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I don't have an hour for Basics either.

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Published: January 26, 2015 at 8:38 AM [UTC]


I found something like these words on Youtube:

"I think you need to do some scales. Get away from the music. Forget the music because everything can be an exercise. The exercise improves your technique to be able to express yourself. It is a misconception. We are not expressing Schubert. You are expressing your feelings. Its not what's written, it's what you feel. But you have to have the mechanism organized so you can feel free to express yourself."

The speaker is Pinchas Zukerman, and he is giving Helena Baillie a viola lesson. You can start at 3.12 to get right to them if you so wish.

They express why I feel so passionately about Basic things to perfection. In my last blog, the perfectly reasonable recurring point about there "not being enough time to do Basics as well as everything else," cropped up again. In this blog, I am going to try to get around this issue, in the hope that more people will take a second look at what Basics has to offer rather than consigning it to the piano stool. So, first clean up your piano stool and buy it a potty......

The negative response to Basics is often couched in one-hour terms, as in "If only I had an extra hour to spare." Most people don't. But we can approach the problem from another angle. Suppose you adopt my suggestion and just do one exercise from each half of the book every da , for perhaps three days or whatever feels right. Then tick it off and go to the second. Set a kitchen timer for five minutes and read the first page. If you don't have time to do the exercise, who cares? When that ping goes, reset the clock and go to the second half. Reading, digesting and doing the little exercise is probably not five minutes work, so you might even want to stop the clock early. In the space of ten minutes, you have absorbed and perhaps put into practice two crucial aspects of playing and your technical knowledge of the instrument has increased quite substantially. It's quite possible that in the two areas addressed you now know more than your teacher!

That is worth ten minutes, I think.

But even this idea does not fully address what Basics can do. Exercises feed into your playing, both consciously and unconsciously. Let's consider the latter first. Suppose, hypothetically, you are practicing two hours a day.  You want to spend half an hour of that time on scales and studies and the remainder on music.  You have just reduced your time spent on music by ten minutes. Is that good or bad?

 If we recognize that exercises are a short cut to fast and effective improvement in both pieces and scales, then we can answer positively. The unconscious integration of your new knowledge into your playing has already improved the sound you are making by one ten billionth of a degree and increased your satisfaction by a similar amount. It has also decreased the amount of time you might need trying to locate a tension problem so the time saving is already eating away at that ten minutes. But you have just started. In the second half of the week you switch to the second exercise in each section. Now the input can really begin to make a difference and the time saving starts to increase exponentially without you realizing it.

However, it's when you get to the point where you start to consciously apply an exercise you have worked on in this ten minutes that you start to make huge gains. This process may take a little longer, but it will happen if you are consistent in the procedure. Suppose, for example, you are playing a work that requires you to crescendo and increase intensity across a long note. Your teacher has told you this but, as is fairly typical I'm afraid, not told you how to achieve this. Whereas in the past you have fumbled around trying to express the music musically and got more tense and screwed up, now you can remember exercise 39 and move from the fingerboard to the bridge using the slanted bow. This is pretty easy basic knowledge, but in all the years I studied, not one teacher at any level discussed this idea with me!

Or perhaps you are wanting to focus on intonation as the main area for improvement. You can save a lot of time by playing exercise 255 for five minutes in the key of that piece. The actual time on the music would decrease slightly, but the amount of faulty intonation would have decreased without you working on it so more time and space is available for higher order skills. 

I could carry on giving examples all day but I think the approach is clear enough. One starts slowly and carefully with the minimum investment of time, and once the incremental but consistent improvement in performance becomes obvious, one wonders what one was spending time on before. Sadly, the answer might be not quite as much as one originally thought.....


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From Christina C.
Posted on January 26, 2015 at 5:10 PM
Preach Buri! Preach!

Don't worry, you converted me a long time ago.... in theory but unfortunately not in practice.... literally. I'm resolving to do better, though. I've been all about streamlining my practice sessions to focus more on basic technical work so incorporating a few of Fischer's exercises should work quite well.

From Zina Francisca
Posted on January 26, 2015 at 5:19 PM
So this would be the strategy as I understand it: just spend 10 minutes of time on a total of 2 exercises every day for 6 months (there are 300 exercises in the book) getting acquainted with all the exercises, so you know where to find them when you hit a snag. Then you'd have a great toolbox at your disposal. Neat. I can do that! Thank you for making it look feasible.


EDIT: Anybody out there who'd be interested in doing a 6 months challenge? Maybe we could support one another to move through Basics cover to cover in this manner?

From Karen Collins
Posted on January 26, 2015 at 5:23 PM
From Elinor Estepa
Posted on January 26, 2015 at 9:22 PM
Ah, Buri, you've done it again. You nailed this stuff, this book has been great for some and just a blank stare for others. Thank you for shedding some light on this book and all its series.
Bravo! Really, really good to hear from you again. Stay well!


From Mendy Smith
Posted on January 27, 2015 at 2:14 AM
I watched that entire masterclass video and was stunned by how similar it is to my own weekly lessons with my teacher. We call it "tools for my tool-box", and add a new one each week or so.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on January 27, 2015 at 2:42 AM
sounds like you have agreat teacher.
Is it just me or was that other person just about the rudest person on the planet?:)
If I was giving lesson and someone butted in like that I would get really mad. Is it a viola player thing that I don't get?
From Paul Deck
Posted on January 27, 2015 at 4:13 AM
I had the same experience, that when I watch master classes I often get the feeling that my teacher just covered that or said something similar in one of my recent lessons. I was REALLY surprised that an advanced student had never learned how to practice the scales that way, where you advance the tempo systematically by changing the number of notes per bow.

Another thing I noticed, it was when I was watching Chee-Yun teaching that boy on the Tchaikovsky concerto. I thought he was playing very well, but the she played one passage and wham! Her tone, it was just so much more focused and developed, the difference was incredible. That shouldn't have surprised me, I guess, but it did.

Exercise 255 is the kind of thing that is just great to play in the key of the day because it really cuts to the essence of the intonation problem.

For the jazz pianist, I recommend choosing a Charlie Parker tune, say Donna Lee or Ornithology, and learning the melody in two hands (two octaves apart) in all 12 keys. I've tried it, and it's hard, but if I was studying the piano seriously that's the first thing I'd do.

I appreciate Buri taking his time to spell all of this out for us, but if you turn to page VIII of Basics you will see that Fischer himself wrote a whole page called "How to Use Basics." Like all his other writing, it's crystal clear.

From Bev Saunders
Posted on January 27, 2015 at 7:22 AM
Excellent suggestions Buri! I will confess that I don't use Basics because it seems like so much more to add to my daily practice. But I can see myself taking on much smaller portions.

On another note, was that an obnoxious stage Mom or what? If a parent pulled a stunt like that in my class, I wouldn't be so nice.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on January 27, 2015 at 10:55 AM
I suppose it's her regular teacher, but it's pretty shocking....
Reminded me of the Python Spanish inquisition,
Posted on January 27, 2015 at 2:59 PM
Great blog Buri! I missed your writing.

Ahem, if you're speaking of the woman with the glasses in the video, that's Zukerman's assistant. :) They team-teach. She's great.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on January 27, 2015 at 7:05 PM
then it`s more like the goon show...
From Mendy Smith
Posted on January 28, 2015 at 12:30 AM

I would guess that was her regular teacher. I didn't see it as obnoxious, but then again I have a very high tolerance for you-name-it. :)

From Paul Deck
Posted on January 28, 2015 at 1:19 PM
Nobod expects the teaching assistant?

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