the fall (Dr. Lawson didn’t teach over the summer).  At my first lesson, she told me to get the Baermann Volume 3.  We ended up working on that plus Rose 32 for the majority of the summer!  I immediately felt the impact of working through these books.  I had done Rose 32 for years, but not the way I did with her!  From that summer forward, I realized the how important scales and technical exercises were…and I have done them on a daily basis since.

Anyway, fast forward (again) 5 almost 6 years (!!) to now.  I still feel like technique is a struggle even though I’ve done a milliondy different scales/exercises on a daily basis.  I have been thinking…is there more here that just physical finger technique?  Hmmm…my thoughts went to my teaching – one of my students has issues reading music while she plays.  Its not about recognizing notes/rhythms, its about paying attention to what’s on the page.  When she focuses and reads the music and looks ahead to what’s coming she can play almost anything.  She surprises me (and herself!) often.  The problem is that she hardly ever is 100% focused.  Its only when I remind her to look ahead that she actually plays accurately.  It doesn’t make a difference if it is something she is familiar with or something we are sight-reading.  Our most recent lesson, I discovered that she also mentally sabotaging herself – I asked her to try to play a piece we were working on at a tempo well beyond where she had practiced.  She looked at me and said “I can’t do it that fast!”  I told her to forget about what she thinks she can/can’t do and just play it (not try – just do).  I told her to keep looking ahead and play it like she’s seeing it for the first time.  Guess what – she played it near perfectly at a tempo much beyond what she thought she could do.  Driving home that day, I realized I need to take my own advice!  I often don’t look ahead while reading music (which may be why I’m not as good at sight reading as I’d like to be), and I also often mentally defeat myself before a technical passage.  I need to ask myself to do the same that I’m asking my student – to let go.  Ding!  Light bulb!

In light of this new revelation (and since I have nothing else to practice!), I have been working on a lot out of the Didier Scale book (volume 1)  I got this book a few years ago at the request of a teacher that I took Eb lessons with and we never used it (which annoyed me a little, the book cost $50 and was pretty hard to find!).  Basically, it goes through all the keys in different patterns such as scales in 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, 7ths, and octaves.  It also has V7 chords and vii7 in each key.  Also some crazy arpeggiations of the tonic (or as my sister would say, crasy).  Needless to say, its very challenging to play and to read – especially when the leaps are more than a 5th!.  I do one key per day, playing through them at eighth note = 80, and then again at quarter note = 80.  I use the faster tempo to practice “reading ahead”.  I try to aim for perfection through the practice of reading the music, not by sheer repetition.  I am also keeping things fun by doing Rose etudes, a slow one for musicality and endurance, and a fast one pushing the speed to uncomfortable level and trying to read ahead better.  So far, I think it is helping.

Till next time…
and oh yeah, 66 days left!

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