by Khoo Hui Ling
How many of us have practised whilst mulling over dinner possibilities? Or perhaps have unknowingly slid into ‘OCD’ repetition mode during a practice session? Surely we have at some point realized with a jolt that we are forgetting to listen intently to ourselves?
We’ve all been there, because we are human. However, students often get lost in there, the doldrums of unfocused practising, unable to find their way out. To help students navigate out of this vicious cycle, I have to script their inner conversation.
For inside each of us, there lives a little voice. We are always having conversations with this little voice. It is a way of perceiving our surroundings, a means to making decisions. Teaching students to be aware of and to use this inner conversation is the key to effective and efficient practice.
How To Develop An Inner Conversation
The skilful use of concise language to teach is imperative in developing a strong inner conversation for students. Professor of Piano at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Thomas Hecht is a master at that. Dr. Hecht is a very dear teacher who apart from imparting enduring life lessons, also taught me how to listen and not merely hear. In a recent presentation entitled “Launching My ‘SMART’ Piano Studio”, Dr. Hecht showed how his teaching concepts have been economically abbreviated into interactive ‘apps’ which are screened onto a wall right in front of students in his studio. The Gattacca of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory!
However, the ingenious use of technology is merely scraping the tip of the iceberg. After all, the ‘apps’ would not be fully understood unless one were a student of Dr. Hecht. The real genius lies in the succinct use of language to teach, a language that has helped generations of students to organize sound and categorize abstract musical concepts with ease. Catch phrases such as “getting beneath sound”, “air pockets” or “tone tendencies” to name a few, would ignite a knowing smile amongst his students.
In fact, it is a language that empowers students to teach themselves! This language has been a guiding force in my own inner conversation in my practice and performance ever since. Now that I teach, it has inspired me to refine my own teaching language too.
During usual lessons, I work on microscopic musical details with students. As a performance nears, students start running through their pieces for me. Often, this is a phase of nasty shocks. Meticulously taught details are not executed despite being reinforced in multicoloured pens that sometimes almost render the score a Jackson Pollock.
I used to furiously assume that students either could not be bothered to make the music sound as good as possible, or that I had somehow failed in conveying the importance of musical refinement. That is, until my most honest and adorably thick-skinned student admitted in exasperation, “I’m really trying but somehow I only remember the details 2 bars after they were supposed to have been played.”
My face be like Legolas:
My remedy to that is to make the student freeze whilst keeping their hands at the keyboard right at the point when an often neglected detail occurs. They then shout out (yes, at the top of their voice) how they are going to execute that detail. I often do this at selected spots before allowing the student to run through a piece. The point is to make anticipation a habit, so in all honesty, the comical bellowing is not necessary and fulfils a purely self-entertaining purpose. However, I’ve noticed that students will make anticipation a point in future run-throughs to avoid this embarrassing exercise which elicits fits of giggles from the helper in the kitchen.
The above example of anticipation sounds manageable. Well, what if one had countless sequences of details that needed to be anticipated throughout say, a half-hour long Liszt sonata? Indeed, a huge amount of mental stamina is required.
They say that it isn’t healthy for musicians to be cooped up in their practice rooms all the time. It is true. The world is big and there’s a lot to be learnt from people from all walks of life. Most certainly, there’s a lot to learn about mental stamina from Alex Honnold.
Alex Honnold is an American rock climber famous for his free-solo ascent of various peaks, especially El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in America. A free-solo ascent meant that Honnold was climbing without ropes or safety equipment. El Capitan stands at 2307 metres tall and one small slip on the ascent meant that he would fall to his death. To stay alive, Honnold had only one chance to perform a series of climbing sequences perfectly.
After a long non-musical inner conversation on whether such a feat was worth the risk (the answer is ‘no’ to me), I started to appreciate Honnold’s extraordinary mental stamina and wondered how he trained that. He broke the ascent of El Capitan into smaller segments. For years, he trained with his climbing buddy along with ropes and safety harnesses, climbing just one segment at a time and getting to know every nook and cranny. By the day of his great feat, he had already choreographed the moves needed to summit and could visualize what each step would feel like.
That’s exactly what we need to do when practicing a Mt. Everest of a piece. We break it up into segments which could be as short as 2 bars. We get to know every single musical detail by memorizing the fingering, harmonic nuances, melodic contour and rhythmic impulses. Then we chain these segments together, one by one. After going through this process with the entire work, our inner conversation should enable us to visualize and internally listen to every musical intention from start to finish. It sounds tedious but in the long run, is much more effective than mindless repetitions which train physical but not mental stamina.
A note of encouragement: if Alex Honnold can do it, so can we. At least if we make a mistake, we don’t fall to our death. Only our ego dies, which does no harm really.
(Highly recommended: A TED Talk featuring Alex Honnold can be found at the end of this post!)
If I were to prioritize the importance of various life skills, the ability to focus finds itself at the top of the hierarchy. Passion, ambition, and drive are wonderful traits to have, but they can only be realized with focus. Without focus, we would be akin to empty vessels hollering out where we want to be with our feet unintentionally taking us in the opposite direction. And it wouldn’t even strike us that we were going in the wrong direction.
A teacher who can successfully script the student’s inner conversation through language, cultivating a habit of anticipation and building stamina, would have also succeeded in teaching the student how to focus.
That for me, is striking teaching lottery!