But I Played It Perfectly At Home!

November 21, 2013, 11:59 AM · But-I-Played-It-Perfectly

(Lakini nilicheza vizuri kabisa nyumbani.)

Hujambo! I’m learning Swahili. I’m using an audio-based language method, so every morning I plug in earbuds and go for a long walk around my neighborhood muttering responses to the recorded prompts.

Linguaphiles say Swahili isn’t a difficult language. But it’s difficult for me. I need to practice each half-hour “daily” lesson several days in a row before I feel confident enough to move forward. Lately, my brain’s so saturated, I’ve started to dream in Swahili. (Due to my limited vocabulary it’s a pretty boring dream: I’m sitting at a bus stop exchanging bland pleasantries with a faceless announcer.)

So my heart skipped a beat the other day when I overheard the man behind the bakery counter telling the customer ahead of me that he was from Kenya. Here was a chance to try out my repertoire on a real person. My mind began to race: where to start? I would greet him politely with the sentence Excuse me, sir! I speak Swahili. Just a little, not very well! It’s a string of phrases I’d learned in the first lesson and have practiced hundreds of times.

But as I stepped up to the counter, my tongue grew heavy in my mouth. The words I thought I knew so well flew out my head like a flock of startled pigeons. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t speak.

“I’ll have a whole wheat baguette,” I blurted out instead.

Sisemi Kiswahili! I need more rehearsals before I'll be ready to take this show on the road.

When my kids were small I sat in on their violin lessons. I wrote down everything their teachers said and supervised their daily practice sessions. Once in a while they’d pick up a new skill seemingly without effort after a simple demo from the teacher. But for the most part, it didn’t come so quickly. They practiced dutifully, improving a little each day, so that by the end of the week they had mastered that vibrato exercise, or third position drill, or whatever they were supposed to be working on.

Then off we’d go to the lesson to demonstrate the fruits of all that hard work. Except—often, much too often, everything would promptly fall apart.

“But she was doing it perfectly at home!” I’d insist, baffled and frustrated. How could this happen? It was as if there’d been no practicing at all week. The teacher would smile patiently and go back to square one, same lesson all over again. Same lesson, same practicing, all over again. Because, as it eventually dawned on me, a skill is not truly mastered if you can only pull it out under optimal conditions. In, say, the comfort and privacy of your living room with your cat snoozing on the sofa beside you. Or only while strolling through your neighborhood conversing with the voice inside your iPhone. Playing for your teacher, or speaking Swahili to a real, live person in the bakery, is a kind of performance. After a skill is truly learned, you will be able to demonstrate it successfully even when you’re under performance-generated stress. Until then, your newfound skill requires lots of practice and gradual exposure.

As she grew older, my daughter’s teacher taught her to introduce each piece of newly-learned repertoire in incrementally stressful performance situations. Start out, he advised, playing it for your family, and then for the kid who has the lesson after yours. Next, play it in studio class. Then in a casual performance hour. Then take it to a nursing home, or perform it in front of your high school assembly. Gradually, the piece you are working on “hardens”; you know it well enough that’s it’s internalized. Now you’re ready for a higher-stakes performance.

When she was in high school my daughter took her repertoire into as many performance situations as she could think of in advance of important auditions. She over-prepared, so that her fingers would be able to take control while her mind weathered situational anxiety or other stress. When you’re over-prepared, you can play well even when you’re feeling sick, or if you’re caught in traffic and arrive too late to warm up. The earliest performances, the low-stakes trials, are rarely perfect—and that’s why they’re so useful. They help you locate weak spots and catch out mistakes that don’t generally surface when you’re performing in the living room for your cat.

At her college conservatory, my daughter’s teachers host weekly studio performance classes, where students try out repertoire in front of each other, and offer constructive critique. One of her teachers also arranges supplementary weekly “play-through classes”,  informal performance opportunities moderated by grad students and senior members of the studio. The conservatory awards interdisciplinary performance fellowships that allow small groups of musicians, dancers, and actors to give short concerts at in-patient facilities throughout the city. You might think that serious-minded conservatory students wouldn’t value performances that don’t really “count”—but it’s the opposite. These trial runs are some of the most important of all because they help fortify the big performances just around the corner.

A couple weeks ago I ran into my neighbor and her husband as they were on their way to visit her elderly mother. The retirement community has a Sunday afternoon concert series, so there happened to be a recital after lunch. Our neighbors rushed home, to tell us with breathless excitement about a young violinist who’d played a most astonishing program. Had we heard of him? His name was Benjamin Beilman. Later that week, walking past Lincoln Center, I noticed a billboard featuring 23-year-old Beilman, one of the most promising young soloists of his generation, who was about to make his Carnegie Hall debut, to critical acclaim. It's instructive for the rest of us to know that, a few nights before, he ran his program at an obscure retirement home in Pennsylvania.

There’s a romantic notion of the genius who springs fully formed, playing Paganini caprices straight his mother’s womb. Sure, some of us learn faster than others. No doubt a rarified few might be ready to perform a full concerto by memory with the New York Philharmonic after a single sight-reading. But this idea, this movie cliché, does the rest of us disservice. It makes us give up in frustration if we don’t get it right the second, third, or fifteenth time. “I’m no good at languages/math/music.” Sound familiar? I’ve said all three plenty of times in my own life, and now, late in the game, I’m wondering what I could have accomplished if I had not been so easily discouraged when, for example, I couldn’t reproduce my weekly practicing results at my childhood piano lessons.

Pole pole ndio mwendo! I’m going out for a walk now, to practice with my recordings a little more.



November 21, 2013 at 08:58 PM · I guess we've all said it at some point - but perhaps me more than most: I'd work hard for hours on something, think it was good only to have it all unravel when played before a teacher.

I am sure there are many factors but I don't have this problem any more. Why? Because I don't expect to play perfectly for my teacher - I happen to known that playing perfectly is what you do at the other end of learning, if you are very, very lucky and even then one person's perfect is someone elses fail. I expect critique, indeed, I welcome it for I know that it is going to make me a better player.

But what I think I have learned is that if the student expresses this - the TEACHER needs to look at their methods for it means the student is not being realistic in the lesson room. And I guess the more students that say it, the more seriously you should try to explore better ways of creating a learning environment.

November 21, 2013 at 09:54 PM · I have a friend (I have listed links to his virtuoso performances previously) who always over prepares. We recently hosted a home concert where he played the Sarasate Carmen Fantasy (among others) which he has yet to play in public. He has no current performance plan for it but he played it (brilliantly) for our <20 guests just to continue his preparation.

November 22, 2013 at 12:07 AM · Interestingly, as far as my orchestral repertoire is concerned it's just the opposite. I've just got back from the first of three rehearsals of Mozart's syms 39, 30 and 41, which we are performing on November 30. We've had the parts for less than a week, so I've been sweating buckets trying to bring some faint semblance of perfection to the music of Mozart (one of the most intractable of composers in this respect), but with apparently not much success.

In the Bristol Classical Players we are blessed with a charismatic conductor who believes in rehearsing at performance speed, and in this case he told us his model is Charles Mackerras and the Prague Chamber Orchestra (in other words, PDQ). To my surprise, the rehearsal went smoothly for me, with no disasters. I've experienced this sort of thing before and I think the answer lies in safety in numbers, and because there isn't the added baggage of playing solo I'm probably more relaxed.

Now working on a piece at home to play back to my teacher at the next lesson is a rather different matter, but even so, it's getting easier as time goes by.

As an aside, I believe that the music of Mozart (and Haydn) can often be difficult for us moderns to play cleanly. One useful approach I've adopted with difficult orchestral passages in music of that period is to think through how a violinist then would have fingered it without the benefit of a chin rest (it's nearly always fingering that's the problem). It turns out that these problems go away for me if I use the 2nd, 3rd and 4th positions. I believe this is what Haydn and Mozart would have had in mind when they wrote the music - it wasn't in their interests to write stuff that was beyond their performers. So, be warned that fingerings in some modern editions are not always a reliable guide; work out your own, and don't be afraid to use open strings in period music.

November 22, 2013 at 09:45 AM · I can relate with this. I play beginner violin and every time during my class I think this exact thought! "But I played it perfectly at home"

Also as a native Swahili speaker I feel obliged to tell you, But I played it perfectly at home translates to , "Lakini nilicheza vizuri kabisa nyumbani", or something like that. What you've done is direct translation which does not obey the grammar rules of Swahili.

All the best from Kenya!! Nakutakia kila la heri

November 22, 2013 at 04:47 PM · Thank you! I am not advanced enough to say that in Swahili, so I had to use Google translate! I will correct it on the essay. :)

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