Friday, January 25, 2013


My students and I are working on dynamics.

The kids I started a little over two years ago, they have a nice set of pieces under their belts by now. I love how they have progressed. I think they have learned to trust me and do what I say. And I am learning not to work too quickly, and to be very specific about how and what to practice. I am also learning, increasingly, to practice musicality and sound every bit as much as we practice fingerings and bowings.

And Tuesday in class we pretty much drilled dynamics.

Forte, piano, crescendo, decrescendo.

“Okay, parents, did the bottom drop out when we got to the echo?” Almost, but not quite.

“Okay, you guys, let’s really make them sit up and wonder what’s going on! Let’s try it again.” Let’s take their breath away.

And I love how good they’re getting at loud and soft.

*       *      *

One of the most important things I learned about practicing was to slow down. To go deep. To practice a phrase or gesture over and over—to take a tiny snippet and work it not only until I mastered the notes but until I knew exactly how I wanted to shape it, and then to practice that shaping until it was a part of me. It took me years to be willing to do that kind of work.

There is joy in the process—both in the physical sensation of careful work, and in what it does to you internally to slow down and go deep and get lost in it. I try to describe it to my students sometimes, but I’m not convinced they believe me. But I can try to figure out how to take them there, to walk it with them.

It took me many more years to realize how closely I had to come alongside my students to do that sort of work with them. I still try to talk about it too much. What works is to show them, walk them through the process step by step and week after week, until this way of approaching the music becomes part of them.

*       *       *

One thing I love about learning another language is discovering the direct translation of a word or phrase, feeling the inner nuance of it when I use it. AdiĆ³s means goodbye or farewell. But do you hear in the word, also, a (to or with) and Dios (God) when you say it?

The same happens with musical terms. Crescendo means to gradually get louder. But does it change your thinking at all to know that the direct translation of the word from Italian is “growing?” That allegro (fast) means “happy,” and forte (loud) means “strong?”

*       *       *

This process I’m talking about, of going deep into the music, working bit by bit and learning to shape phrase and dynamic and nuance—it is something that takes time. Something that requires ignoring, in a way, the whole rest of the piece in order to work on one small spot, trusting that your work translates outward (endlessly, I believe) into everything else you do. Give in to the panic over the enormity of your task and you lose that depth.

Not only that, but going deep just plain takes work.

My secret hope on Tuesday was that the more advanced kids were not frustrated with working only on the very earliest pieces, the ones everybody in the class could play. Even as we worked, I was worried about it. But nobody complained. In fact, everybody seemed to have fun. I have to admit that I felt surprise and joy at that.

I guess we’re all growing together.

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