Music is inherently difficult because there is no such thing as a perfect performance. When learning a new piece, it’s routine to get to the point where everything sort of works, but it’s still not great. I’m talking about my playing, too. It’s not just my students. I call this place the 80% malaise or the 80% plateau. It feels good because everything is sort of working. But you haven’t arrived at great! It often takes extra practice to take care of troublesome technical passages or to make sure that those tricky transitions make musical sense. It doesn’t happen on its own. You have to be purposeful to make those refinements.
A Teacher Helps
Students have that built-in helper: their teacher. She will point out all of the places that have the potential to be better. It could be little stops and starts, unclear phrases, or a lack of dynamic contrasts. However, in order to take advantage of that help, it’s crucial for the student to practice within a day or so after the lesson. Or, at the very least, to work through the suggestions, even if that’s just with a pen, a notepad, and the scores for reference. I have often written in measure numbers on scores just so I can make notes that are clearly referenced.
But You Still Must Do the Work
There’s nothing more disheartening when a student comes back making the same mistakes, and remembers the lesson details less clearly than me. When this doesn’t happen, it puts the teacher in a bind. Do I take the time to explain all of these things again, as patiently as possible? Or, do I just move on, since I don’t want a student to get bogged down on one piece, even if it’s squarely on that student for happening. While I always strive to give my students my best, I realize that not all students are striving to be excellent. Some are satisfied with just good enough.
When I train my athletes, it’s a dictatorship with three rules: show up, work hard, and listen. If you can do those three things, I can help you. If you can’t we have no use for each other. I will bust my a** for you every way possible, but I expect you to do the same for yourself. I’m not going to work harder than you do for your benefit. Show me you want it, and I’ll give it to you.Tim Grover, trainer to elite NBA athletes, including Michael Jordan 1
Try A Digital Audio Recorder
A good digital recorder can be helpful to both students and professionals alike. There is one built into your phone, and it might be all you need. However, there are limits since the fidelity won’t be great. I own separate Zoom audio and video recorders. The Zoom brand is widely used by serious musicians; you can get the base models for $200 or less. I list some models on my books page that can be found from my Piano Parent Portal.
A generation ago, the Sony Professional Walkman cost far more than this, and that’s before adjusting for inflation. Listening to yourself while not playing can give you an unbiased perspective that you can’t get any other way.
Even though it’s true that we’ll never be perfect, striving to be better is always worth the effort. There’s lots of guidance on that score to get you closer to musical nirvana, and you might have a teacher to give you that extra boost. In the end, it’s up to us to decide whether we’re going to do the hard work that makes our listeners sit up in our seats, or just looking around waiting for the performance to end.
1. Relentless by Tim Grover (h/t James Clear) – NOT an affiliate link