By Leonardo Ciampa
One of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, Vladimir Horowitz spoke four languages fluently. In all four, he chose his words carefully.
I never forgot a story told to me by his piano technician, Franz Mohr. One day, Mohr showed up at Horowitz’s Manhattan home and found the Master seated at his Steinway D. “I see that you’re practicing,“ Mohr said. With an indignant look, the great pianist replied, “I’m not practicing! I’m REHEARSING.“
For a musician, there are few words that have a more negative connotation than “practicing.” The word “rehearsing” has an entirely nicer tone! Practicing means you’re in the room alone. Practicing means you’re working on the spots that you cannot yet play, not the spots that you already play awesomely. Practicing implies technical drill. It implies sitting for a long time. Like a fat-burning workout, it implies something that could not possibly feel easy or good – otherwise, how could it do the job?
But does it need to be that way? Is it possible to “rehearse” and get to where you want to go?
Imagine, for a moment, a typical rehearsal. You show up at the rehearsal. You arrive a few minutes early. You warm up with scales and exercises. Then the rehearsal begins. You begin to play the music. (Note the distinction: you’re not practicing or performing – you’re playing. You’re making music.)
Alas, at some point you’re going to arrive at a difficult passage that needs attention, and you will have to stop playing. What do you do?
Here is the moment where everyone gets in trouble, especially adult students. You don’t just make a mistake: you say to yourself, “WHY did I make that mistake? What’s WRONG with me?”
At this juncture, the trick is to make friends with the difficult passage.
Imagine you are driving to the home of a dear friend, who lives in some beautiful suburb. The whole car ride you are excited. If you make a few wrong turns, you become only more excited. Then you are reunited with the friend, and there is only joy.
By contrast, imagine that you are driving to the RMV. In Downtown Manhattan. During rush hour. Rather a different driving experience!
Pianists with an engineering background have one advantage. When they arrive at a difficult passage, by nature they dissect the passage and take apart all of the nuts and bolts, then put them all back together again. It is a perfect example of a difficult passage being a friend, not an enemy.
In my early teens I had a relatively severe teacher who required me to practice three hours a day during the school year and six hours a day during the summer. Which I did. The only problem was that I had no idea how to practice. Zero. She even said to me once, “I can’t practice with you!“
It is no wonder that practicing was a prison-like experience for me. I also had physical pain at the instrument, due to my posture, which was another thing that no grownup ever explained to me.
So there are 1,000,001 reasons not to practice. But there are also 1,000,001 reasons to rehearse! And if you feel that, with all the problems of the world, music is irrelevant, the opposite is true: Music is more necessary now than ever before.
Leonardo Ciampa is a composer/pianist/organist and instructor with Note-worthy Experiences Music Studio. Leonardo is also the founding director of MetroWest Choral Artists, an all-professional choir and Honorary Music Director (Maestro di Capella Onorario) of the Basilica di Sant'Ubaldo in Gubbio, Italy. From 2009-2016 Ciampa was the artistic director of organ concerts at M.I.T. For more about Leonardo please visit Leonardo's teacher page.