“A Single Little Bit of Beauty”: Profound Words on Practice and Life from 1918
Several years ago, as an assistant professor, I bought dozens of ragged copies of the Etude Music Magazine in the hope that I might find a long-lost gem of knowledge that could help me earn tenure. From time to time I delicately leafed through the crumbling pages and invariably found interesting things. Mostly, however, the oversized volumes took up space in my office, occasionally attracting curious but otherwise uninterested glances from my students.
Ready to throw them away not long ago, I felt it my duty to sift through them once more in case something interesting caught my eye. And there it was: a tiny article of less than six hundred words published in the January 1918 edition—golden words that encapsulated much of what I had lately tried to express to my students. Suddenly, there was no separation whatever between 1918 and 2018.
In that faded edition published in the year in which the First World War ended, I instantly recognized a kindred spirit in a certain T. C. Jeffers whose diminutive musing entitled “An Ideal for Piano Practice” elevated the act of practice from a tiresome requirement to a heroic quest that reflects the very essence of our humanity.1 Click here for a copy of T. C. Jeffers, “An Ideal for Piano Practice,” Etude 36/1 (January 1918): 22. For Jeffers, the act of practice, indeed the very moment in which it occurs, is sacred. And woe unto us if we waste that precious moment.
This was a timely find. I had become tired of endlessly discussing practice techniques with my piano majors: slow practice, practice in chunks, practice hands separate, practice with the metronome, practice without the metronome, practice in rhythms, practice in transpositions, singing while practicing, and on and on. No matter what I examined, my students still came to my studio after a full week—168 hours filled with limitless potential—and sullied the innocent Clementi with wrong notes, dishonored the divine Bach with incorrect rhythms, and wronged Debussy’s whole-tone genius with off-the-rack scalar banality, seemingly none the wiser for their sins.
At the outset of his impassioned sermonette, Jeffers confronted my complacent students with an apparently simple question, but one that isn’t nearly as straightforward as it first seems. He wrote the following words with ardent italics and table-pounding exclamation points that still demand our attention:
Do you wish to become an artistic player? Then realize, once and for all, that the secret lies in that very passage before you. That very one. Do you understand this? Thoroughly? A hidden but profound truth lies concealed there, under your very eyes...
It all lies there, so near you, and with such an immediate demand. The crisis is now, this instant. The decision as to your musical future is now, this moment in front of you; under your hand. If you do not achieve your aim in this, rest assured that by just so much will you fail in the conquest of greater difficulty with which you will be confronted farther on. For your future technical powers will be just as far below the greater difficulty with which they will have to deal, as your present powers are beneath the present difficulty.
Do you dream that, by practicing so much each day, with a certain style of technic and with your usual jog-trot mode of working, and after going through such and such studies and pieces, that at some distant date you will, in some mysterious, magical way, suddenly find yourself a good player?...
No! No! No! Don’t delude yourself. The time is now; the test is at once; the great achievement is there, right in front of you! If you do not conquer it, you might be confident that the desired prize will always evade your grasp—always be a little beyond you, just missed. To fall below a high ideal at each passage is to be eternally amateurish, everlastingly second-rate.
My students took turns reading these short, emotionally charged paragraphs. For the most part, they recited seemingly without interest—yet another class project in a day filled with class projects. I watched intently, hoping that one of them might realize that T. C. Jeffers was reaching from beyond the grave and shaking them violently, provoking them to be truly alive in front of the piano. Now!
At the words “eternally amateurish, everlastingly second-rate” one of my students looked over at me, seemingly angry, and interrupted the monotone group reading. “Well that’s kind of harsh, isn’t it?” she asked. Another student looked up and said, “So, I miss a few notes and I’m second rate? Forever!”
Our university had lost a football game the day before and most of my students are in the marching band. As I often do, I tried to relate music study to events in their own lives. Although we ultimately lost the game, the players on each side took the field dedicated to fighting for each and every yard. I asked them if, when they go into the practice room, they are similarly dedicated to fighting for every note, devoted to reading the score faithfully as the composer wrote it. True college students, some of the ensuing discussion focused on attacking the merits of my analogy, but they nonetheless understood that T. C. Jeffers was calling for an uncompromising dedication to the craft of performance, the kind of dedication that noted athletes, artists, writers, and scholars throughout history have always displayed.
Great performing artists possess many gifts: intense musicality, extraordinary technical abilities, facile memories, and nerves of steel. These observable abilities spring from an artistic conscience that is satisfied only with their best at every second, especially in the practice room.
The Greek root of the word technique means “art”; the root of the word accuracy means “to care about.” The phrase “technical accuracy” means “to care about art”—words that signify much more than playing the right notes. The choice between caring about art and not caring about art is at the heart of the crisis Jeffers evoked.
The end of “An Ideal for Piano Practice” veers suddenly away from the topic of practice and embraces the totality of human life. The placid forty-nine-word benediction seems to seek our forgiveness, philosophically compensating for the harshness of the opening exclamations:
Be happy now; do not wait for the good time coming. Only the present is yours; the past is gone, the future is not yet, and may never be. Death and eternity will come without your looking for them. Live joyously and completely, moment by moment, day by day.
When we talk about practice now, my students and I have a higher purpose in mind. Mastering that tricky passage isn’t just a ticket to a better grade: it’s a small but real accomplishment—a Jeffers-onian crisis conquered on the road to a richer life. As the forgotten T. C. wrote: “...the way of the true artist—[is] to produce a single little bit of beauty, flawless and perfect, without regard to time or trouble or any further undertaking.” Joyous practice, work that is a real and meaningful part of our lives, truly is worth striving for.
So it was in 1918; so it is in 2018.
Dr. Andrew Adams is the Assistant Professor of Piano and Head of the Keyboard Area at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. He earned the Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance from the Kansas City Conservatory of Music and the Master of Music in Vocal Coaching and Accompanying from the University of Illinois. In April 2005, he completed his Doctorate in Piano Performance and Pedagogy at the University of Colorado. Dr. Adams served as Vocal Coach and Director of Collaborative Piano at Iowa State University from 2003 to 2006. An active accompanist and chamber musician, he has accompanied recitals throughout the United States and in Russia. He serves on the editorial board of The Journal of Singing (the official publication of the National Association of Teachers of Singing) and has published numerous articles in a variety of scholarly journals. His first book, Hanon Restored, was coauthored with Dr. Bradley Martin and published by Stipes of Urbana, Illinois.