Practice Thoughts: Transitions and Renewals

Spring is often a time of renewal…and for good reason. Seeing the world around us wake up and become green again is nothing short of miraculous. For those of us whose lives are tied to the academic musical calendar, however, autumn can also bring renewed attention to artistic goals and methods and, as is certainly the case for me, the art and science of practicing.

The Chicago Academy for the Arts

The Chicago Academy for the Arts

This particular autumn, I’m also reminded of the role that transitions play in our lives. After a decade of teaching a generation of young pianists at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, it has become time for me to move on to my next adventure. This span of time spent in a fine arts high school environment has been a fascinating and richly rewarding experience…surrounded by students and faculty members of passionately-held beliefs about the role of music and music education in our lives and in our society…learning about how we can all navigate artistic waters together in a meaningful way to fashion a substantive musical education experience which gives gifted students the tools that they need to do significant artistic work at the college/conservatory level and beyond.

An important part of this educational process is what I call “The Big Discussion”, i.e., How to practice…

I must admit that I enjoy thinking and talking about practicing…about how endlessly creative we can be when approaching a new piece or revisiting an old friend. I love experiencing the holistic nature of musical practice…the act of seeking for meaning and understanding through sound and structure…and the worlds that begin to reveal themselves when even an inkling of understanding is gained.

I would say that the act of practicing, when approached with intention and awareness. feeds both our minds and our souls. And practicing renews itself (and us) every time that we go to our instruments.

In short, I LOVE to practice!

Here is a video of me working with my former student Adam Chlebek where we talk about how to practice when looking through the lens of one of my favorite topics…the importance of understanding (and experiencing!) how the composer organizes the rhythm to use as an expressive device.

I’ll leave you with the practice thoughts that I share with my students. I hope that they might serve as a helpful reminder of the ever-changing practice experience as we change and grow as people. Happy practicing!

Rick’s Practice Thoughts

Musical practice, like any other practice or discipline, is a process of exploration — a process of gradually taking the veil off of a piece and coming to a place of greater understanding. As we change and grow as people, our relationship to our own music making changes as well.

There are, of course, the technical concerns which exist (across a wide spectrum) in every piece. It’s important, however, to bear in mind that the technical hurdles (or often points of fascination!) in any work exist to serve the greater musical needs. Technique is a means to an end — the end being ever-greater expression, command and communication of musical ideas and gestures — and emotion.

Effective practice consists of a blend of consistency (at times, dogged determination) and variety. Inspired practice allows the player or singer to view the piece in question much like a jewel — looking at it from different perspectives and gradually coming to know it as a complete work as a result of understanding its various facets in greater detail.

Sure, challenge yourself in at least one way each time that you practice. Routinely take yourself out of your comfort zone, even in a small way. Whether it be altering the rhythm, working with a metronome, altering the dynamics or articulations, give yourself the gift of variety each time you sit with a piece. Broaden your perspective and approach. Identify what is most challenging about a particular piece and create ways of practicing which are even more demanding — thereby making the hurdle seem a little smaller.

But always keep your ultimate goal in mind: The creation of a connection to a piece that grows and deepens over time. Certainly, in many cases, we come to love a piece and experience how that love enriches our lives.

That’s why I love practicing. The process always helps me reach a new level of understanding — both of the music at hand and of myself. Cheers!

Rick Ferguson