Increasing Talent

Much of my early music training consisted of rote drill and endless repetition. I would play a passage on the violin or piano, miss something, then go back and try it again and again until I got it. Sometimes, I’d make the same silly mistake for years! Most of my practice time was spent hammering my head against the brick wall of my errors. When, after hours of practice, I got the passage right, I’d return the next day and find the same old silly errors had resurfaced. My time the previous day had been wasted.

In general, the length of time it takes to master musical skills or concepts is in direct proportion to musical talent. Those who master things quickly are deemed talented; those who learn things slowly are deemed less talented. As pounding information into the mind and body by rote requires much time, those who approach music in this way are necessarily thought to be lacking in talent. I have met passionate individuals who diligently practiced, practiced, practiced, repeated, repeated, and repeated who, unfortunately, never rose above the level of mediocrity.

Therefore, if we wish to be talented, we are advised to learn more quickly! This means that we cannot waste time mindlessly repeating passages but must learn to become more mindful from the outset.

Before studying with Nadia Boulanger, I repeatedly played the same mistakes over and over, yet remained unaware of the exact error. There was only a vague apprehension that something was going wrong in some measure—somewhere. Often, I knew of a problem only after it had occurred, though I had made the same error many times before. Very annoying. At that time, I reasoned that the only solution was to try harder, again and again. Not knowing the true nature of the error, I would go over the same passage, sometimes recognizing that, this time, I’d made a different error, confusing matters still more. I blamed the error on my technique: my disobedient ring finger on my right hand stubbornly refused to do my bidding. I deduced that it was necessary to beat the thing into submission, eventually resulting in a repetitive movement injury.

A few years later, Mlle. Boulanger told me that I had potential to be a fine pianist if I could learn music more efficiently. She explained that the secret was to use the mind rather than brute force. She asked me to sing the passage in which wrong notes had snuck into my playing, naming the notes with a fixed syllable for each note, as close as possible to the desired tempo. Though I was passably good at the French fixed syllables, I found myself completely unable to correctly sing the syllables in the area where I had made the pianistic mistakes. What is more, I found that I unwittingly verbally identified wrong syllables on the same notes that I had incorrectly played. When we both realized this, Mademoiselle, in a sardonic tone, said, “Well, how cruel you are to ask your poor hands to do something that your mind does not yet understand.” At that, as I sat beside her, I truly paid attention to the passage for the first time. In naming the notes in this way, I could recognize an underlying harmony outlined in the right-hand passage, and could see that I had completely misconstrued the whole measure. I became aware that the exact notes that I had been missing were actually accented dissonances to the harmony. Once I knew this, the amorphous fog of stupidity lifted. When I could name the correct syllables, I was able to play the passage without error. Now, the notes matched the sonic concept and the fingering made sense. I had solved the problem in minutes, this after having spent hours futilely hammering away at the difficult passage with my damaged hand. The solution to the technical problem was awareness, not rote trial and error practice.

Indeed, as Mademoiselle promised, to this day, if I am able to name the notes at the speed of the music, I can almost instantly play without error; if I can’t, there’s a good chance that I will be unsuccessful in spite of hours of practice. Further, she predicted that if by some lucky chance I might play a passage right without naming the notes in time, an error would likely insinuate itself into the text. Practicing naming notes before attempting to play has worked wonders in eliminating the negative effects of my physical injuries. The proportion of thought to action has been completely flipped, allowing me to be able to play with more freedom and less stress. Now, the body no longer futilely fights reality—it affirms it.

I have learned that, while it is true that building rapport between mind and body requires some repetition, only when repetition is accompanied by mindfulness is musical success possible. It is mindfulness that causes us to learn quickly, and it is mindfulness that provides the fuel for our talent. Mademoiselle’s lesson to me was to pay attention and use my mind FIRST. Combining mindfulness with ardent diligence means we can learn more and more music faster and faster. What better sign can there be of talent?

 

Sharing Elements: The Universality of Music

by Marianne Ploger

 
 

To me, there’s little doubt that music is a universal language which communicates meaning to us all, even though we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg in understanding how music works. Whenever I hear music—any music, from anywhere in the world—I marvel at its power to take me on a mystical journey through time and space. From Balinese gamelan music, to Irish fiddle music, to bluegrass music, to country music, to show tunes, to Zen meditation music, to the symphonies of Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, and beyond, I love them all. Listening to these musics is like experiencing cuisine from the most exotic to the most comfortably familiar. Some music is thought provoking and challenging while other music is nurturing and heartwarming. Why does some music rile us to action while other music placates us? Why does some music make us feel amorous and other music makes us feel ennobled and courageous? Why does some music leave us cold while other music makes us thirst for more?

From my work teaching, researching, and observing over the past decades, I have found that there are causes for the effects we experience when hearing music. In the same way that a master chef can predict the taste outcomes of any combination of culinary ingredients, combinations of pitches, intervals, and rhythms create musical outcomes that can be predicted equally well by one who is thoroughly familiar with the musical ingredients.

With so many musical genres available in our global community, it is incredible to think that such diverse music is created from so few basic musical elements. Yet, I find again and again that the beauty of music lies in its confluence of essential simplicity and complex dimensionality. It is amazing how so few things can serve as the building materials for such widely different musical genres. 

Because we can learn to identify pitches, intervals, and rhythms by ear, we can be well on our way to understanding those essential musical ingredients. If we want to go still further, we can learn to understand how these basic elements combine to create predictable scales, harmonies, and polyrhythms. Those who wish to go further yet and become master musical “chefs” can learn to encode and decode these elements using a musical staff and to create their own musical recipes that are both tasty and nutritional to the souls of listeners. 

The greatest chefs and the greatest musicians understand how and why certain combinations are highly effective while others are unsavory. My husband, Keith Hill, coined the term “Aesthetic Scientists” to describe such masterful craftsmen. These individuals seek to consciously understand how the primary elements of their craft interact with the senses and to develop their skill and finesse broadly and in real time, eventually transforming aesthetic science into art. 

My goal with this website is to provide the tools to intelligently, compassionately, and scrupulously explore how music works and why it moves us as it does. In so doing, I hope to bring aesthetic science to art and in turn, art to science.

Welcome!

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Hello!  Welcome to the online center for The Ploger Method®.  The overarching goal for the website is the development of a comprehensive resource center for musicians interested in increasing their musical fluency and achieving musical comprehension in real time.  Marianne Ploger has positively changed the lives of hundreds of individuals around the nation and world through the communication of her original ideas and pedagogical strategies and her willingness to share her insight and passion with her students.  This online platform will serve as a resource for past, present, and future students of the Method, many of whom are teachers themselves and interested in incorporating Marianne’s ideas and discoveries into the classroom or studio.

Please use the form on the right hand side of the pages on this site to add yourself to our e-mail address book and receive important updates and news.  One of the purposes of the site is to create a space where students and teachers can communicate with Marianne and with each other.  We hope that this site will be a source of valuable information and insight; furthermore, we hope it will also be a space where musicians can exchange ideas and develop discussions among the already existing network of students and teachers who are interested in deepening their relationships with music through the Method.  This blog is a launching point for these connections - we’d love to have your comments on the posts, both about what you see here and about what you’d like to see in the future.  Feel free to comment on the blog or to use the Contact tab on the top menu to send a private message.

Under the Resources tab on the top bar of the page, you will find links to articles and other materials that can both aid in establishing the discipline of daily musicianship practice and help Marianne’s previous students to incorporate The Ploger Method® into their own teaching.  

As the website continues to grow, the number of available articles and videos will as well.  Soon, you will be able to purchase a subscription to a series of lecture videos which cover the basic concepts of the Method as presented in the Level I Musicianship Intensive.  (This is intended as a supplement for students who have previously taken or are in the process of taking the course - the videos will not be effective as a substitute for the course itself.)  Down the road, Marianne hopes to include on the website interactive software which will provide exercises in tracking and interval perception.

One of the functions of this blog will be to provide you with updates on the development and availability of resources and important news on the progress of The Ploger Method® in the musical and scientific communities.  Stay “tuned” for more information!