Sometimes it pays to relate the complex world that we create for ourselves to simple principles. Stephen Covey did this when he discussed the Law of the Farm in his manual on life, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Learning a piece of music is not much different than planting a tomato. You have to be attentive from the beginning to the end of the process. I’m sure you’ve seen the difference between a tomato that is scrawny and one that is a spectacular celebration.
Sure, there are always external factors in farming, but that takes away from looking at the farmer’s role. There are some farmers who are more successful than others because they do everything in their power to produce the best result. The same is true about the factors that go into producing the best musical results!
Time And Attention Are Important
I try to have the conversation early on with my students and their parents about a good amount of practice per day. I talk about it in my post Guide Your Child to Independent Practice. While that article discusses guidelines towards practice time, it doesn’t discuss the limitations to practice. Some children might be able to focus for 10 minutes, whereas some might be able to focus for up to an hour. Focus might be easier on some days than others, or at certain times during the day. Lack of focus isn’t the only limitation to practice.
Distraction can be an enemy as well. It can be from a device like a cell phone, where you end up being your worst enemy. The distraction can also look more old-fashioned, as an adult student recently related to me. He sits down for his 30-minute practice session, but he’s frequently interrupted. It might be a work call, followed by his child who approaches with a homework problem that needs to be addressed. For him, waiting for that perfect block of time never comes along. Sometimes, it’s better just to start, then find your way back to the bench.
Frequency Is Also An Important Factor
Regular practice is the key to most students achieving the best results. However, that isn’t possible for some older students or adults whose free time is lumpy. They might participate in sports, which tend to have complicated schedules. They may have family obligations as well. The good news is these folks tend to have the gift of longer focus. They might be able to find those two or three days where they have longer blocks of free time, and they are able to take advantage of them. I often encourage my pre-teen and teen students to transition to a more realistic schedule of practice based on their particular schedule.
If there is anything relatable to the Law of the Farm it’s allowing plenty of time for recital or festival preparation. I make sure my students have plenty of time to learn a piece for a festival or recital, and I do the same for my own performing. If I have a recital coming up in a month or two, I try to get a jump on my practicing, because I cannot afford to get behind. However, I know that there will be weeks that certain things take precedence over my practice, and the same thing happens to my students. The good thing about advanced preparation is that you can deal with practice obstacles early enough to get back on track.
Sometimes, even advanced preparation doesn’t make the difference. It could be a timing issue, where a student gets involved with another school activity that parallels the critical practice phase. That commitment becomes consuming, with little time left over to practice. Sometimes a student just gets into a practicing funk, where finding joy on the piano becomes more important than the original goal. Although life is full of second chances, sometimes it’s clear that time wins and it’s better just to drop an unrealistic goal. The good news is that the next opportunity is likely to be just several months away.
Enjoy The Gift Of Time
You’ve probably heard many successful people say that their best ideas came to them away from their actual work, which for us would be on the bench. They might have had a discovery in the shower, while driving, or in the middle of their walk. The same is true with us. Our practice doesn’t end when we get off the bench. Our brains process all kinds of things even when we’re not intentionally focusing on them, but time is the key here. If you practice at the last minute, you don’t allow time to be your ally. I don’t want to come to a musical discovery about a piece two days after an important performance.
I Come Up Short, Too!
A couple of years ago, I performed a piece on the organ where I played the notes correctly, but I didn’t understand the musical style. It was an early Baroque piece by a composer whose music I hadn’t previously played. Since I was performing in a musical style rather foreign to me, I didn’t understand the larger form of the piece as well as I should have. There were lots of nuances that went unexpressed, trills that weren’t well-executed, and the registration was not varied enough. When I performed it the next time, the result was so much better.
There are also more times than I’d like to admit where I left the note learning to the last minute. The Law of the Farm applies to me too! Even if I was able to fool some or most of the people in the room, I disappointed myself. If you are your worst critic, you already know how that feels!
The kids that practiced hard did well, and those that didn’t, didn’t!Professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
(Said during a break in the action on a long day of semester-ending juries)
While I don’t recommend your wearing overhauls onto the concert stage, I would recommend paying attention to the Law of the Farm. There are no shortcuts to musical preparation. I have had my own farming successes and failures, and I’ve observed lots of good and bad farming practices through student performances. I’m talking about observation, not judgment. I may not know what limitations affected any particular performance, just like I might not know the heat or rainfall irregularity that impacted a growing season. I do know that all students, regardless of potential, can produce results that might even surprise them if honor the Law of the Farm.