The reason I started playing Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts again — well, the reason doesn’t really matter, but in the interest of transparency I’ll tell you that I was thinking about entering an amateur piano competition that I knew was totally pay-to-play (that is, the “competition” aspect was much less important to the event than the “money collected from every entrant” aspect), and L and I had talked about avoiding pay-to-play stuff and only focusing on events/conferences/competitions/gatherings that were associated with the pursuit of excellence, and I was still considering entering this competition because it would force me to produce/polish/record a certain amount of repertoire by a specific date, and I figured I could quickly produce/polish the Stravinsky because I used to pull it out as a showpiece when I was in high school — anyway, I recently started playing Les Cinq Doigts again, and it made me think about how much work I did to learn the piece twenty years ago and how much work I didn’t do.
Because each movement has at least one “weak spot.”
A problem that I never got around to solving because I didn’t know how to address it; maybe because I tried a few ways of addressing it and none of them worked, maybe because I was in a hurry and the rest of the piece was good enough, maybe — and very likely — because I was able to articulate the passage accurately 7 out of 10 times and I was willing to play those odds.
The first movement of Mozart K332 had a weak spot that I spent much of last week attempting to solve. There are a few weak spots in Ravel’s La Valse that I am currently working through. I will diligently apply everything I’ve got to the weak measures in the Stravinsky, because the best time to learn a piece of music is twenty years ago and the second best time is now.
But that’s not the point of this blog post.
If it were as simple as saying “well, just practice those weak spots extra-hard and extra-disciplinedy,” then we’d all do it. I mean, if all it took to learn the most complicated measures of a tricky piece was an extra half hour here and there, those measures would get learned. (Even high-school-aged Nicole understood that half hours were currency that could be exchanged for results.)
The problem is that the weak parts, even after you think you’ve done what you need to do to learn them, don’t hold up under pressure. Even though I think I’ve “solved” those 16 measures in the first movement of the Mozart or the one tricky left-hand bit in the seventh movement of the Stravinsky, I know that half of what I’ve tried to solve will fall apart the instant another problem presents itself. The weak spots are the first to go when you’re tired; when you’re stressed; when you’re distracted.
When you don’t practice them every day.
When you don’t give your biggest weaknesses a bit of specific, focused attention before playing the entire piece.
(You’ve probably figured out that “the point of this blog post” has nothing to do with Stravinsky.)
It absolutely astonishes me that I continually forget to be mindful even though I spend part of every day literally practicing mindfulness.
With, like, practice charts, and a reward system (even though I know that the reward for an all-green week is feeling really good all week long), and time built in to reflect on what I’m doing and how I could do better.
It’s just that no matter how much I want to change certain behaviors, I still find myself in situations where I get going too fast — and I stop thinking about making the best choice in the moment and I just start reacting to things.
This happens all the time when L and I play La Valse together, except when it’s music you can say “hang on, let’s go back and take it a little more slowly” and when it’s the rest of life you have to say “I’m sorry, I spoke more hastily than I intended to.”
L has said — I mean, many piano teachers have said — that once you really know something you’ll be able to access it in a variety of suboptimal scenarios. This isn’t the same thing as “you’ll be able to play it perfectly no matter what;” it just means that you’ll have this knowledge to draw from even while other parts of life (ringing phones, sleepless nights, the realization that you and your duet partner are playing this particular section of La Valse a little faster than usual) are attempting to draw you away from it.
Which means I haven’t really learned how to be mindful, not any more than I’ve really learned Les Cinq Doigts.
I can make the kinds of choices I want to make 7 out of 10 times, which is certainly better than 5 out of 10, but reacting instead of acting is still a major weak spot. (There’s a reason why I’ve written three separate posts on overcorrection in the past two weeks.)
And I wish it were as simple as saying “hang on, I want to take this a little more slowly,” and maybe it is, except the problem is that I always say “wait wait wait I need to slow down and think” right after I do the thing that I didn’t want to do (or re-make the mistake that I thought I had learned not to make anymore).
I have just now gotten to the point, with my piano practice, where I stop myself when I’m going too fast even if I’m playing everything well enough so far — because I know that weaknesses always optimize for speed, and because I know that I won’t be able to solve the problems I want to solve at the tempo I’m currently taking.
I want to learn how to do that in the rest of life, too.
And that’s the point of this blog post.
It may be the point of this entire blog. ❤️