Practicing at the Right Tempo

My college piano teacher was disgusted by the way I practiced. Instead of stopping immediately when I made a mistake, I would keep playing the piece with the intent of avoiding the error the next time through. She pointed out that I was actually learning the mistakes instead of the correct notes. It was all she could do to get me to stop, go back to a logical starting point in the music, and play it again – and this was important – slowly enough that I wouldn’t/couldn’t make the mistake again. And this was to be repeated, at a gradually increasing pace, until I could play it at proper tempo. We never discussed why I made the mistake unless it was truly a matter of technique – the solution was always to slow down.

I haven’t played piano in decades, but it’s still true – learning to do something well requires practicing at the right pace.

In scheduling my days, it’s tempting to look outside myself for the right tempo rather than determining what it should be based on how well I am performing the composition that is my life. In a culture that considers busyness not only the norm but a badge of honor, it’s easy to become so focused on efficiency and productivity – on go go go and more more more – that overreaching oneself and the subsequent loss of quality becomes expected and accepted. I often hear busy bragged about then offered as an excuse in the same breath. I’ve done it myself. But it never feels good to say. Those missed notes nag at me, feed my guilty conscience, and remind me to Slow Down.

Practice also requires discipline. Not the punitive sort, but the kind associated with the Latin origin of the word: teaching and learning. In carrying out whatever I’ve planned for my time with intention and focus, I am practicing. In paying attention to the mistakes, stopping rather than ignoring them, I am learning. I am a Time Disciple.

I tend to be hard on myself about how I use my time, but punishing myself for my errors does nothing to help me improve. Nor does trying to play far beyond my current ability – that just results in more fumbled fingerings and, if I foolishly persist, learning those mistakes until I’ve gotten really good at them. Such habits are difficult to unlearn and require slowing down even more to replace them with better patterns. At a practical level, in the end speeding up is often not nearly as efficient as it seems at the outset. It’s like that common business adage: If you don’t have time to do it right the first time, when are you going to have time to do it over?

What helps me to improve is practice: regularly and consistently sitting down at the piano, going through my scales and arpeggios [the basics], and then playing my chosen song at the tempo just this side of fumbled fingerings, every day nudging the metronome slightly closer to the composition’s intended speed.

And I’m confident the song of my life has its own proper tempo. It’s slower than many people’s, faster than some others. My goal is not to play with ever greater speed until my life feels like The Flight of the Bumble Bee. No, I’m somewhere between the Clair de Lune and some bright piece of Mozart.

Like most everyone, I’d love to be able to sit down at the piano and play beautifully just as I’d love for my days to be an effortless flow of completed tasks and achieved goals. But, of course, that’s not how it works. As any accomplished musician or athlete will tell you, you have to practice. A lot. Even when all that repetition gets tedious and you have to play so slowly it barely sounds like music anymore…

Patience, Grasshopper, I tell myself. Practice, discipline, and patience.


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Third Hand Works

from overwhelmed to ready for anything | organization and time management for people in their "right" minds | administrative guidance for independent creative professionals [more info]



© 2008 Cairene MacDonald, Third Hand Works. All Rights Reserved.

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