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When is a piece perfected?

Hi!

So my question is, when should I stop practicing a piece? I feel like once I memorize something it takes sooo long to get better. When I leave a piece alone for awhile and then come back it usually sounds better. Why? When will it be perfected?

Ella

  1. cleocleo05-17-2013

    Hi Ella!

    You ask a wonderful question! I hope you won’t be put off by my lengthy reply…

    “Perfecting” a piece is maybe not the best way to think of practicing. Music is an art, and the purpose of art is beauty and affect (as in how it changes someone emotionally or brings up memories etc). Over our lifetimes, our individual experiences and philosophies will guide a musician to many different interpretations of a piece, each perfect in its own way for what it is trying to express and say through varied nuances. So the idea that there is a “perfect” incarnation of whatever it is you’re working on is inherently flawed. Maybe today you really liked this one way you played a piece, but in ten years, maybe you’ll have changed your mind and there’s a “more perfect” way to play it.

    On a more depressing note, as you develop as a musician, you become more and more sensitive to the little details in your sound, phrasing, etc. This is all a natural part of improving and getting better. However, what it means is that if you are truly practicing and listening to yourself, the more issues you will hear in your own playing, and that the more you practice, the pickier you become. This has the effect of making practicing feel like endless drudgery, where no matter how hard you work, it still sucks to your ear. So in a sense, if you are always pushing to improve and striving towards greatness, you should never find a piece to be perfected. If you do, you’re probably not paying close enough attention because there is always something you can do differently (or especially in a student situation, better).

    Yes, getting something better takes a lot of time. It is incredible frustrating, and it is invaluable to have an outlet for that frustration (punch a pillow, scream at a score, chuck it across the room…just try not to hurt your instrument or yourself!). This part of the process never gets any easier. Instead of striving for perfection, recognize that every piece is a work in progress, and know that by practicing you are learning and honing your skills technically and artistically as you go.

    You shouldn’t work on a piece for so long that you are sickened by the sight or sound of it though. That’s a sad day for the piece if you torture yourself so much that you’ve wrung every drop of music from it and turned it into an étude. That said, I think you should work on a piece until you feel comfortable performing it for others, and feel confident that if you should pick it up again at a latter time, that you’ve done sufficient and good work so next time it’ll take you less time to ready it for performance. Some pieces will stay in your body for years and years, while others will always be evil at first sight. But even for those cases where you basically have to start from scratch every time, you will learn what your struggles are and be able to anticipate how to approach it better next time.

    So in conclusion: approach pieces with a mind towards what the piece can teach you as your musical sensibilities are developing. There is no one “perfect” way to play anything. It takes everybody repetitive practice and performance to truly “live with” a piece and develop an individual interpretation that can change performance to performance (just listen to Glenn Gould’s early Goldberg Variations vs late recordings!). Try instead of think of how practicing a certain phrase or lick is helping you develop as a whole musician and reap those benefits.

    I hope this helps! 🙂

    Yours,
    Cleo

    DMA Flute Performance, expected 2014

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