Finishing A Piece

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Your teach assigns you a new piece, the Courante from Bach 3rd Cello Suite say, and you start to practice it at home.

The first few attempts are pretty bad. You can’t even really hear the melody. Finally you resort to ignoring the rhythm, playing half notes for everything. Doing this allows you to understand the left hand movements. Here a shift, there an extension, at this point bar two strings with your fore finger.

With the rough blocking in place you add in the rhythm and it starts to sound like a piece of music. Slowly, carefully, you keep adding measures and phrases on to the tail end of what you can play.

After a few nights it starts to sound like the recording. Albeit much slower than the recording, but still recognizable as the 3rd Suite Courante. Woo-hoo, you’ve learned a new piece.

Only you haven’t.

You’ve discovered all the parts of the piece, and can hold some subset of them in your playing if you focus. A subset, but not the whole thing yet. Rhythm and slurs and nicely bouncy but somewhat poorly intonated. Intonation nailed down cold, but no consistent tempo.

Starting a new piece is fun and exciting. Finishing a new piece is plain hard work. The work of discovery and figuring out at the start of a new piece is vastly different than the work of polish and mastery that comes in the middle stages.

At first you are mindful of one thing at a time - half notes to hear the tones of the piece. Then the printed rhythm without slurs, grace notes, or any dynamics to get the melody. Each layer of the piece is added individually. Once you have all the layers assembled, you have to shift mental gears. You have to find a way to make the piece a part of you so you can play it without thinking about it.

In Karate-do we talk of mushin or the mind of no mind. Watch an adult tie their shoes sometime. The motions are swift, economical, sure, and not thought about consciously. A practiced typist doesn’t think about each letter, they form words and phrases fluidly and gracefully. Their hands and fingers know what to do with out being guided every step of the way.

I’ve come to the realization that completing a piece requires a bit of mushin. I need to be able to play the notes without thinking about them. The movements of my arms, hands, and fingers need to be flowing, fluid, graceful, economical, and sure - all without my consciously thinking about it.

To reach that stage of playing requires a different mindset than learning the mechanics of the piece. This transition from mechanical playing to organic music making is where I get bogged down. My mechanical self wants to get all the notes correct - correct intonation at the correct time with the correct dynamic and so on. This interferes with producing music organically. I need to learn to trust that I can play the piece and focus on making music. And that focus needs to be relaxed, broad, and encompassing, not narrow, nit-picky, and precise.

I know that this organic music making is possible. I can and do play organically, but usually pieces of music that I’ve played for a very long time. My hope is to shorten the incubation period so that I can finish a piece is less time, with less struggle.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Mastodon.