July 7, 2010

Varieties of Practicing–Part Two: Experiments

Posted in Practice Writing tagged , , , at 9:12 am by Rebecca Hein

“If what you’re doing isn’t working, try something else.” Why did it take me several decades to realize this?

In Part One of this series, Slog, I discussed my linear practice method in which no new skill is introduced until the current one is mastered. But creativity isn’t like that. Art-in-process is disorderly, so why shouldn’t our daily efforts reflect this?

Our culture has trained us for productivity, and that was my trap. But when I discovered how useful it was to my cello playing and writing to try new ideas, my work began to turn around.

Next: Adventures



  1. Laura Bright said,

    I have found, because of your “Music of Writing” seminar, that warm-ups can be anything, without worrying about what you write or judging them. That freed me to understand and to make them as creative because that’s how my mind works. When I was studying piano, I did need to know and play all of the scales and modes used in the repertoire for the “common practice age, from early music to music of the early impressionistics (Debussy, Ravel etc. and my teacher knew how much I hated the repetitive drills on scales. So my teacher started finding sections in the pieces on which we were working that used scale passages, or he’d encourage me to make up words to the scales, chord progressions and other techniques. On the organ, I had to do scales on the manuals and scales on the pedals moving in a combination of heel and toe movements that actually did start on a heel but the foot swivels around or feet crossing over one another and so on. Piano students and teachers will probably remember those Hanon exercises. Well, my teacher hit me with this lovely but challenging book called “Hanon Revisited”. Instead of the hands playing the same notes in octaves with more combinations of notes and fingerings than I would have thought possible! But instead of doing that, the right hand was the same as in Hanon but the left hand played a contrary motion pattern. So one hand (usually the right) was going up the keyboard to the right and the other was going in a completely different pattern in the left. It was, um, interesting, I guess, to some degree. It got to be kind of funny; there was an unofficial competition among us his students over who would finish the book (and be proficient at executing the exercises. I made up words to some of the contrary motion ones but not all. Still, they added to my technical skills and since I had to pass not only pieces for the jury but also a formal technique test in front of the jury, in which we were called to do scales, modes, arpeggios, and then we had to be able to do any scale in double thirds, double sixths and double octaves. You know, I hated that thing! But, looking back, it did force me to practice some of the technical skills and, in fact, the infamous jury could tell you to play one kind of scale with one hand and another with the left, and at the organ, different ones simultaneously with three parts, two for the manuals and one with pedals by themselves or with manuals. It’s actually a little easier to do all of that on the organ, but then you also have to figure out and set up the organ registrations and you’d better either have pre-sets or, in the case of blind students, sometimes, especially when changing stops in the middle of the piece without losing any of the notes. Sometimes, particularly on the piano because it didn’t depend on the stops for dynamics, articulation and such. The touch is different, registrations vary not only from piece to piece and/or within a piece or with key changes or modulations, the aticulation thing would vary from organ to organ, pipe organ to electronic, tracker pipe which has a completely different touch. Then there are those Hammond b3 with the drawbars. Then again, there are those portable keyboards. The older organs, those ones that used hot air inside and had those chord buttons! I had one of those when I was a kid. It was better than nothing. Grandma had a piano that even played by itself (a player piano) although you hd to put the rolls in and it wasn’t an automatic play one so you had to pump!
    I guess that prepared me for my cousin’s wedding though. It was in a small rural church with a town with a population of I think, 101. But there were out-of-towners, some from other towns! I had to pump and play quite a bit between the prelude, which I had to add to because the wedding got started late, to the wobbly old lady church soloist who I guess had never heard of rhythm and treated accompanists as if we were mere tools. i.e. she could do whatever she wanted to the music; fermatas that weren’t there, cracked, tremulous over-the-top vibrato and so on. I wouldn’t have minded playing for the bride’s old maiden aunt Fanny, (her real name, no kidding) except that she could not bear to take even constructive feedback (would you like this played in a different key or octave.) She took great offense and me, the lowly accompanist who couldn’t be creative but had to follow her and cover up for her mistakes; hard to do when she screech out a high note or didn’t sing quite on key or changed or ignored rhythm, diction (elocution) and all that. Somehow, I learned to just let her do what she wants and wing it. I was still a school kid, and I was blind, and she was jealous because she knew I had a strong, versatile voice and could accompany myself so that was all the more reason to be critical of my accompanist skills. But I had learned in piano and organ study (though I admit, we didn’t study the pump organ; I wonder if they ever had music written for that, probably the music for the old harmonium would work. But I had been taught that the accompanist didn’t just follow the singer. Oh, it’s not like you can go and improvise your own melody and expect a singer to sing it especially if it changes over time. But it’s ideal if the singer or other instrumentalist(s) can work both as an ensemble and as equal partners, which sometimes happens when one combines the roles of accompanist and vocal coach.
    Of course, I think that was the first and last wedding (but not the matriarchical pillar of the church who’d been resident soloist since she was five and would hang on to until she croaked out her last croak, an old frog unable to speak its language.
    I went on to advanced education, peperformance individually and in groups and made contributions, as I still do, to the musical world, trying to pass on a love of and desire to create and perform music, if only for themselves.
    Okay, I can’t even remember what I wrote. But then, I don’t talk (or write) too much! I’m just abundantly verbal!

    • Rebecca Hein said,

      It helps me to realize that in a warm-up the point is to achieve a state of mind that gives us maximum latitude to discover how our minds work best. Then we can use that information in practical ways.

  2. It’s amazing how associations can spark ideas. I sometimes will look at the two words at the top of the dictionary page. The one on the left is the first word on the page and the one on the right is the last definition on that page. I howled with laughter one day when I saw the words that, when put together, formed the combination “morbid mother-in-law.” There’s an interesting idea for a story. Plutocrat poker is another combination that suggests the idea for a story of a different sort. When I was composing electronic music, I called one track “Discursive Disparity.” It suited the tune too.

    • Rebecca Hein said,

      And do you still compose electronic music? To me, electronic music is the artistic equivalent of deconstruction in literature.

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