Dad played the violin. Mom played the piano. They played duets before they had children. In my childhood memories, I only remember them playing together a couple of times. Music was a big part of my family life, growing up. Opera on Saturdays, my father reading along in the libretto sometimes; Mozart, Beethoven, Bach… you know, ‘the boys’, were always playing around the house.
As a child, my younger brother had an aptitude for music. He still does today, being a professional musician and composer. He was more patient that I, when he played duets with Dad. I played the violin and found that the frustration outweighed the occasional musical harmonies resulting from playing the Bach Double Concerto together. Although Dad was a mathematician, he couldn’t seem to count when it came to music. I think he was always a beat ahead. He probably couldn’t wait to get a note in.
My older brother, Michael, was also musical at one point. Dad said that he was able to hum entire symphonies. He used to grunt the ‘surprise’ in Hayden’s Surprise Symphony. Mike was diagnosed with autism and profound retardation early on. Dad said that he never seemed like a ‘normal’ child and he eventually lost any musicality he had. However the staffers at his group home say that he likes to listen to music on the radio.
Dad started learning to play the piano. It must have been difficult getting two hands playing different lines of music. I imagine that when one ages, the once-malleable circuits of the brain enabling independence of hands become harder to access.
I don’t know if anyone uses the Hanon Exercises for piano any more. Suffice it to say, they are equivalent to scales and arpeggios for both hands, in all keys. Dad practiced these almost exclusively. I think he tried to play an actual piece of music. If he did, I surely don’t remember him playing it all the way through.
Different ways to practice
When I took violin lessons, Mrs. Card had me play a piece in two different ways. The first way was for accuracy. If I made a mistake, she would stop me and I would correct myself. When I was comfortable playing the piece, she would have me play it through from beginning to end, whether or not I made mistakes. I like the idea of incorporating the technical details of music into the larger notion of the musical composition. Music is more than the sum of its technical parts. But even a flawless technical rendition of music played from a page of musical notation is not necessarily what the composer had in mind. A sense of musicality must also be present. One can appreciate musical interpretations by listening to different artists playing the same music.
Different modes of learning
Different ways of practicing mean lead to different modes of learning. For a musician, the building blocks are scales and arpeggios in every key; modulations from key to key, control of dynamics. Once the basics are learned, they become ‘meta’ information, that can be strung together on a larger scale. A composer uses these building blocks to express musical ideas; a jazz musician does the same by imposing his or her interpretation of the melodic or rhythmic line using the building blocks.
What is the whole idea of practice?
I have been discussing musicians thus far, but my thesis also applies to visual artists. A composer of a musical or visual piece must be able to physically realize, what is in his or her mind. For this to happen, techniques and building blocks should be second nature. When these techniques are absorbed into the artist’s muscle memory, he or she can directly express an original artistic thought.
The practice of improving technique by itself is only part of learning to express one’s self artistically.
I suppose my father got great satisfaction from playing Hannon over and over again. Perhaps it was a kind of Zen practice, a complex mantra of sorts. As for the rest of his family and me, we wished he didn’t study technique as much as he did.