A little over 20 years ago I had a job teaching at a university in northern Nova Scotia in the town of Antigonish, and I commuted from our house in Malignant Cove, about 10 miles outside of town on the coast. This was our house.
The town itself only had a population of around 5,000, including the students from St. Francis Xavier University, but somehow managed to support two really fine restaurants. I only taught four days a week, Monday-Thursday, so in the extra free time I began to get interested in getting my cooking chops up. I had the chance to hang out with the owner/chef of one of those two good restaurants at a party, and not really thinking about, I asked him if he would consider teaching me a cooking lesson, to which he reluctantly agreed.
A few days later, I met him at his bistro and we sat down at a table, he looked over at me and said “I don’t really know anything about “teaching” a cooking lesson, but I’ll give you one piece of advice. I cook things until they are done.” He continued, “When most people follow a recipe, they cook their food according to the instructions and stop cooking when the instructions tell them instead of when the food is actually done, which is almost always more or less time than the recipe calls for. When the food is done, stop cooking it, if it’s not done, keep cooking it until it’s done.” And that was it.
I was initially disappointed with this encounter, but it turned out to be fantastic advice. Years later, I realized that this was exactly the same case for practicing a piece of music. Most people stop practicing music before it’s done (meaning FULLY PREPARED), and years later after that I realized that it’s the same/opposite for exercises, most people continue to practice exercises at the same tempo, or with the same articulation, or in the same way/register etc. well after they’ve gotten the initial benefit of the study and don’t continue to improve because they are not presenting themselves with (and meeting) new or more demanding challenges.
Now when I say “most people,” I really mean myself, but I think the observation applies to many. And, to me at least, it appears that this lack of proper “cooking time” is the result of a few contributing factors:
• An ill-defined concept of what constitutes a truly “prepared” piece of music as well the underlying physical and technical foundation required for that preparation
• An unrealistic appreciation for just how much time it really takes to fully prepare a piece
• A lack of awareness of how much musical and technical detail needs to be attended to in the process of preparing.
This detail work is the real missing ingredient and it’s the part that allows a performer ask the question “How do I want to play this?” and have the wherewithal to actually pull it off.
You might have a clue you’ve reached this stage of preparation if you don’t have to think “I hope I play well.” Everyone “hopes they play well” when perhaps they should be thinking “I hope I play like I usually do. And even I don’t play my very best, I’ll still be okay.”
If you are not at the point where you can say this to yourself, you might have some more cooking to do today.