Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Using my time wisely

Here's a question I posted in the Alfred's Book One Thread on PW.

What part of the learning process for a given piece is the most beneficial to long-term expertise? To illustrate what I mean, suppose there is a learning curve for a new piece, which can be broken up into five stages:

  • Stage 1 - I sound like a complete idiot. It's like I've never played piano before. It takes a very long time to stagger through the new piece, and it is very painful to listen to this part of the process. (Lately, this has taken a couple of hours.)
  • Stage 2 - Innocent bystanders can start to make out the tune, but I'm still not at tempo, and make errors all over the place. (Lately, this stage has been very brief, but I reckon will get longer as the complexity increases.)
  • Stage 3 - A period of refinement where everything gets smoother. Once in awhile, I even make it the whole through piece without an error, causing me to think I am further along than I really am. To me, this is the fun part.
  • Stage 4 - A lengthy period of time where the last couple of kinks get ironed out.
  • Stage 5 - Perfection. I can play the piece in my sleep, at tempo, without errors, and it sounds like real music. (Scientists have theorized as to the existence of this stage, but it has not been directly observed in my universe.)

In which of those stages am I improving the most? Which is the most valuable? Reason I ask is, more and more, I am finding myself putting considerable time in the Stage 4, ironing out the little things that trip me up. And I am beginning to question whether or not this is the best use of my practice time.

I may pose this question to the teachers at PW, but if you have any insights, I'd love to hear them.

I'm going to miss out on that Pramberger JP-52 on eBay. Somebody placed a bid ($2,000), and there is no reserve. The timing just didn't work out for us. On the other hand, that Astin-Weight once again failed to meet it's reserve bid, so those kind folks at ANR still have it sitting in their warehouse. I think Jillian and I might pay them a visit on Friday (she has no school for some reason). It would be interesting to compare it with one of their Wendl & Lung uprights, or a used U1 or U3.


Anonymous said...

I think, to some extent, you are setting yourself up for an unattainable goal. Your Step 5 doesn't exist- in any universe. Sure, once you "know" a piece, there will be times you play it at tempo, without errors and very musically, but those are the exceptions. And I'm not talking about the glarng errors that the whole world can see was "wrong." There will rarely be a time when you play something, no matter how well you know it, without some little thing that only you know was wrong. And when those things happen, it doesn't necessarily mean you must practice that piece more or that you don't know it. It just means that you are like every other musician out there.

As for the most effective practice, my teacher says you learn the most (as in making the most progress on a new piece) in Stages 2 and 3- where you are teaching your hands, eyes and brain to connect the music into a cohesive whole. There are a lot of times when my teacher will tell me to keep working on a piece that I have at your Stage 4 on my own, and bring it back and play it for her in 3 or 4 weeks, when I've ironed out some of those kinks. I don't think you ever get to the completely satisfied stage- there will always be something that you perceive as wrong. You just have to learn to differentiate between "still needs work" and "done."

Always Wanted to Play Piano said...

Thanks, 2ndsoprano. I ended up posting my question on the teacher's forum at PW. So far, the responses, can be summed up "Get a teacher already" which, although true, isn't really an answer.

However, both you and they missed the point I hoped to make. And it makes me wonder if I am really the one missing the point. I am not frustrated by the process, nor do I pine for perfection... my question was more about whether it was worth it, in looking at the long-term view of developing expertise, to focus on polishing, or mastering the pieces I am working on?

But perhaps you and the teachers who are responding to me are seeing more behind this question than I am.

Anonymous said...

In light of your last comment, I think the answer is: It depends. Helpful, huh? LOL But, really, if your goal is to develop expertise (remember the discussion of technique v. skill?), then you must focus on gaining the techniques to acquire the skill. And that may well mean leaving a piece before you have it polished, IF you have learned all you can from it and don't necessarily feel that it is something you want to be able to play forever. And that is where I find my teacher invaluable, as she is much better at seeing when I have learned all that I can from one of the pieces in my Alfred's book, and when it is time to move on. Otherwise, I would still be struggling with some of the stuff in Book 2, because I never did get it perfect, but I understood the concept that was being taught.

If any of that makes sense....

Annie said...

I followed you here from PW. I don't know which part is the most important. Sometimes I overpractice a piece, though and it seems that I read a point where it's doing very well, though not mastered, then I push it and it's as though I've never seen the instrument before. I then need to take a couple days away from that piece and then go back to it. One thing that I've learned is that the time it takes to master a piece is less when I make time to just play simpler pieces for my own enjoyment, rather than just working on lesson material.

I'm not familiar with your lesson material - when I started I had a lesson book with songs similar to ones you've mentioned on PW in it, a theory book, a fingerpower book to build skills, and a book with music of my liking in it for a fun piece.

I'm excited to find your blog! I'll be stopping by frequently, as it's nice to meet another adult piano student!

I know I probably didn't answer your specific question, but I'm going to ask my piano teacher on Thursday what he thinks... and if he has an answer - I'll be back to let you know his opinion.

Always Wanted to Play Piano said...

Thanks, Annie. I look forward to hearing what your teacher has to say.

FWIW, I posted this question on the Pianoworld Teacher's forum, and got some very interesting, useful, and informative answers.

Always Wanted to Play Piano said...

Hmm, don't know why that link isn't showing up. Merge these lines into a single web address to see the discussion.

discopalace said...

I might be a bad example of a piano player, but I think I only get to stage 3 or 3.5 in your list. If it sounds good enough, I stop working on it and just continue to play it for fun when I feel like it. The challenge for me is to move from a brand new piece to "good enough."

What's the difference between good enough and perfect? It can be hours, weeks, months. A teacher could probably point out all sorts of errors I make. But "good enough," to me, is being able to play it in front of others in a way that pleases both them and you. If you can play it at tempo, put some expression in it, and have some fun, I think you're there. I don't have the time or patience to go further.