I'm told that I'm a very patient person. The truth is that I can be patient in most circumstances except those that involve... waiting. Yes, I realize the irony of this statement. And practicing (aka a mandatory period of work and waiting that takes place between starting and performing a new piece) is the ultimate test of my patience. After all, if I am a professional, shouldn't I be able to learn music as I play it? I can read it just fine... so why can't I just absorb it instantly? I'm a professional - do I really need to practice as much as my students do?
In mid-August I was invited to perform George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue as soloist for a concert at the Gordon Center for the Performing Arts (Maryland). The first -- and only -- rehearsal with orchestra would take place September 29, and the concert would be October 4. I gave my answer (an enthusiastic "Yes!") and then promptly ordered the music to see what I had gotten myself into.
Forty-one pages of music. Seventeen-and-a-half minutes of notes, harmonies, phrases, syncopations, and dynamics. Five weeks to learn it and play it with confidence, charm, precision, and personality - while balancing a rather full schedule of work, teaching, other performances, and settling into my home in New Hampshire. Could it be done? I'll admit that at some point I wondered if I would regret saying yes. But I wanted to prove to myself that I can learn quickly and confidently - and practice what I preach to my students.
This is where my Type A "neat freak" personality kicked in. I created my own practice boot-camp outline that specified the hardest technical spots by measure number and assigned a prescribed amount of repetitions and practice techniques, to be done daily. After all, I wasn't going to leave my performance success to chance. My interview with Towson University Men's Basketball Coach Pat Skerry reinforced the idea that repetition DOES matter. You need to know that under pressure you can rely on the knowledge that you've done what you need to do countless times.
Due to the complexity of what we do on stage (88 keys... 10 fingers...), an understanding of what we are repeating is imperative. Thus, I assigned myself a treasure-hunt of challenges to learn the score, ranging from writing up a formal outline of the piece (harmonies, rhythms, sections), comparing and contrasting all similar sections so as not to confuse them in performance, playing through the orchestral part and understanding my entrances, conducting the score, listening to (and practicing) with various recordings, and recording myself and listening back. A few days before the rehearsal I played for mentors, friends, and students.
This approach - so much more mature than my once-upon-a-time (childhood!) "play it until I remember it" manifested into a quicker learning process and a deeper sense of connection to the work.
The ultimate payoff: a successful performance that was FUN!
Elizabeth Borowsky is a pianist, teacher, and composer. She is a Nationally Certified Teacher of Music in Piano (Music Teachers National Association).