Mind the Gap
In my last post, I described how I got one paradigm-shifting piece of advice…and went completely overboard with it. The story of regaining my confidence in the practice room is one that continues to this day.
It boils down to what Ben Kamins refers to as “starting from a point of success.” The thing is, we all know how we want to play. We all have an ideal we’re striving toward. But every day, we’re confronted with the reality of where we currently stand, and that reality almost never aligns with our ideal. There will always be a gap between those two points—where we are and where we want to be—and the question of confidence is really the question of how we choose to approach that gap.
One extreme, which I chose in high school, is underestimating where one’s limit is, and approaching it as cautiously as possible. This approach killed my confidence. The other extreme leads to misplaced confidence: denying that there is any gap at all—going full speed ahead, hammering through the most difficult passages without any regard for the sounds that are coming out of the instrument. I think it goes without saying that this is also a pretty bad option.
The key is balancing right on the edge of one’s abilities, but always starting from that point of success. One has to begin with something one can do, and gradually push out of one’s comfort zone. I still find this hard, since I can’t leave something alone until it’s as good as I can play it. I prefer to stay in my comfort zone, even when nobody’s listening.
I want to be very clear: I’m not suggesting less slow practice, nor am I advocating less time spent methodically, sometimes painstakingly, working through difficult passages. Quite the opposite—I’m advocating a straightforward appraisal of one’s strengths and weaknesses, and an approach to the weaknesses that is at once honest and confidence-building. Oftentimes that means spending a lot of time in the practice room with the metronome, but we also have to recognize when we can trust our years of training.
Now, I had to put in the work sometime—not to the extreme that I did, but I still don't regret that phase of my development. But now, when I practice an etude, I don’t always go bar by bar at the slowest tempo I can stand. I've done that work (and then some). Because, you know what? It's kind of fun to start near my limit and see how far I can push myself today.