If “practice makes perfect,” shouldn’t there come a time when you don’t have to practice any more? Not according to the musicians I’ve met at Strings.
Upcoming concerts at Strings
• Tuesday: Youth Concert with Dr. Noize
• Wednesday: Classical with the Calder Quartet
• Thursday: Music on the Green with Chamberlin Birch
• Friday: Different Tempo with The California Honeydrops
• Saturday: Different Tempo with Lisa Fischer
Strings Music Festival
Strings Music Festival columns publish weekly in the Steamboat Today.
High-caliber musicians spend an astonishing amount of time practicing. Even established professionals practice several hours each day, sometimes just working on keeping fingers nimble or skills fresh, sometimes learning a new piece, but always exploring and deepening their relationship with their instruments.
On top of their daily maintenance practice, musicians work on preparing music for upcoming concerts. This is their chance to learn a piece and master difficult passages, but they’re not really preparing for performance — they’re preparing for rehearsal. Professional musicians are expected to arrive at rehearsal with the music already learned, because rehearsal is not about learning music or honing skills.
Rehearsal is about making the nuances of the music come alive with the other performers, giving and receiving the lead and polishing the performance to the exacting standards of the conductor.
In practice, there’s a lot of repetition, running over the same sections again and again, getting all the sharps and flats ingrained into an individual musician’s muscle memory. In rehearsal, all the notes are the same as in practice, but now there’s a lot of adjustment with the other musicians, playing this note softer and with more expression, playing that passage more like dancing, playing these two chords with the hint of a pause in between.
Practice, on the other hand, is solitary. You’d think that would make it easier for solo performers, since practice and rehearsal would happen at the same time, right?
Nope. For solo work, a musician will practice alone and then also come to rehearse in the pavilion. Some of that is about playing under concert conditions, but most of it is about making the mental shift from mastering the notes to fine-tuning the actual performance.
Just as elite athletes have to go to incredible lengths to perform at the top level, so, too, do elite musicians.
After George Winston performed at Strings in June, he practiced overnight in the pavilion — all night, alone with the piano, leaving at about 5 in the morning.
Sean Chen, the Cliburn Crystal Medalist who will be performing at Strings in August, practices an average of six hours per day, every day. Even on performance days.
And at 90 years old, Menahem Pressler practiced the music he played in concert at Strings for several hours each day prior to performance.
Practice like that ignores the idea of perfection. At his Strings performance in July, Mr. Pressler said, “Real practice means to find out.”
It doesn’t make a catchy phrase to share with budding, school-age musicians, but I think it’s a wise approach to more than just music practice.
Don’t seek perfection. Seek understanding.
Ali Mignone is the stage manager for Strings Music Festival.