Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Practice Makes Perfect

Reference: Kurtz, G. (2007). Adagio and Fugue. Practicing: A musician’s return to music. New York: Vintage Books.

This book is a memoir by Glenn Kurtz, a classical guitarist who, upon graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music, realized that he was not cut out for a solo performing career. He gave up his instrument and eventually earned a PhD in comparative literature from Stanford University and taught at San Francisco State University. The book is a record of his reflections, as he rekindles his desire to make music.

The book begins with his first contact with music as a child, tagging along with his mother to an outdoor group guitar lesson in which two young men led students through the chords and lyrics of folksongs. The story of his musical life unfolds as he talks about his relationship to the guitar with a focus on his interaction with the instrument in the practice room. Inevitably, his musical experience is significantly shaped by relationships with those around him.

In “Adagio and Fugue”, Kurtz examines the phrase “practice makes perfect.” He has heard this said many times, as a child and as an adult, and wonders what the realization of “perfect” would look like. There also seems to be an added mystique about musical practice, and the discipline required is often marveled at. And yet, as Kurtz observed, people practice all kinds of things everyday---isn’t this what happens when one goes to work , or tries to bake a good cake? For Kurtz, “[d]iscipline is just the outward shape of…hopeful desire” (p. 47). Practice is working toward its fulfillment.

The younger Kurtz found the shape of his desire in a classical guitarist named Andrés Segovia. By the time Kurtz writes this book, he has come to realize that his goal had always been to become Segovia, whose ambition created a place for the guitar in concert halls. Segovia wanted to surpass those that came before him and was not content to play in the usual small venues in which his predecessors performed.

Reflecting on the influence of Segovia on his life, Kurtz shifts the focus of his goals:
The music never became mine because I played it to be Segovia….To be Segovia is not what I want now…Imitating Segovia I never learned what I could achieve. Now, freeing myself from his ideal, I’m forced to conceive a new one for myself. What would it mean for me to play perfectly now? (p. 48 & p. 50).

In reading Glenn Kurtz’s book, which is primarily a reflection on practicing, it becomes apparent that time spent in seeming solitude is not free from the influence of others. The voices and looming figures of family, teachers, celebrities, peers, etc. continue to exert themselves in the practice room.

Kurtz mentioned that he often heard the comment, “practice makes perfect”---something we have all arguably heard. One of my teachers once said that we’ll never play perfectly, but it’s something for which we perpetually aim. Musicianship operates within this classical music framework, with its assumption of a perfect entity continually implied into existence by those around us. In the absence of any concrete, tangible sense of “perfect,” it seems only natural that this quality is sought in another who becomes the person to emulate. As we see in Kurtz’s example, the result is an adoption of someone else’s goals, at times resulting in an inability to recognize and determine ones own objectives.

In a previous chapter, Kurtz describes the experience of seeing Segovia in concert, detailing the attention Segovia commanded despite his memory lapses. His adoration of Segovia is apparent: “The audience lurched upward in adulation….I turned to look at the crowd, taking in the euphoria…absorbing the heat rising from all this applause….At seventeen, how could I not dream this ovation was---or would someday be---for me?” (p. 39). Though Kurtz recognized Segovia’s fallibility, it seemed nothing could blur his image of perfection.

The audience also exerted an influence on Kurtz, as his desire to be Segovia became entangled in the possibility of affecting others, not just to share music with them, but to feel their adoring applause. His practice goals then, in being shaped by the larger-than-life figure of Segovia, are also inevitably guided by the possibility of commanding awe, and perhaps even devotion from listeners.

Each of us likely has a musical figure that we admire for one reason or another. As a young student, I was encouraged to listen to a number of pianists performing the pieces I was studying, deciding which interpretations I liked and figuring out why. It is easy to see how practicing can become an exercise in imitation. When you find what you like, work toward that pianist’s rendition of a piece.

Once evaluation enters the learning cycle, perfecting various styles can become increasingly important. Encouraging a student to participate in competitions might perpetuate this idea, as adjudicators state their interpretive preferences, or make comments like, “You did not play this in the Baroque style,” potentially discouraging creativity.

What is a teacher to do then, in order to allow students to take creative risks while informing them of performance practice? Already, I incorporate unstructured improvisation time during piano lessons, during which students can experiment with sounds, following their own thought process. At times, students are given some structure through the use of an underlying chord progression I provide, over which they improvise a melody.

I am also not opposed to teaching the “style” of a piece, subsequently having a student agree or disagree with the interpretation. “Breaking the rules” in performance is another issue though. Just recently, I overheard some students say that they feel they must play like “the recording” in order to obtain good marks. Determining one’s own unique goals remains a challenge within the widely-accepted norm.

No comments:

Post a Comment