The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music From the Heart, by Madeline Bruser; To Hear Ourselves as Others Hear Us: Tape Recording as a Tool in Music Practicing and Teaching, by James Boyk

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The Art of PracticingTo Hear OurselvesThe Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music From the Heart, by Madeline Bruser. New York: Bell Tower, 1997. xiii + 265 pp. ISBN 0-517-70822-1.

To Hear Ourselves as Others Hear Us: Tape Recording as a Tool in Music Practicing and Teaching, by James Boyk. St. Louis: MMB Music, Inc., 1996. ix + 78 pp. ISBN 0-918812-87-9.

Considering that performance and practicing for performance are so central in the study of music, it is surprising that there are not more books written on this topic. James Boyk's To Hear Ourselves as Others Hear Us and Madeline Bruser's The Art of Practicing are two recent entries in a genre that lies under the radar of many studio teachers. Is it possible to learn anything significant about practicing from a book aimed at a relatively large audience, when each student's needs are so particular? Doesn't the very nature of the traditional teacher/student relationship argue against generalized solutions and easy answers? And what if, heaven forbid, the student should take these authors' suggestions over ours? This dynamic of uneasiness (in the professional) and anxious desire (in the layperson) is at the heart of the self-help publishing industry's phenomenal success, and of the mixed reactions that it provokes. In a discipline such as studio teaching, where objective facts and rules are sometimes less important than the sudden subjective insight, where personal vividness and charisma are often the dominant teaching tools, it is difficult to critically evaluate books like these and keep a clear head. Both Boyk and Bruser sound like good piano teachers, and they have many valuable and helpful things to say, often the same things in fact. Reading them together casts each of them into a sharper profile than each would exhibit alone.

Boyk's book was primarily intended to be an introduction to the use of tape-recording in practicing and teaching, according to the author's preface. Indeed, Boyk is extremely knowledgeable about recording equipment and the educational uses to which it can be put (he is a professor of both music and electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology), and he gives many practical and concrete suggestions. The book's long final section is an exhaustive review of the technical specifications and usefulness of many kinds of recording hardware. However, in the course of expounding on this material, he quite naturally spins out a philosophy that explores the psychological and spiritual aspects of practicing and performing (primarily on the piano), and it is here that his book places itself in a larger context.

Part I of the book, called "Teaching Ourselves," deals with familiar traps that students tend to fall into when practicing: mastering sections of a composition but not integrating them; listening to oneself through the prism of one's tics and mannerisms without hearing objectively; allowing changes in rhythmic texture and thematic content to affect the tempo in unwanted ways; and perceiving pitch relationships mechanically rather than musically (especially a problem for pianists). Part II, "Teaching Others," examines the myriad ways that teachers can obstruct and divert the student from his/her goal (even if unintentionally), often with the student's own collusion. There are many amusing vignettes illustrating the vanity and shortsightedness of teachers, and others showing how psychological factors can turn a student into his/her own worst enemy. Both Parts I and II offer concrete suggestions to remedy these ills, in particular how to use recording as a tool (he argues cogently against the common view that recording oneself is an indulgence that takes time away from "real practice").

Growing out of the more general discussions in the first half of the book, Boyk's Part III zooms in to look more closely at a specific practicing technique, "outlining," for which he credits the pianist and teacher Abby Whiteside. Predicated on the learning principle of "whole to part," this procedure calls on the student to determine the structurally significant notes and chords in a composition at first reading, leaving out foreground filler such as passing and neighboring notes, arpeggios, scales, etc. in order to "outline" the larger movements and gestures at full tempo right from the beginning. Boyk adamantly insists that slow practice, even at first, is essentially useless in achieving performance mastery, instead offering outlining at full tempo, while gradually including more and more of the written notes over time, as an alternative. Although controversial, Boyk's arguments here are consistent with principles espoused in the earlier chapters of the book. (Part IV of the book is the above-mentioned survey of recording equipment, on which Boyk is an expert; I will not delve into this portion of his book both because of his superior technical knowledge and because his other, non-hardware topics are my main focus here.)

Bruser, in The Art of Practicing, deals with many of the same musical and psychological issues as Boyk does. Considerably longer than his, her book paints, at a leisurely pace, a holistic vision of practice and performance. Like Boyk, she covers a broad range of issues (tension, breakup of rhythmic flow, unproductive practicing, misplaced expressiveness, anxiety in memorization) that end up seeming like different aspects of just a few issues (responding to beauty, connecting with internal emotions), which is a positive testament to her powers of presentation. Unlike Boyk, she spends quite a number of pages discussing stretching and other physical preparations to practicing. She also delves, in a more structured and cohesive way than Boyk does, into the inner psychological obstacles students face in the course of their work, reflecting her own practice of Shambhala and Buddhist meditation techniques. (These differences reflect differences in intent: Boyk's short book, growing as it did out of his concern with using recording as a learning aid, travels more quickly, and in a more scattershot way, through the psycho-spiritual terrain. But it is because his approach is so different from Bruser's that one is struck by how similar many of their basic ideas are.)

This type of material differs fundamentally from that of the typical serious book on music, which examines more impersonal, objective topics—for example harmony, Baroque opera, analytical systems for serial music, or reception studies around Beethoven's symphonies. Although some books deal specifically with issues of performance, they are usually theoretical (analytic bases for interpretation, for example) or musicological (historical performance practice) in nature. Boyk's and Bruser's books (which indeed do not project any academic pretensions) and others of this genre are both more practical and more subjective. Their goal is to deal not with the "what" or the "why," but rather with the "how." This is what places them closer to the self-help books that are currently flooding the mass market than to the typical academic music book. It also reflects the ambiguous role that performance itself has played in the larger context of music as a discipline of study.

The teaching of performance has always stood somewhat outside the rationalistic academic philosophies of American education. At Harvard in the 1930s, for example, music (to use Leonard Bernstein's delicious phrase) was to be "seen and not heard," legitimate only when taught in theoretical or musicological (i. e., "scientific") contexts. And as late as the 1960s a famous composer/theoretician at Princeton reportedly advised one of his protégés to decline a job offer from the New England Conservatory because to accept would be "like a novelist going to teach at a typing school." (The protégé accepted anyway.) Although now conservatories are respected institutions within academia, and most liberal arts colleges in this country offer performance study for credit, the study of musical performance still exists in a world of its own, retaining an approach and philosophy—the master/apprentice model—that has persisted for centuries and resists strict codification of principles. The studio lesson is a sort of shrine, where technique, musical expression, and artistic vision are passed on, one-to-one, in a secret rite made up not so much of facts or rules but rather of the teacher's personal repertoire of opinions, experiences, subjective convictions and shots in the dark, all held together and given life by the force and charisma of the teacher's personality, talent, and artistic lineage. (The expansion of this rite into the institution of the "master class" does not change its basic character; indeed the mystique of the teacher may arguably be magnified in that context.)

A leap of faith is required from the student in order for this paradigm to work. Even though the teacher's stated goal may be for the student to think for him/herself, a surrender of judgment to the authority figure is an integral part of the relationship. Inherent in this situation is that when doubts arise, they are often difficult to evaluate objectively because of the personal and often subjective nature of the relationship. This is not intrinsically different from fields such as health-care, finances, business, and (for want of a better term) spiritual fulfillment. In all of these cases, the layperson is (like the performance student) either at the mercy of, or the beneficiary of, the wisdom and experience of an initiated master (i. e., doctor, financial advisor, priest or minister). It is surely no accident that topics such as these are the most popular in the self-help publishing industry. The mystique of these subjects and their practitioners compels lay people to look for hidden secrets of success that bypass the authority figure, or at least provide a sense of personal control and power that might otherwise be missing from these relationships. It makes perfect sense, too, that books about practicing and musical performance should follow a similar path.

Self-help books seem to have two basic approaches. The first archetype, associated especially with topics like "How to be Rich and Successful in Business and Finance," is aggressively optimistic, direct and unambiguous, highlighting important points in the margins to save time and attention. Belief in oneself is presented as a potent weapon. The enemies are not one's competitors, but rather doubt and inaction. The second type, characteristic of the spiritual self-help book, tends more toward the realization of what one already has intrinsically in the heart, or the opening-up to a deeper level of reality which is omnipresent but hidden by fear and deadened by routine. Achieving is not the object, but rather receiving and revealing. Belief in oneself is presented as a worthy goal in itself, without the need for other reward. The only enemy is one's ego trying to be what it is not. (It may be fair to characterize these two approaches as expressions of masculine and feminine psychological principles, if we understand that both aspects operate to varying degrees in people of both genders.) To reduce these approaches to generic categories may be unfair, but they reflect a dualism that is both real and legitimate. In fact the very success of self-help books suggests that both approaches feed a substantial hunger in the human spirit. Both can be helpful and inspiring, depending on the personality and needs of the reader.

Boyk's and Bruser's books demonstrate these archetypes quite dramatically. Consider these quotations:


Trapped in the cage of my own personality, I feel an urgent and personal need to communicate through music, which liberates me and stops the inner dialogue. In music I find the self of which I can be conscious only in performance, when consciousness expands. I work out my destiny on stage (Boyk, p. vii).


Giving up our struggle opens us to the music. And the performer's job is to do just that—to open fully to music, to let it come in, physically and mentally, and to become an unobstructed channel for its transmission to other people. We cannot possibly give music to others without first receiving it ourselves. Practicing is the process of receiving what was written (Bruser, p. 15).


How does one evaluate these books? Critiquing the content is tricky, because almost anything one can say about playing or practicing can be true under certain circumstances. What matters more is style, presentation, and the encouragement in the student's mind of a dynamic process of self-discovery and empowerment. How dogmatic are the arguments? How organically do the ideas progress? How inspiringly do the writers' personalities come across? In other words, how well do these books capture what a good lesson should be?

As the quotes above demonstrate, there is a distinct difference in tone between the two books. Boyk's book is published almost like an over-sized pamphlet, with large, soft covers (in the review copy, at least) featuring promotional quotes from Andre Watts and Yehudi Menuhin and a couple of cartoon drawings on the front. It is unashamedly anecdotal, usually introducing a topic with an entertaining story involving friends, acquaintances and teachers from his own experience. Chapters are short and punchy, with glosses and summaries in the margins, separated from the text body by thick black lines. Exclamation points abound, intensifying the main ideas or perhaps just expressing an inherent exuberance of spirit. The general impression is of a sort of free-form workshop, moving in an improvisational yet theatrical flow from one idea to the next. (This is not just a simile; according to his biography, Boyk has been giving weekly performance workshops at the California Institute of Technology for twenty years or so, and his web site ( quotes a Los Angeles Times article about one of those sessions that captures in giddy glory the tone of his book: "Boyk doesn't lecture. He jumps up and down from the piano bench, plays something—'did you like that? Which do you like better? Listen. Did I hear something contrasting in the middle? Can you tell it's going to change? How can he get away? It's of no interest to know [that] a bear is going to eat you—it's where's the bear?'")

Bruser's book, in comparison, is a temple of calm (she too features a promotional blurb from Yehudi Menuhin, this time as a forward; apparently he was a prolific commentator on this type of book.) As much as Boyk is the master showman, Bruser is the transcendent guru, radiating wisdom and love. "Love" is not meant here as a glib cliché: throughout her book she places herself in an empathic stance vis-à-vis the reader, always humble, voicing the reader's thoughts as she goes along to create a sense of trust and understanding. Like Boyk she often speaks from her own experience, but while Boyk's vignettes are often sardonic and humorous in tone, Bruser's are usually poignant and personal. As an example of this difference, here are the two authors' respective comments on slow versus fast practicing:


We all play slowly sometimes, but why? Perhaps to hear more clearly what's happening melodically or harmonically in a particular passage; perhaps just to "feel our way" into it.

But we should not take slow playing as itself being practice because (as I hope you are convinced) it cannot be a true practicing of what we want to do. . . .

As things are now, I sometimes think the real purpose of slow practice, and many other methods in the usual sort of teaching, is simply to screen out students who are not motivated. A cynic might say it's to screen out those who are not truly masochistic. Slow practice is an evolutionary pressure whose real function is hidden from everyone, even the teachers who promote it (Boyk, p. 35).

We have to continually remind ourselves to take our time, because we are usually impatient. We want results. Slowing down doesn't have to feel like holding back. It can be an opportunity to revel in sounds and sensations, to not be so concerned about where we are going but to enjoy the moment and become comfortable where we are.

Speed will come. If you play the same passage ten times without trying to get faster, it will get faster anyway. If you turn a metronome on the first time you play it and the last time, it will be faster the last time. It's a natural process, like discovering you can run after you've learned to walk.

You can't develop your potential by trying to be somebody else. You have to start with what you have. Then things can open up. The body works well when you treat it gently (Bruser, p. 20).


It is remarkable how similar the substance is (Boyk: "to 'feel our way' into it;" Bruser: "become comfortable where we are") and yet how differently they frame it. While both authors share an understanding of the role of slow practice, one presents it scornfully in the context of a sarcastic joke, and the other picks up the idea at the starting point of comfort and confidence, and predicts with Field of Dreams idealism that "speed will come."

Unlike Boyk's fast, breezy, improvisational river of ideas, Bruser's larger book demands, and receives, a more deliberately organized presentation. The chapters and subject headings are arranged in a symmetrical pyramid-like pattern. Starting with a short introduction and spiritual stage-setting in which she asserts the need for both vulnerability and spontaneity as the basis for successful performance, she then lays out a central "ten-step approach" which examines physical, psychological and spiritual readiness procedures for both practice and performance (Boyk and Bruser both see practice and performance as two aspects of the same process.) She ends the book by returning to the issue of fear and vulnerability, the discussion of which now gains added resonance in light of the previous chapters. The bookending first and last chapters are pointedly personal, especially the last, which takes on the tone of a confessional. Many of the chapter names ("Tuning into Your Heart," " Pure Perception," "Spontaneous Insight," "Generosity") reflect a complex of attitudes not usually shared out loud in the typical piano lesson. This alone justifies the book's existence as an adjunct to studio work with a teacher.

Despite the significant differences in tone and structure, the many hundreds of individual opinions, pronouncements and suggestions presented by the two authors show equally significant agreement on many points. Both are generally against metronome use (Boyk, p. 7; Bruser, p. 147-8). Both emphasize the importance of understanding and developing kinesthetic perception in the student in order to apprehend more naturally the rhythmic and pitch relationships in the music (Boyk, pp. 7-10; Bruser, Chapter 12). Both argue extensively against the common habit of hesitating slightly at barlines or at points of expressive intensity (Boyk, pp. 7-8; Bruser, pp. 186-9). Both writers argue that the most effective teaching is accomplished by encouraging the student to critique him/herself from the very beginning, and then continuing to draw out the student's own ideas by suggestive questioning: the student is "rarely wrong," says Boyk (p. 18), and "out of [the student's] mouth came every comment that I had planned to make myself," says Bruser (p. 149).

On a somewhat deeper psychological level there is also much agreement. On the question of "hard practice," for example, Bruser typically personalizes the issue: "A hundred percent preparation is impossible, because every piece of music has an infinite number of facets; you can always do more. So you prepare as much as time allows. People very often overpractice. I find that if I rest more and practice less I usually play better. Overpracticing comes from fear, which locks the mind and body and limits your spontaneity. Overdoing it also makes you physically tense and exhausted" (Bruser, p. 22). Boyk, again typically, reduces it all to an aphorism, although in this case a pleasingly graceful one: "There is no moral virtue in practicing hard. The virtue is in playing beautifully" (Boyk, p. 33). (Italics in original.)

It is in questions like that one that we appreciate the modern sensibility brought by both authors. Compare with the above quotations, for example, this statement from the early 1920s: "When you practice in the right spirit you don't know what it is to get tired. I often practice three or four hours and hardly realize that I have been practicing at all." This comment, written by Josef Lhevinne in The Etude magazine and later reprinted in his book Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing (Philadelphia: Theodore Presser Company, 1924; reprinted by Dover, 1972), displays how unhelpful and out of touch a great pianist can be when making generalized statements about practicing. This book also shows that the self-help movement in music has a long tradition in this country. In those early years of this century, the wisdom of the musical ages was expected to come from revered European icons like Lhevinne; the combination of American practicality and American naiveté created a deep appetite for authoritative, even dogmatic, pronouncements, disseminated in national magazines.

Another great name from that earlier era was Josef Hofmann, the Polish pianist who became an early director of the Curtis Institute. He had a regular column in the Ladies Home Journal, in which he answered questions written to him by readers. These columns, like Lhevinne's, were collected into a book, Piano Playing with Piano Questions Answered (Philadelphia: Theodore Presser Company, 1920; reprinted by Dover, 1976). Hofmann's attitudes and ideas were remarkably flexible and down-to-earth. He chided Americans for their undiscriminating worship of all things European when it came to music and culture; he rarely made categorical statements, always stressing the conditional nature of any idea about practicing. To read him now is to appreciate his deep insight and to understand how unchanging the basic heart of musical performance is:


It is encouraging for the student to know that he must expect to be confronted with ever-increasing difficulties, until he reaches the point where all the intense and intricate problems seem to solve themselves, dissolving gradually into the light of a clear understanding day. This is to me a general principle underlying almost all lines of human achievement, and it appears to me that the student should learn its application, not only to his own but to other occupations and attainments. This universal line of life, starting with birth, mounting to its climax in middle life, and then passing on to greater and greater simplicity of means, until at death the circle is almost completed, is a kind of human program which all successful men would appear to follow (Hofmann, p. 77A).


He captures beautifully the treacherous gap every student must bridge to reach spiritual insight through dogged work, a bridge on which many an idealistic and ambitious piano student has faltered:


How can we know whether we are or are not approaching the spiritual phase of a piece? By repetition under unremitting attention to the written values. If, then, you should find how much there is still left for you to do, you have proved to yourself that you have understood the piece spiritually and are on the right track to master it. With every repetition you will discover some hitherto unnoticed defect in your interpretation. Obviate these defects, one by one, and in so doing you will come nearer and nearer to the spiritual essence of the work in hand (Hofmann, p. 52-3A).

This statement sums up the central task that books like Boyk's and Bruser's address: how to make it through all the necessary exertions with one's vision of the musical ideal still intact. Both of these authors are thoroughly committed to this goal, and this reason alone justifies our students reading them. Even when we may disagree on a specific point, To Hear Ourselves As Others Hear Us and The Art of Practicing could spark reflection and a sense of self-empowerment outside the studio, helping us as teachers in our goal to (as Rostropovich put it) "get rid" of our students, to set them on their path towards doing it themselves, without us. Let Josef Hofmann have the final word, a reminder to all the credulous idealists who yearn for the book that will unfold the lotus and reveal all the secrets:


And speaking of books on music, let me advise you to read them, but not to believe them unless they support every statement with an argument, and unless this argument succeeds in convincing you. In art we deal far oftener with exceptions than with rules and laws. Every genius in art has demonstrated in his works the forefeeling of new laws, and every succeeding one has done by his precursors as his successors have in their turn done by him. Hence all theorising in art must be problematic and precarious, while dogmatising in art amounts to absurdity (Hofmann, p. 33A).


Amen to that.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 17/10/2018

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