6 April 2018 Standlake
Amateurs practise until they get it right, professionals practise until it can’t go wrong.
I begin the day with new inspiration: yesterday I drove to Cheltenham, to the house of a friend, where I spent several hours playing piano quintets, and talking about life and music, and making plans for musical projects with a composer friend, and her twin sister, and further musical friends. I returned, within five minutes of the campsite closing for the night, with a new resolution, a new level of belief in what I am doing, and why, and where it might lead. We have inspired each other in our belief that so many things are possible, if we will them, and work for them.
It is still bitterly cold inside and outside of the van, and not much better in the Information Shed, which is not heated. I am in pain before I start, from the cold, and because the first finger on my left hand has split open and bled; an ongoing problem I have with extreme dehydration.
I know I said I would reverse the order in which I practise these pieces, but I find it is such a joy, after a warm-up, to start work with the Bach sonata. I know this work well as I have played it as trio sonata for two flutes and continuo, in my days as a flautist. To me it make sense to begin the day, as Casals did (albeit on piano), with Bach. Truly great music makes our brains fire in a way that merely pleasant or catchy or listenable music does not. By starting with Bach, I become a smarter, more expressive musician, and I feel I can overcome any difficulties in performing it, because it is worth the effort. One of the best ways to work through the anxiety which comes from setting ourselves a challenge is to find something that engages or intrigues us to the point that either we stop noticing the anxiety, or it dissipates.
Every little moment is magic, and it gives me a lot of joy to practise these tiny golden fragments. Today it is a sequence of descending five-note passages each with more or less the same fingering. I discover the importance of the quality of the first note for the whole phrase, and do some more work on leaving no trace when I surreptitiously change position in the middle of a slur.
Today I am really having difficulty perching on the lightweight foldable wooden chair in the Information Shed. It’s making it harder than necessary to be accurate, as I can’t quite get the cello anchored.
It starts off feeling a bit like one of those days when nothing will be achieved in practice. Tired from last night, I suppose, and ready to be home, and to return to my better, smaller cello. I don’t mind these days so much any more. I used to feel frustrated if I didn’t make some major breakthrough, and if I didn’t manage to get through the whole plan of work, I would feel there was a flag up all day. Unfinished business. Now I have come to see that even 10 minutes spent playing is of value, and that going through the motions is in fact worth it for its own sake. It is still contact with the instrument, still aural feedback, and it keeps the playing body in shape: the flexibility in the fingers, the calluses, the fingers on the bow. You don’t have to move forward for practice to be worthwhile, however, if you skip it, you will, in time, move backwards.
Telling myself this takes the pressure off, and I’m ready, mentally, to move forwards to Dotzauer. I’m working with the metronome again, and decide to start with the section that I worked on yesterday, at the same speed. This is deeply unsatisfactory. Gunk all over. I decide to grasp the matter of playing near the frog in forte by practising it softly, then bringing the volume up in increments. This means I’m stuck in the fourth bar.
It’s great in mezzo piano, but goes haywire the minute I up the dynamic to mezzo forte. I try the Suzuki technique of stopping the bow after each note, and this works wonders, yet again confirming that it is the turnaround from one bow direction to the other that causes the problem.
So that’s it for Dotzauer today. Half an hour spent on the same three bars.
Moving on to the second movement of the Bach, I find myself, perhaps not surprisingly, practising another sequence with only slight changes of fingering. The work done earlier in the practice session has paid off, and it comes off more or less smoothly.
I am coming up to the last few minutes of practice, before I must pack up the van and start the journey to pick up my daughter and head for the ferry, when I see two little faces peeking at me through the glass of the shed door. I jump up to see if they want something in the room, but it seems that I, or rather my cello, are the fascination. I issue an invitation to come in and try it, and the older one, who must be about seven, accepts. She plays piano, and has played a little violin, and manages to make Old Scratchy sound very pleasant. She skips off happily, and I think this is a good ending to my time in the Information Shed with Dotzauer and Bach. I’m ready for home.