In my experience, I have encountered many people, students and teachers alike, who approach learning new pieces like completing levels of a challenging game. Once they’ve “conquered” these new pieces, they “level-up” and begin tackling the next difficult piece. Meanwhile, the “lower level” pieces are forgotten or virtually ignored. Perhaps, these “more advanced” players hear novices learning these pieces and offer “tips and tricks.” However, I’ve encountered many “advanced” players who, for various reasons, scoff at a younger player’s haphazard progress.
Music functions differently to many people depending on the person, the audience, the culture, and the function. Some of my most enjoyable moments in music have been contemporary improvisation ensembles, impromptu jazz bands, and Appalachian music gigs. However, I have noticed the “level-up” trend in more stricter forms of music. In this society, everyone is trying to get ahead. Many of my younger students are trying so desperately to be taken seriously, that they jump to the difficult music. And although they are able to play the notes, they are not able to fully understand the meaning of the music they are playing.
A professor once told me that learning a new piece is like getting to know a new friend. Over the course of one’s lifetime, we get to know these pieces and our relationship develops and grows. We become more familiar with the notes, phrases, and rhythms like we become familiar with a friend’s favorite color, foods, and hobbies. Soon, we are well acquainted with the personality of the piece, just as if we have become acquainted with the personality of an old friend. Sometimes we have good performances and bad performances, much like we have good days and bad days with people.
In truth, we as as musicians in the Western music tradition are required to diligently learn the notes and rhythms and continuously hone our technique. However, what is the point of this arduous practice? Is it merely to prove we can be better and stronger than “so-and-so”? If that is the case, has music now just become another Olympic challenge? Do people really chose to learn Vinao’s “Khan Variations” or Klatzow’s “Dances of Earth and Fire” to prove their dexterity and skill? I and many concert-goers would be very disheartened. It is very obvious to hear when someone is just trying to “show-off.” We’ve all been there. And though we are impressed, not all of us have found it musically enjoyable.
While we do spend countless hours increasing the speed and fluidity of our scales and the dexterity of our snare rudiments, it should all be for gaining the skills necessary to understand and learn a piece. We are artists, not weight-lifters. We shouldn’t have to prove ourselves. We don’t bench press a Bach Cello Suite! We make interpretations and perform what we believe to be the music. And if we have a bad day and miss notes or forget an important rhythm, it’s not the end of the world. Although we should perform like it’s our last day on this Earth, we have to understand that this isn’t the end of the world, either. A piece should be rehearsed to perfection only so that when we are faced with adversity (such as the room being too cold for our muscles, or the humidity messing with the instrument, or the needless intimidation from another person), we are not bothered but can adapt to the situation.
Most importantly, we should return back to the pieces we’ve played before. Once we start learning a new piece, it is okay to revisit an old one. That musical friend got us to a point where we could learn another piece. And our experiences getting to know that piece can only help our development of the next one. In addition, we may be able to approach the old piece with a new frame of mind. It may sound completely different. We may find nuances we never found before. There are many discoveries one can make with just one piece. And we have a whole lifetime to find out!