“Can we do some real music now?” – practice and the pursuit of perfection

Anita Datta
August 10, 2014

There is a story about a man who had heard great things of the  pianist and composer Rachmaninoff, and off the back of this reputation  went to visit him at his home. There he was shown into a waiting room  adjoining the music room and asked to wait a little while, as  Rachmaninoff was practising. The man was astonished to hear very little  from the adjoining room, but occasionally one or two random notes being  struck with great pauses in between. As for ‘practice’, he couldn’t hear  any. This went on for a long while, and the man grew increasingly  confused and irritated. Eventually Rachmaninoff emerged, greeted his  guest and excused himself for keeping his visitor waiting so long. His  feathers still ruffled, the visitor quipped, “Are you really the great  Rachmaninoff? They told me you were practising.” Rachmaninoff responded  with a wry smile, and sat down and played a spectacular work of his own  for the pleasure of his guest. Embarrassed, the visitor asked  Rachmaninoff again what he had been doing before their interview, to  which the composer returned, “If I don’t know where the notes are, how  do you expect me to play?”

We all know the tired adage, “Practice makes perfect”, and often  greet it with grumbling acceptance without asking what either ‘practice’  or ‘perfect’ might look like. For a start, one of the enigmas of music  is that it can never uncontestably be described as ‘perfect’. Every  performance of it is slightly different, and ‘perfect’ to the ears of  one is not necessarily ‘perfect’ to the ears of another. It is hardly  surprising that it is almost equally common to hear among musicians, “If  practice makes perfect and nothing’s ever perfect, why practise?” Yet  practice remains, less controversially, the greatest single component of  a musician’s life and development. Musicians in the Western Classical  tradition and its derivatives certainly spend far more time practising  than they do in performance, whether amateur or professional, and the  same is true in majority of what may be described loosely as comparable  musical traditions around the world. But what do musicians do when they  practise? And why do they do it? Most will tell you that they loathe it,  especially young musicians who are just learning. Practice can be so  thankless, so frustrating, and so boring.

The question of what practice is, and why it is useful, first  seriously struck me when I started teaching. Over the years I have had a  fair number of young students (some not so young), and would say that  out of a hypothetical ten, about five of them will be there only because  their parents want them to be, two will be studious and keen, and three  will want to play, but not learn. By this, I mean that they want to be  able to sit down and play without, as Rachmaninoff neatly put it,  knowing where the notes are. They do not want to practise.

I can fully understand why students, particularly those just starting  out, do not want to practise. The first year is probably the dullest of  all, since before you can even think to play anything (at least by  reading Western musical notation), you have to learn where the notes are  and practise finding them. You have to practise pressing down keys  whilst keeping your hand in the right shape or moving around strings in  the right way, and all other manner of joyless things whose relationship  to music is rarely apparent to a beginner.  Even at a more advanced  stage, ‘practice’ is not necessarily practising how to play a particular  piece. I was tickled when a six-year-old, after ten minutes of  practising her scales with me asked with a thoroughly deflated sigh,  “Can we do some real music now?” However I always remember what she said  and it has given me much food for thought.

Neuroscientists have also researched a great deal into the phenomenon  of practice from the point of view of seeking to understand how human  beings learn in the first place, and how practice plays a part in  neurological learning processes. At base, the current understanding of  how practice works builds upon the “Hebbian theory”, which understands  the benefits of practice in terms of relationships in electrical  activity in the brain. When the brain learns something a connection is  strengthened between two neurons as neuron A is stimulated, fires, and  causes activity in neuron B. That is, activity in neuron A stimulates  and facilitates activity in neuron B. According to Hebbian theory, when  neuron A stimulates neuron B repeatedly the connection between them is  strengthened such that A’s efficiency in producing the sympathetic  stimulation in B is increased. In this way practice increases the  probability of accurate reproduction of an intended muscular movement as  the corresponding synaptic connection in the brain becomes stronger  through repetition.

It is quite easy to see how this explanation of why practice works  would be instructive as an account of functional, even mechanical forms  of practice, such as the value of playing scales over and over again.  However one comes to realise that after finding the notes and practising  mechanistic physical movements, music practice spiders out in a panoply  of different directions, taking on creative and experimental forms of  its own. Indeed this may be why musicians have so long attracted the  attention of neuroscience researchers seeking to study the phenomena of  learning, practice, and the effects of repeated exposure to given  stimuli on the workings and structure of the human brain.

For a start, an apparently distilled or reductionist Hebbian learning  theory doesn’t seem to explain how musicians operating within a  particular musical culture, tradition, or genre learn to hear and  understand that music in a particular and idiomatic way. It is common to  hear, among musicians and non-musicians alike, that a particular person  has a “very good ear”, or conversely a “tin ear”, suggesting that they  have either a naturally good, or naturally non-existent, ability to  perceive, appreciate and reproduce music. However ethnomusicologists  have long noted that what passes for musicality in one style or genre  does not transfer automatically to another, across different ideas about  what passes for a musical ‘unit’ or different harmonic languages.  Within a Western context alone, consider the difference between a jazz  musician’s understanding and use of harmony and compositional devices  and those of a more traditionally trained Western classical musician. We  can further complicate these considerations by remembering that some  musical talents hinge upon performance given completely without practice  or prior rehearsal, Sight-reading, improvisation, and ‘jamming’ provide  but a few examples. Improvisation and jamming, moreover, are skills  that many virtuosic classical musicians will tell you that they simply  cannot do. This suggests that the ability to spontaneously produce music  is not as spontaneous as it might appear. These things are learned, or  at best cultivated. Contrary to popular assumption, they are never  totally innate.

Studies of the development of ‘musicality’, as perception and  responsiveness to sound stimuli, have contributed to more developed  neuroscientific theories. Building on Hebbian theory, it is now believed  that sensory experience leads to a genuine increase in sensitivity,  even in things that are ‘hard wired’, like visual processing. As for  understanding how it is possible to practice at not practising, it has  been suggested that Hebbian learning may also provide the basis for  activating higher-level cells in response to certain combinations of  learned stimuli. Thus practice may increase a person’s ability to focus  on learned ‘important’ aspects of a kind of stimulus – perhaps, the  culturally ‘important’ aspects of harmony, such as the relationship  between the tonic and the dominant,[1] for example.

Thus, ironically, improvising turns out to be a skill that  requires a great deal of practice. It is only after years of doing it  again and again and again that one can become truly skilled at learning  what particular shapes and kinds of chord will sounds like, predicting  how they will sound after the one you are (momentarily) playing, and  develop melody ideas in relation to what is going on around them.   Musicians have to practice the ability to ‘hear’ the quality of  different notes within a chord, or to pitch intervals off a tuning fork,  and only after a great deal of experience can conductors accurately  identify the mistakes they hear during an orchestral rehearsal. Also,  musicians have to be taught how to practice these skills, but sadly it seems that this area of musical education is sadly lacking.

Teaching, I find, turns out to be in large part about teaching  students how to practise. In the beginning it may be about teaching them  how to sit correctly at the piano or how to hold an instrument  properly. It them progresses to teaching them how to pay attention to  whether they are keeping a steady beat, and how to correct if they find  they are not. Later on teachers provide techniques for practising, for  getting particular movements into the brain. This gradual accumulation  of techniques and knowing when to use them form the artillery by which  the student can become an independent, self-critical, reflexive  musician.

Practice therefore entails much more than mechanistic repetition. If  one were to play a piece over and over again all that could hope to be  achieved would be the ability to play that piece in the same way over  and over again – although we might wonder how one could even get that  far without first practising where the notes are. In any case, what I  hope my six-year-old student is coming to understand as she approaches  her Grade 2 is that there is much more to practise than that. Practice  includes the sensitivity to detect what could be isolated and worked on  within the broader object of repetition, and deploying the correct  techniques to effectively wire it into your brain. Practice seeks after  not only perfection of a given muscular repetition, but pushes towards  the gradual development of increased sensitivity to musical stimuli and  creative ideas about how to respond to them. Indeed, on closer  inspection one comes to realise that jazz musicians, talented  sight-readers and those who are apparently blessed with a “good ear”  don’t actually lack practice – they simply practise differently, or more  widely, to those who sit and learn to play one particular piece. They  practise skills, sensitivity to music around them, and the ability to  predict harmony in a particular way. They practise at not practising as  it were, and as such they reveal that the end result of practice is not  always the pursuit of perfection. Practice never will make ‘perfect’ –  but practice might just make the musician.

The author expresses her grateful thanks to Daniel Worrall for his  explanations of the current neuroscientific approach to understanding  practice.



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Anita Datta