Micro practice

About practising part 2: Murray McLachlan explores Leschetizky’s approach to micro-practice.

The tick box culture of the ‘to-do list’ may be useful when we are shopping or doing the domestic chores around our homes, but it can be extremely harmful in daily instrumental or vocal development. Though music most obviously exists in the present – the now, musicians of all ages and experience can find it challenging to concentrate exclusively on sounds as they produce them. So many notes – and so little time!

Part 1: Both sides of the brain > 
PArt 2: Current blog
Part 3
: Internalisation & working away from the instrument >
Part 4: How to begin? >

Focus to microscopic sections of music

The temptation we all have to resist is the desire to move forward without properly focusing on what we are doing currently. We need to immerse ourselves in the present and give total focus to microscopic sections of music and unconditionally embrace loving care for each individual not we play or sing.

Naturally many of us find this challenging. Worldly targets and deadlines can make us prioritise learning goals over a love of sound production. If we worry about the speed with which we are ‘covering’ repertoire, impatience can become overwhelming.

Quantity over quality

In our eagerness to prepare large works there is a danger that we prioritise quantity over quality. We can lose the love of creating beautiful individual sounds at each moment of practise. We may brood on what we have just done… or anticipate with dread or impatience what is about to occur.

The desire to move on at any given moment can prove too strong. Practising can feel pressurised when there are so many notes to sort out in such a small number of practice hours. In short it is all too easy to feel overwhelmed, even rather angry about the speed of progress.

There is no doubt that impatience and anger are completely self-defeating and negative in the practice studio. To lose focus over the quality of sound we are producing by taking on extended passages to play through rather than to perfect them in small, manageable musical units is extremely dangerous: any broad brushstroke approach will lead to approximation and a lack of reliability and focus.

Staleness and lack of motivation

But perhaps even worse than that is the fact that staleness and lack of motivation are more likely to appear when you are working without proper care for detail.

Generalised overviews simply do not work if you want to connect with your music, lose yourself in the sounds and feel immersed. We can all aim for the highest standards, remembering Ferruccio Busoni’s comment about great playing equating to ‘stained glass windows in churches.’

One single crack in the glass is one too many: in our practising we should never allow even a single flaw to pass. Our loving, attentive care, especially if delivered with beautiful tone and in slow tempo, will function as a nurturing force not only for individual technical and musical issues per say, but also for our broader love and respect for music.

Warm up emotionally

Clearly it is vital to be in a healthy psychological state before going near an instrument to practise it. Warming up emotionally to play is an often-neglected area of concern in music education, but is just as vital as physical warm-ups.

Of course, the two can be approached simultaneously via slow deep breathing, and by prioritising positive and mindfully immediate thoughts as we stretch then improvise and tackle slower pieces, exercises, and scales…

Practice goals v creative focus

…But all of that will count for little if you enter the practise studio with ‘last minute-itis’ and specific goals of quantity in mind. To decide in advance that you have to learn X number of pages after an hour or two is to lose creative focus and to potentially court disaster.

The motoric aesthetic of plunging through bars and bars of notes may be productive for sight reading purposes, but invariably leads to less short-term interest in colour, quality of sound and microscopic detail.

This in turn leads to superficiality, lack of intensity… and ultimately to much less passionate care for the music being studied. How sad that many do not realise that this approach can be easily abandoned and seen as counter-productive when replaced by a much more concentrated, micro-chunk approach, with musical units lovingly explored with total focus and disregard for the clock.


Leschetizky’s approach to micro-practice

Though micro-practice may sound like a modern fad, work in small concentrated musical units was encouraged by both Chopin (who insisted that students never did more than three hours daily practice) and the great teacher-composer-pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky (1830–1915).

Though micro-practice may sound like a modern fad, work in small concentrated musical units was encouraged by both Chopin (who insisted that students never did more than three hours daily practice) and the great teacher-composer-pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky (1830–1915).

With a remarkable list of past students that include Paderewski, Cortot, Schnabel and many other illustrious international performers, Leschetizky stands unquestionably as one of the greatest pedagogues of all time.

He was famous for consistently recommending a slow, steadfast approach in his lessons. This was emphasised to an extreme on more than a few occasions when an entire lesson of sixty minutes would be devoted to the exploration of a solitary bar!

The wonderfully sentimental but thoughtfully provoking study of his pedagogical approach from Annette Hullah, Theodor Leschetizky is still available in Kindle and reprinted formats from various websites, and makes lucidly clear just how concentrated and intense the Leschetizky approach was:

He takes the first bar, or phrase … and dissects it until every marking is clear … he practises each detail as he comes to it. He puts all the parts together, learning it by heart as he goes, finishing one section, making it as perfect as he can in every respect, both technically and musically, before he attempts the next.

What is required of him is that he shall study every piece of music so thoroughly that he knows every detail of it, can play any part of it accurately, beginning at any point, and that he can visualise the whole without the music – that is, see in his mind what is written, without either notes or instrument.

Leschetitzky’s approach can be usefully adopted for practising most repertoire, but these days for me personally I always return to Rachmaninov when my practising focus is a concern.

Mindfulness in practising

Indeed, when thinking of mindfulness in practising, we could all do much worse than start with the piano music of Rachmaninov. His glorious music always seems to guard against ‘quick fix’ options. Luxuriating in colour and voicing in ‘the now’ always yields far more creativity than pressing forward with generalised endeavour.

The richness of Rachmaninov’s piano oeuvre never ceases to amaze, with so many contrapuntal possibilities, so many voicings and chromatic notes to project, explore and highlight in the practice studio.

I immediately think of the extraordinary progressions in the intermezzo movement of the third concerto, the opus thirty-nine studies, the 24 Preludes… the list goes on and on.

Can we think of Rachmaninov as the Russian Bach’? Certainly, the possibilities for projecting new highlights in textures, new inner voices, finding new colours, seems infinite here.

Having said that, I look back on one engagement that proved just how harmful manic practising with tight time limits could be! Once I had to learn and memorise Rachmaninov’s third Concerto in 22 days from scratch, and though the task was accomplished and the concert dispatched successfully, the sense of dissatisfaction felt whilst practice continued was considerable and disconcerting.

Rising at 5am and practising till late at night regularly is not to be recommended for prolonged periods of time. After over three weeks of this the concert went by in something of a manic blur.

My post-concert fatigue was accompanied by the feeling that a great, personal love felt for this masterpiece had been devalued and damaged by what I had endured in the three weeks prior to the concert.

Suffering does not begin to describe what it can feel like to push yourself to assimilate and memorise so many notes. From the outside working round the clock with this wonderful concerto in such a goal-oriented (and fearful!) manner may seem quite ‘sporty’ and exciting in a dare-devil sense.

One thought on “Micro practice

  1. Diane Paul says:

    My teacher at the manchester school of music was a student of Leschetizky in Vienna. He won a bursary to study with him and he passed on his teaching methods to his own students. Robert Gregory came fom a family of church organists in Whitefield, a well known concert pianist in his time and a wonderful teacher and human being. I still miss him.

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