How the Cream of the Crop Practices

Excerpted from Dr. Noa Kageyama’s article in Bulletproof Musician.

As my kids were (begrudgingly) practicing their Tae Kwon Do patterns the other night, I caught myself telling my oldest that he had to do his pattern five times before returning to his video game.

My goal, of course, was not for him to go through the motions of his pattern five times like a pouty zombie, but to do it one time with good form and authority. But the parent in me finds it very reassuring to know that a certain number of repetitions or time has gone into something. Beyond the (erroneous) assumption that this will automagically solidify his skills somehow, it feels like a path to greater discipline, and a way to instill within my kids some sort of work ethic that will serve them well in the future.

Some degree of time and repetition is necessary to develop and hone our skills, of course. But we also know on some intuitive level that to maximize gains, we ought to practice “smarter, not harder.”

But what the heck does that really mean anyway? What exactly do top practicers do differently?

Pianists learning Shostakovich

A group of researchers led by Robert Duke of The University of Texas at Austin conducted a study several years ago to see if they could tease out the specific practice behaviors that distinguish the best players and most effective learners.

Seventeen piano and piano pedagogy majors agreed to learn a 3-measure passage from Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The passage had some tricky elements, making it too difficult to sight read well, but not so challenging that it couldn’t be learned in a single practice session.

The setup

The students were given two minutes to warm up, and then provided with the 3-measure excerpt, a metronome, and a pencil.

Participants were allowed to practice as long as they wanted, and were free to leave whenever they felt they were finished. Practice time varied quite a bit, ranging from 8 1/2 minutes to just under 57 minutes.

To ensure that the next day’s test would be fair, they were specifically told that they may NOT practice this passage, even from memory, in the next 24 hours.

When participants returned the following day for their test, they were given 2 minutes to warm up, and then asked to perform the complete 3-measure passage in its entirety without stopping, 15 times (with pauses between attempts, of course).

Each of the pianists’ performances were then evaluated on two levels. Getting the right notes with the right rhythm was the primary criteria, but the researchers also ranked each of the pianists’ performances from best to worst, based on tone, character, and expressiveness.

That led to a few interesting findings:

1. Practicing longer didn’t lead to higher rankings.
2. Getting in more repetitions had no impact on their ranking either.
3. The number of times they played it correctly in practice also had no bearing on their ranking.

What did matter was:

1. How many times they played it incorrectly. The more times they played it incorrectly, the worse their ranking tended to be.
2. The percentage of correct practice trials did seem to matter. The greater the proportion of correct trials in their practice session, the higher their ranking tended to be.

The top 8 strategies

Three pianists’ performances stood out from the rest, and were described as having “more consistently even tone, greater rhythmic precision, greater musical character (purposeful dynamic and rhythmic inflection), and a more fluid execution.”

Upon taking a closer look at the practice session videos, the researchers identified 8 distinct practice strategies that were common to the top pianists, but occurred less frequently in the practice sessions of the others:

1. Playing was hands-together early in practice.
2. Practice was with inflection early on; the initial conceptualization of the music was with inflection.
3. Practice was thoughtful, as evidenced by silent pauses while looking at the music, singing/humming, making notes on the page, or expressing verbal “ah-ha”s.
4. Errors were preempted by stopping in anticipation of mistakes.
5. Errors were addressed immediately when they appeared.

[Top Three Strategies of the top three perfomers, below.]

6. The precise location and source of each error was identified accurately, rehearsed, and corrected.
7. Tempo of individual performance trials was varied systematically; logically understandable changes in tempo occurred between trials (e.g. slowed things down to get tricky sections correct).
8. Target passages were repeated until the error was corrected and the passage was stabilized, as evidenced by the error’s absence in subsequent trials.

What’s the common thread that ties these together?

The researchers note that the most striking difference between the top three pianists and the rest, was how they handled mistakes. It’s not that the top pianists made fewer mistakes in the beginning and simply had an easier time learning the passage.

The top pianists made mistakes too, but they managed to correct their errors in such a way that helped them avoid making the same mistakes over and over, leading to a higher proportion of correct trials overall.

And one to rule them all

The top performers utilized a variety of error-correction methods, such as playing with one hand alone, or playing just part of the excerpt, but there was one strategy that seemed to be the most impactful.

Slowing things down.

After making a mistake, the top performers would play the passage again, but slow down or hesitate – without stopping – right before the place where they made a mistake the previous time.

This seemed to allow them to play the challenging section more accurately, and presumably coordinate the correct motor movements at a tempo they could handle, rather than continuing to make mistakes and failing to identify the precise nature of the mistake, the underlying technical problem, and what they ought to do differently in the next trial.


The New York Times: Is Music the Key to Success?

What do the most successful, highly-respected people of their fields have in common?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE trained to be a concert pianist. Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, was a professional clarinet and saxophone player. The hedge fund billionaire Bruce Kovner is a pianist who took classes at Juilliard.

The connection isn’t a coincidence. I know because I asked. I put the question to top-flight professionals in industries from tech to finance to media, all of whom had serious (if often little-known) past lives as musicians. Almost all made a connection between their music training and their professional achievements.

The phenomenon extends beyond the math-music association. Strikingly, many high achievers told me music opened up the pathways to creative thinking. And their experiences suggest that music training sharpens other qualities: Collaboration. The ability to listen. A way of thinking that weaves together disparate ideas. The power to focus on the present and the future simultaneously.

Look carefully and you’ll find musicians at the top of almost any industry. Woody Allen performs weekly with a jazz band. The television broadcaster Paula Zahn (cello) and the NBC chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd (French horn) attended college on music scholarships; NBC’s Andrea Mitchell trained to become a professional violinist. Both Microsoft’s Mr. Allen and the venture capitalist Roger McNamee have rock bands. Larry Page, a co-founder of Google, played saxophone in high school. Steven Spielberg is a clarinetist and son of a pianist. The former World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn has played cello at Carnegie Hall.

“I’ve [Chuck Todd] always believed the reason I’ve gotten ahead is by outworking other people,” he says. It’s a skill learned by “playing that solo one more time, working on that one little section one more time,” and it translates into “working on something over and over again, or double-checking or triple-checking.” He adds, “There’s nothing like music to teach you that eventually if you work hard enough, it does get better. You see the results.”

That’s an observation worth remembering at a time when music as a serious pursuit — and music education — is in decline in this country.

Consider the qualities these high achievers say music has sharpened: collaboration, creativity, discipline and the capacity to reconcile conflicting ideas. All are qualities notably absent from public life. Music may not make you a genius, or rich, or even a better person. But it helps train you to think differently, to process different points of view — and most important, to take pleasure in listening.

Read the full article linked below.
Source: The New York Times (Sunday Review, Op-Ed): Is Music the Key to Success?

Private piano lessons- Millersville / Severna Park

Studio Musica Vita is a private piano studio new to the Millersville / Severna Park area–will be moved in by September 1, 2013! Contact us to reserve a timeslot in the studio for the new school year.

Owner/teacher has over 20 years of piano experience, holds a BM in Piano Performance from the University of Maryland at College Park, and is a member of the Music Teachers National Association, Maryland State Music Teachers Association, and the Greater Laurel Music Teachers Association. She currently performs with several ensembles in the DC Metro area.

Students of all ages and backgrounds accepted, after a placement interview. Lessons start at $35/half-hour.

Exciting news & policy changes

In a letter recently sent out to all current and prospective students:

Dear ever-hardworking students and parents,

As many of you know, my husband and I have found a suitable single family home in a great, centrally located neighborhood which we can base the piano studio and our family out of for (hopefully) years to come! We are very excited about the upcoming move, and finally at a point in the process where we can share the address with you. It is right off of MD-32, near MD-32/I-97 (near Ft. Meade/Odenton).

My new address, as of August 28, will be:
Millersville, MD 21108

With this comes a change in studio management which I’ve been debating for quite some time now. I would like to start phasing out in-home lessons; ideally, by October 1st, everyone will be coming to the studio for their lessons. This frees up a lot of my time from driving, and allows me to teach more students–and the more students our studio has, the more fun group/social activities we could provide for our children! For most of you that will be affected by this change in policy, I have already discussed this with you after lessons recently. Please let me know any concerns or questions you may have pertaining to anything!

Just to give an idea of how this works: there shall be the main studio area, where the lesson will be taught. As per studio policy, parents are strongly encouraged to sit in on the lesson to be able to help their children’s practice efforts at home. There will be a separate waiting room (complete with TV, books, study table, seating, and eventually a computer) in which the next family can wait if they arrive early, or for a sibling to wait and be able to do homework while waiting for their turn.

Also, there will be a housewarming sometime in September, which you are all invited to, so keep an eye out for that e-mail with details!

Hope everyone’s summers have been fantastic and continues to be relaxing for just a few more weeks,
See you all soon,

Sviatoslav Richter & Maurice Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso (from Miroirs)

“I am not a complete idiot, but whether from weakness or laziness have no talent for thinking. I know only how to reflect: I am a mirror . . . Logic does not exist for me. I float on the waves of art and life and never really know how to distinguish what belongs to the one or the other or what is common to both. Life unfolds for me like a theatre presenting a sequence of somewhat unreal sentiments; while the things of art are real to me and go straight to my heart.”
–Sviatoslav Richter

Richter was a famous Soviet pianist of the 20th century, born in Zhytomyr, Ukraine. I had a chance to read and watch his biography, “Richter: The Enigma”, a while ago (done by Bruno Monsaingeon). He seemed like quite a character: intensely private, he never discussed his personal life until Monsaingeon convinced him to relent during his later years (in fact, the last year of his life); he had some unconventional views concerning performances; he disliked airplanes and traveled to his venues by train or ship whenever possible; disliked the studio recording process (in fact, according to his biography, even disliked being recorded talking); and did not maintain students (or perhaps had very few, I don’t remember exactly) due to his being such a natural pianist that he felt if he had to analyze his own technique in order to explain it, he would surely lose it in Heisenberg fashion.

From reading his biography and watching the documentary… I think I would have found him a most sincere man; I wish I could have met him. If you get a chance, you should watch the documentary too.

Miroirs (translated as ‘Reflections’) is a solo piano suite (of five pieces) written by Maurice Ravel around 1905. Each piece is dedicated to a fellow member of an Impressionistic group ‘Les Apaches.’ Ravel had joined Les Apaches (‘Hooligans’) around 1900; the artistic group is comprised of artists, poets, critics, and musicians. Alborada del Gracioso (#4) translates as the morning love song (alborada) of a medieval jester (gracioso). Aubades (as they are called in English), are usually the material of medieval troubadours, usually where the lyrics revolved around unrequited love. As one can hear in the piece, there are the sprightly major sections that sandwich a mournful minor section. Spanish influence pervades the music.

Miroirs (Reflections)
1. Noctuelles (Night Moths)
2. Oiseaux Tristes (Sad Birds)
3. Une Barque sur l’Ocean (A Boat on the Ocean)
4. Alborada del Gracioso (The Spanish Court Jester’s Aubade)
5. La Vallée des Cloches (The Valley of Bells)

David Byrne: How Architecture Helped Music Evolve

Here’s a music TEDtalk after the last few which were not related to music much.

Byrne, a musician who came into the international spotlight around the 1980s as the vocalist/guitarist for rock band Talking Heads, has performed at many venues. In the short lecture, he talks about his thoughts on how space and acoustics of architecture has influenced music throughout history. He also ties in a reference to Attenborough’s nature shows, where birds also change their songs depending on environment as well. (I can link later to an NPR talk about how the same species of birds will change their song when moved from a rural setting to an urban setting. Check back for that!)

Glenn Gould & J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations (1981)

Of legendary status is the 1981 studio recording of Glenn Gould performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It is a piece for solo piano, consisting of an aria + 30 variations. In the musical world, variations is a compositional technique where the composer takes a musical idea/theme and alters it in some particular way in each variation. These can be changes to, or variations on melody, harmony, composition, counterpoint, and so on.

Bach’s Goldberg Variations revolves around the bass line and chord progression introduced in the Aria. One can refer to the skeleton of the structure of harmony here: [Form of BWV 988]
Along with the score of the variations (download here), one can see that the harmony from variation to variation follows true to this skeleton–even though the rhythmic and melodic material change each time.

Glenn Gould’s interpretation of the set is wonderfully light, refreshing, clear, and raw. The clarity with which one can follow all the melodic lines woven together is something to strive for, not only in this piece, but in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (Fugues, especially) and Inventions as well. Once again, I have linked a recording in which one can study Gould’s technique and way of achieving such tone. That being said, I would like to add this warning to the ambitious who may want to emulate Gould’s piano technique:

The height of one’s seat at the piano is determined by the position of the elbows, which should not be below the level of the keyboard to avoid introducing too much weight into the playing. Sitting much lower prevents the pianist from using the weight of his upper body. (I am convinced that Glenn Gould was able to play the way he did not because of his abnormally low sitting position but in spite of it. It certainly has not worked as well for some of his emulators.) People with a small build in particular may need every ounce of their upper body weight to produce a powerful and full sound. On the other hand, sitting too high may invite shallow playing, with fingers not reaching to the depth of the keys.
–Boris Berman, Notes from the Pianist’s Bench, pg.30

That being said, Watch and Listen on! Best done in a quiet room, in a quiet mood. For the uninitiated, a second warning: Glenn Gould is a character; among many of his odd habits, ‘humming’ and ‘hurring’ along while he plays is common.

J. S. Bach – Goldberg Variations
00:00 – 06:34 Interview with Glenn Gould
06:34 – 58:56 Goldberg Variations