Friday, June 11, 2010

How long does it take to learn a piece?

Yesterday, I had a long conversation with one of my students, who is a graduating senior. In fall, he will go to college to study music education. 
He discovered music comparatively late, and much of his piano playing is self taught. He has great ears, and through immense commitment and many hours at the piano, he got his fingers to reproduce the music - the melodies, the harmonies. He is fascinated by Glenn Gould, and he likes to play fast.
His deficiencies in reading music have been a grievance to him and to his teachers. Being a good reader does not automatically open the ear and the heart for the music, but for a poor reader, it is difficult to find the subtle messages composers convey in the score. 
My student is working hard to catch up. Most of all, he hopes that improving his reading will make him learn faster. “There is all this great music I want to play, and I want to be really good,” he said, “It takes me so long to learn something.”
How long does it take to explore and to own a work of great art? We talked about that. You can read a play by Shakespeare, a novel by Tolstoi in a couple of weeks, but trying to “understand” their true meaning is a task for a lifetime. It is the same in music, where the truth is communicated through the way you play. 
Decoding a musical score requires meticulous attention to the details and endless patience, looking for ways to produce the sound you hear in your mind. You need to absorb yourself in the work to a point where “real time” disappears. 
The process of exploring the work sets the pace, and that’s the only thing that counts. As you return to the piece at different times of your life, you’re bound to find something that you didn’t notice before. You never come to an end, and that’s the beauty of it. 
At this point of his life, it is difficult for my student to imagine that he might work on a piece for a year. Despite the demands of a curriculum, I hope he will have the chance to explore his own pace of learning in college.  He was open to the idea of growing from a musical athlete into a musical artist - a performer who becomes a medium for the truth conveyed through works of great art.

1 comment:

  1. Well said, Birgit. Previous teachers have discouraged me from revisiting works that I have previously attempted, saying that I will "burn out" on revisitation, and delay the advancement of my skills by failing to attempt new material. I haven't found that to be the I always bring an expanded knowledge base, new skills, and new sensibilities to the piece on revisitation..........hence, it is like visiting and old friend, but with a new awareness of what the piece was all about. If I feel like I am "burning out", I back away, put it on the back burner, and revisit it sometime in the future. I highly recommend it as a way to keep drawing new meaning out of great works of music.

    Bob Smith