The Balancing Act
My practice revelation came when I was a junior in high school. I was working on the Russian Dance from Petrushka for seating auditions in the (drumroll, please) All-State Orchestra. Every day, I’d sit down and start practicing with my metronome at 60, then gradually speed it up until I was at performance tempo. I’d feel good about it—I’d think I was making progress. But the next day, I’d try to see what I’d retained, and time and again, the answer was virtually nothing.
This cycle of one step forward, one step backward continued for a couple of weeks. I was starting to get, shall we say, frustrated? Distraught, perhaps. Demoralized, definitely. Then one of my (terrific) band directors recommended that I stick to one tempo per day, gradually increasing the metronome marking over a series of progressive practice sessions. That way, as I learned the passage at each day’s tempo, I wasn’t dependent on the process of starting slowly and speeding up. I increased the difficulty at a very slow rate and made sure I was confident at a single tempo every day.
This revolutionized my ability to learn difficult passages, but I took it too far. By the time I finished high school, I had reached a point where I felt I couldn’t play anything without starting very slowly and taking months to reach performance tempo…then, ideally, repeating the process to make sure I had really learned it. By doing this with everything I learned, I completely undermined my confidence in my ability to just play.
When I arrived at Curtis, one of the very first things I played for Bernard Garfield was one of his more difficult etudes (No. 20, to be exact). By that point, I had no idea how to learn something like it in a week. But the thing is, I could have done it if I had trusted myself. I could have practiced a narrow range of tempi every day—still slow, but allowing myself to inch up slightly over the course of each practice session. I could have assessed which passages I really needed to slow down, and which ones came more naturally. But I lacked a basic belief in my own abilities, so I insisted on coddling myself on every single note. I just didn’t have the time I thought I needed to learn something difficult, and I didn’t know how to compress my excessive practice regimen from months to a week. This was only the first of a series of challenges that would teach me the value of truly efficient, affirmative practice over the subsequent four years.
At the Met, I’ve played as many as six different operas in three days. Learning that much music requires the same peculiar balancing act. On one hand, one has to efficiently recognize and practice difficult passages, shining an unyielding light on things one can’t yet play. On the other hand, one has to do this in a way that increases (or at least maintains) confidence. In the practice room, the latter requires a delicate balance of self-awareness and practical considerations. More on that next time.