January 2014

Think like a pro

January 10, 2014 16:21

I enjoy photography, and when I was a member of the Chicago Symphony I would often bug our photographer, Todd Rosenberg, when he wasn't strictly on the job. Sometimes I would show him a shot or two that I was proud of, and other times I might follow him around a party (with his permission!) just to watch him work. At one party he noticed me fussing with my camera settings one too many times, and said, "Look, try thinking like a pro for the next half hour. Do you see me messing with my camera, or do you see me shooting? I have to get shots of X number of donors or else I don't get paid. And they have to be good shots! Here..." and he took my camera and set it to a sensible aperture and shutter. "Now go take some good pictures. Watch the people, and shoot!"

I had a great half hour, pretending to be a pro, watching and shooting. And my shots had a different look, too! Not like Todd's, but not like the old me either. I think of this sometimes when I'm coaching or teaching the violin, especially for those who don't perform often. I ask people to "think like a pro" much more of the time.

What does this mean for the violin? Well, you can start by pretending that you find yourself in an unfamiliar situation: you have to learn a short piece (say one to three minutes long) by tomorrow and play it in front of people. Now, what would a pro do? He might play through it once or twice, slowly. Then he would write in the bowings and fingerings he wasn't likely to remember automatically. Then he'd start with the toughest spots and work each for 5 or 10 minutes. Then play through again and see where he was. Would it be perfect at the end of the day? Maybe not, but it would need to be good enough for a public performance.

I don't suggest this as the way to work all the time, of course. The music we play deserves time for reflection, and experimentation. But some students I know reflect all day long, and what actually comes out of the instrument is a pale reflection indeed! They never work with the kind of purpose they need to present a piece in performance. It's well and good for them to try and get just a little bit better each day, but what if they're getting in their own way? Many people would be surprised to learn that they limit themselves to their perceived level of improvement, even when more is possible.

I've had the privilege to watch or listen to many top soloists practice, and I'm always struck by just how good they sound even when slowly working a passage. They sound like the pros they are. I remember a colleague saying about one of these soloists, "She forgot how to play out of tune!" I love that expression. I used to have the bad habit of hitting my string with the metal of the bow near the frog, on big down-bow chords. I have the broken strings to prove it! But after deciding that it wasn't a professional thing to do, I've "forgotten" how to do it! The result took a while, but the decision happened one day in a practice room.

Now, there are plenty of tasks that require more than a day's work. For these, you truly must be patient and experience the two-steps-forward and one-step-back cycle. But if it's been a while, you owe it to yourself to try a different way of working: quit messing with the "settings", such as strings, bowings, fingerings, etc. Spend one day working something from start to finish, and see how you do. Think of it as a snapshot of you, the violinist. If you like what you see in the snapshot, remember how it felt to work that way, and tap into that focus every day. If you're disturbed instead (as I am when I see some casual shots of myself!) then choose one weakness and hit it hard the next day. Choose a different short selection, such as an etude, that is based on the weak technique. You'll likely see and hear progress right away. If you don't, that's the time to bring this technique to a teacher.

There are times I relish spending weeks or months with a piece of music. But those are fewer and further between the busier I get! In the meantime, I'm grateful to my teachers who taught me how to work quickly and efficiently, and to Todd, who reminded me that his kind of focus crosses all artistic boundaries.

Nathan is an ArtistWorks teacher at nathancoleviolin.com.

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