The routine and rhythm of daily practice

Practising is not so boring or tedious that you have to lock yourself in a room to accomplish the task. You do need to resist the temptation to stop practising though.

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A concert pianist, who claimed to know more than 100 piano concertos from memory, once told me that competition winners have to lock themselves in a room and practise for hours on end before they will be ready to go on tour.

I don’t remember his exact words, but I do question the need to “lock themselves in a room.”

My piano with scores divided into piles: for French horn, cello, guitar, solo
My piano with scores divided into piles for French horn, cello, guitar, flute, and solo piano

Practising is not so boring or tedious that you have to lock yourself in a room to accomplish the task. You do need to resist the temptation to stop practising though. I think that’s what he meant.

You don’t get paid to practice. You will miss out on a lot of activities, including the world around you. You have to be able to give up many things, including the temptation of interruption.

Everything becomes an interruption. Phone calls. Door bells. E-mail checks. Breaks for the loo. Tea breaks. Coffee breaks. Lunch breaks. Dinner breaks. It has been said that breaks are good. One must not practise without a break.

After my trip to Helsinki in November 2009, I decided to enter a self-induced piano marathon. I would practise as long as I could by liberating my diary of commitments. I stopped taking Dutch language lessons. I declined meal invitations. In spite of this, I could only manage a maximum of five hours piano practice. There were still too many interruptions and responsibilities in my life.

The view into the reception and winter light from my piano
The view into the reception and winter light from my piano

Just before Christmas, a computer programmer by day and pianist otherwise told me that 4 hours is a good target, if you have a full-time job. I should be able to do more. At university, I once clocked in 4 hours practising for my senior recital. I had the time but not the stamina then. Now I have the stamina but not the time.

I suppose the only way to clock in more practice time is to get into a regular routine and rhythm. Wake up early. Simplify all meals. Delegate all house chores. Switch off the telephone and the wireless Internet. Stop blogging. Stop writing.

Help! I need to lock myself in a room so no one else can enter and interrupt my practice. And I’d better do this before the seasons change and the (hopefully) warmer weather and (happy) sun tempt me outside.

The view from my piano to the garden house and the outside world
The view from my piano to the garden house and the outside world

Practise to perform: clocking performance time

For a chamber music duo like ours, not only do we have to practise alone, we also need to rehearse together. Just putting in the hours, however, is not enough. I have come to the conclusion that we need to clock in performance time. Performers use tryouts — a concert before a concert — to get ready. It’s the step between the last rehearsal and first important performance.

On Carnegie Hall’s website, it says “While it takes some people a lifetime of practice to get to Carnegie Hall (as the saying goes), others just have to follow these simple directions.”

Question: “How to get to Carnegie Hall?” Answer: “practice, practice, practice!”

Before our first concert in 2010 in Doorn, Netherlands
Before our first concert in 2010 in Doorn, Netherlands

For a chamber music duo like ours, not only do we have to practise alone, we also need to rehearse together. Just putting in the hours, however, is not enough. I have come to the conclusion that we need to clock in performance time.

A pilot’s flying experience is often measured by his flying time. No amount of flying inside a flight simulator can substitute for actually flying a plane full of passengers. However, not all planes and routes are equal. Cargo and passengers are different. Short haul is different from long haul flights.

Similarly, not all concerts are equal. A house concert is very different from a big public concert hall. Playing at a nursing home is different from playing in a museum. Is it then possible to practise performing?

After our first concert of our 2010 programme in Doorn in January, I practised even harder. At our second concert in Amsterdam, I realised that I should focus on what I thought were easy pieces. I had spent so much time gaining confidence on the difficult pieces, that I had underestimated the challenge of playing the easy pieces in sync with the guitar.

Robert Bekkers studying his score during the intermission at Doorn
Robert Bekkers studying his score during the intermission at Doorn

The more we perform, the sooner we will be ready to record our second CD. That is our ultimate goal: to record a CD so that we can move on to new repertoire. We want to reach that stage, as we did in 2009, of being so confident in our playing that we can perform anytime anywhere without any advance notice. Having reached that point in 2009, I long to get there with our new programme.

And so, we accepted a last-minute request from a composer to perform his work at a private party. We offered to play a few pieces from our new programme at another private party the following week. We deliberately challenged ourselves to play to a knowing audience of culture vultures, composers, musicians, and real aficionados of classical music. We were the invited guests, just like everyone else, but we put ourselves to work before we could indulge in the wine and festivities.

Those two occasions in Amsterdam were “tryouts” for us.

“Tryout” translates to “please forgive us if we make mistakes or don’t deliver the quality we intended.” Tryouts are usually free because the performers need the audience, not the other way around. Performers use tryouts — a concert before a concert — to get ready. It’s the step between the last rehearsal and first important performance.

Next Saturday 13th February 2010, I will go to a “tryout” house concert of a violin / piano programme of Grieg, Prokofiev, Debussy and De Falla. I will attend to support the pianist who is a good friend. I will also attend out of curiosity. I’m sure there will be others in the audience that I know and want to catch up with. It’s nearby and it’s free. [See my blog entries on why musicians attend concerts part one and two.]

Perhaps our duo will offer to “tryout” a piece as a surprise. Probably not.

Why musicians attend concerts, part 2

My earlier blog “why musicians attend concerts” caused such an outcry on facebook that I am expanding it in part two. A fellow composer mentioned that a concert could be a valuable networking occasion. Networking for musicians is critical for information gathering, deal making, idea generation, and relationship building. Perhaps I should retitle this blog: “why do, would, and should musicians attend concerts of other musicians?”

My earlier blog “why musicians attend concerts” caused such an outcry on facebook that I am expanding it in part two.

The same question can be rephrased, as my economics professor friend in the UK so aptly put it, as “why would professors read papers/books by other professors when they are so busy writing their own papers/books?”


Indeed, why would artists attend art exhibitions if their own works are not included? Why would authors attend book-signing events of other authors? Clearly, that is not the point, as summarised in the last facebook comment:
“birds of a feather flock together, and you can always learn from others in your profession.”

One answer is to get a different perspective on the way you do things. A high school classmate, who became a professional sports trainer, wrote “This is a common issue for yoga instructors as well. While it may be challenging to find the time to attend other teachers’ classes it can be so refreshing to not hear your own voice! It also gives you a chance to experience someone else’s movement sequences and phraseology.”

A fellow composer mentioned that a concert could be a valuable networking occasion. Networking for musicians is critical for information gathering, deal making, idea generation, and relationship building. There is opportunity to do so before and after a concert, and sometimes during the intermission if there is one.

It is also a way to benchmark yourself against others in your own profession. This is the reason why industry conferences are so popular. A decision scientist I met at an operations research conference in California said, “The biggest reason is checking out the competition and maybe seeing how others perform. …how they come across to their audience. Second minor reasons might be because they’re friends or you just like to hear music! Why do us decision scientists always need a reason for doing something you enjoy! …or am I missing something here?!”

As a performer, I would attend a concert to check out the venue. Does it have nice acoustics? How is the space? Is it easy to get to? Do the concert organisers do publicity? Does it have its own audience?

Perhaps I should retitle this blog: “why do, would, and should musicians attend concerts of other musicians?”