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?