by Mike Harcrow
Most people enjoy watching children play. Children live in the moment, unconcerned about anything except what they are doing. Somewhere in the musical development of aspiring young performers, many students are trained away from the simple concept of play by what teachers call practice—the tedious routine revisited at “that” time of day and monitored by a clock that seems not to move—when we pull out the Kopprasch and reinitiate the chore of repetition, hoping we can pick up where we left off yesterday but disappointed when we find that there is ground to regain. There is little joy in this and little progress much of the time (and often little encouragement from parents who audibly bemoan the “wasted investments” made into little Johnny or Sally’s “artistic development”), so there is little motivation for the student to continue. Is it any wonder that retention rates are so low in school music programs and even in lesson studios?
Rote practice has its place—that is another discussion—yet we are, fortunately, living in a time of wonderful and inspiring transition. Everyone seems to be looking for ways to keep themselves motivated in addition to keeping students not only involved, not merely just interested, but actually eager to come to rehearsals and, better yet, to practice their assigned materials at home or in the practice room. The trend I have seen—in offerings like Karen Houghton and Janet Boyce Nye’s Recipe for Success, the books and Horn Call columns on creative playing by Jeffrey Agrell, the “excerpt etudes” by Brett Miller and others, and more writings, presentations, and performances by Pip Eastop, John Ericson and Bruce Hembd, Arkady Shilkloper, and numerous others…not to mention the wonderful jazz improvisations, pop-song covers, and multi-track arrangements of all sorts of music by players from around the world which have flooded covid-era YouTube and social media—is wonderfully encouraging. I applaud all of this, and I see it as a big, joyful leap in the right direction for both players and players-in-training. What we must do now is shift such concepts from the advanced player who has rediscovered his/her creative freedom to the developing player, perhaps in time to stave off the Way of Drudgery before it ever starts.
I am not really writing to present anything newer than what our excellent colleagues are doing currently or even what Herr Kopprasch offered in the incipits we see over many of his etudes suggesting transpositions or changes of rhythm and/or articulation for additional productivity. I simply want to offer this one suggestion: let us minimize or even eliminate the use of the word practice and replace it with the word play. After all, we do play our instruments. (We have, in many American schools, been able to eliminate the old aggressive word attack [used for initiating a note] by substituting the more-accurate term release.) Take this suggestion and be creative with it, for yourselves and for your colleagues and for your students. You will do far more and much better for your own time and space than specific things I can offer from my time and space (but I will present some ideas here shortly anyway, just as a starting point), and we will all learn and grow, and the exchange-of-ideas we seek and enjoy will happen.
In the wonderful new facility where I teach, we have two levels of state-of-the-art practice rooms in addition to continuing access to practice rooms in the old music building; but my students no longer hear me call them practice rooms. I have, over the past few years, taken to calling them playrooms. While the shift in terminology has generated a dramatically more positive approach to time spent in these rooms, it has not eliminated the need to teach even university students how to practice, i.e., play. It is easier now, though, to point them to those theme-and-variation options in Kopprasch as well as to endless internet links to great lessons and performances available for nothing more than the cost of the time required to watch and learn. When I suggest that my students take apart the musical toaster with which they are struggling, it leads to a truly wonderful and ongoing conversation on what play can really be.
A playroom requires toys, most or all of which are now on our phones: high-quality audio-video both for listening and recording, your camera as a mirror, tuner and drone, metronome, and, of course, access to the internet for recordings and play-along sites and other helpful apps. (The old clunky versions of these will work fine, too! But alas, even cellphones do not grease our slides for us.) These toys will help us as we play games with the gameboard (the music) in front of us; and as we play, we will become much more engaged in our re-energized learning process…and it could be so much fun that we even lose track of time!
What is challenging? A scale run or awkward technical passage? Take it apart: play smaller, sensible note groupings; play these blocks with different rhythms and articulations; play them slower and faster; move the starting point over by a note, then by two, and so on; transpose the blocks; invert them; retrograde them (i.e., play them backwards); play them in retrograde-inversion with snappy rhythms and crisp tonguing and with extreme dynamic contrasts a tritone away from the original key. Take the game as far as you are able (or want) to go, then begin putting the blocks back together.
Is it range that is challenging? Play smaller bits with some rest in between them. Transpose the passage down to C then work your way up to horn in F, then G or even A—keys beyond what is written—even if this process takes a few weeks to complete!
Is it finger-tongue coordination that is challenging? Eliminate one aspect of the passage—perhaps, in this case, the tonguing—and slowly add it back in with all the coolest articulation patterns you can imagine. Swing it! Add a rhythm generator to your play—be Cuban Pete with a rumba beat! Sing your music. Dance your music.
Find patterns (in the rhythms, the fingerings, the harmonic series, etc.). Connect the puzzle pieces of form (the repetition and contrast in the piece); learning the form can condense the learning time, and it helps immensely with memorization. Write lyrics to the music, or write down the story you imagine as you play the concerto or sonata movement.
Sit to play. Stand to play. Stand on one leg to play. Play in new locations. (I have found my students in our various “locked” performance venues, outdoors, in stairwells, in the freight elevator, even in the men’s room…“for the great acoustics,” I was assured!) Turn the music upside-down to play—that will make you focus! Take a lap around the building and come back to play. Listen for dead spots in the regular or temporary playroom, and find those spots with the best resonance, enjoying each for what you learn about your sound and yourself.
This is a good place to stop. You’ve got the idea, and you are creative. Try the unexpected. Engage your curiosity. What will you do when you close this column and go to your playroom?