According to Malcolm Gladwell, it takes ten thousand hours to achieve world-class proficiency in any field.
Now let’s see. I started practicing my ‘cordeen seriously in April 2015, shortly after I turned 65. Let’s charitably say I practice an hour a day five days a week (yes, I know…). That’s 804 days gone and 577 practice hours – or 260 practice days a year.
I only have 9423 hours to go, which, at my current rate, means I will be the Heifetz Of The Accordion some time in 2053, when I’m a sprightly lad of 104.
And those 10,000 hours don’t include just fooling around playing: Malcolm says he wants us to have deliberate practice – in other words, we need to relentlessly focus on improvement every moment we’re strapped into that squeezebox, concentrating intently on every button and every bellow.
It sounds exhausting.
I mentioned this to Dallas at my last lesson – and I told him that sometimes that degree of concentration is completely unachievable. I can play the song I’m working on perfectly one time and screw it up totally the next. He replied that was pretty common among his “older students.”
“Gee, thanks,” I told him.
“Well, you’re old,” he said.
I don’t know if Gladwell factored age into his algorithm, or whether the Old Dog Rule trumps the Deliberate Practice Theorem, but the conclusion was pretty depressing either way. For an old dog like me, learning to play the accordion is a Sisyphean task – rolling the rock up the hill with Deliberate Practice and watching it roll right down again as a factor of age and diminishing concentration.
Rock and roll is here to stay.
However, I am learning to be content with limited prospects – virtuosity may, in the final analysis, be beyond my reach. But like Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses, I still seek a newer world, push off, and smite the sounding furrows of the accordion.[i]
Trouble is, as deliberate as my smiting is in intent, its effectiveness may be another thing entirely. Let’s take, for example, the song I’ve been working on over the past few weeks. It’s an old Gershwin tune: “They All Laughed.”
I thought the sentiment might be appropriate. And accurate.
As I stumbled through the song for the first time, I was actually kind of encouraged – I was able to recognize the tune among the inevitable clunkers. The task now was to make it a) correct, and b) interesting.
So far, I’ve achieved neither, and I have recently come to the conclusion that there is something fundamentally wrong with my practice practice. As I’ve done it for years, I play the tune until I screw up – play the screwed up part over until I get it right a few times in succession – and then play the tune again.
I went to the Internet — and discovered to my chagrin that I am and always have been engaging in what is devastatingly called “mindless practice”:
that’s when we play through the piece until we hear something we don’t like, stop, repeat the passage again until it sounds better, and resume playing through the piece until we hear the next thing we aren’t satisfied with, at which point we begin this whole process over again. [ii]
Oh, great! According to “The Bulletproof Musician”, I have spent my 577 practice hours essentially wasting time, making myself less confident, and boring the hell out of myself.
And you know what? Everyone else on the web says Mr. Bulletproof is right – dozens of other sites corroborate his condemnation: the way I’ve been practicing leads to increased doubt about my playing and insecurity in performance. As the website “Music Lessons Resources” tells me, all I’ve been doing is ingraining mistakes into my muscle memory (assuming my muscles remember better than the rest of me at this point in my life). “It will be twice as hard to get rid of those mistakes in the long run”, they warn. No wonder I get the willies every time I play for my teacher – and let’s not even mention performance anxiety in public.
I needed to find a cure. I threw myself into my research with the fierce dedication of Dr. Scholls crusading against bunions.
The internet is almost as full of good musical advice as it is of frightening medical symptoms. In fact, the Great Sage Google tells me that 25,000,000 well-intentioned people are offering their two cents on how to practice effectively — that’s $500,000 worth of advice. Precious little of it is directly directed at accordionists, however. Steve Roxton in the UK has an interesting page full of accordion maxims – it’s a little like the Book of Proverbs…
Don’t try to learn your bass side whilst looking at it through a mirror. When you are ready for public performance you won’t look very good carrying a full- length mirror on stage, and besides your audience won’t be able to see you.[iv]
…and there are also a few YouTube videos that offer some random ‘cordeen practice hints, but by and large, if you want useful advice, you’re going to have to look more generally. What’s good for the cellist is good for the accordionista. Mostly.
Let’s take TED, for instance. A TED talk tells me to be “consistent, intensely focused and target[ing] content or weaknesses that lie at the edge of one’s current abilities.” [v]
Well, that’s about everything.
TED also advises me to “Visualize playing your music without actually playing it. Put yourself through the music, note by note. Imagine what it feels like to press that key, or take that breath, every step of the way.”[vi]
OK, Steve. Visualize. Center. Visualize the music, and while you’re at it, the lyrics, too.
They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round.
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound…
Strap your brain into that accordion. Find the mental “C” button. No…wait, that’s the “E”; move your brain down. Now play. Hear each note – Beethoven was deaf and he could do it – why not you? Finger each button. No, not that finger, the other one. Visualize what it feels like to press that button. It feels like pressing a button. First measure. Second measure. Pay the electric bill. We need ketchup. Oh, damn, I’m lost….
Right. They all laughed….
“The Musician’s Blog” tells me I should practice “in a calm state.”[vii]
Maybe I’m just practicing at the wrong time? The SonicBids Blog tells me “The key to getting the most out of your practice relates to your personal, internal clock. Everyone has a different biological clock, and it’ll help to find out your clock’s schedule. By pinpointing the times you’re most alert, you can take full advantage of productivity and get more done in less time.”[viii]
Yeah, that’s it. These helpful folks suggested I keep an “energy journal”, and carry around a little notebook, get in touch with myself (seems to me I tried that in the ‘60s), and jot down the times when I feel most alert. I tried that for a few days. My wife suggested I write down “never.”
They’ve also provided me with a convenient excuse: “During those moments of drowsiness, don’t force practice. Instead, relax. Take the time to catch up on other activities, read a book, or go on a walk. You won’t feel guilty about not practicing because it would be counterproductive anyway.”[ix]
Never share that advice with a teenager.
I’ve also learned that it’s useful to “practice emotionally.” In other words, like Hamlet’s player weeping for Hecuba, I need to fake sincerity and feel what I’m playing. The lyrics are the key – let’s see:
But ho, ho, ho!
Who’s got the last laugh now?
In other words, I’ve got to practice a little snarky schadenfreude. I’ll work on being smug and obnoxious every time I sit down to play.
National Public Radio (NPR) offers a particularly useful suggestion:
scientific researchers say that if you add a physical challenge to the difficult task, such as trying to play that part while standing on one leg or while walking, your brain is likely to start carving out new neural pathways [x]
I tried practicing accordion while standing on one leg, and they were right: I now have a new neural pathway to the floor. The walking part sounds good, too, and I fully intend to use that when I play my piano.
There is, indeed, an awful lot of well-meaning advice out there. And most of it makes sense. And in general, it makes me feel like I’ve been trying to push back the tides with a broom…all those useless hours spent practicing mindlessly. After exhaustive research and repeated musical humiliation, I’ve distilled it all down and come to some basic conclusions:
- No more “mindlessness.” I need to practice with a plan. I needed to set objectives for each practice section – even write them down (I can combine this with my alertness journal, can’t I?)
- Instead of just whaling away at a difficult passage, I need to analyze it before I play a single note and come up with a strategy for mastering it, even if I don’t have the faintest idea how.
- I have to relax each muscle group and do deep breathing exercises like a woman in labor before I play (how do I know which muscles constitute a ‘group’?).
- Most horrifying, I need to plop the iPhone on my music stand, reverse the camera so it stares critically at me like the ghost of J.S. Bach, and start recording that most awful of selfies, making sure to suppress my instinctive choreography so I don’t gyrate right out of the picture. And then I need to play it back. And listen to myself. It will force me to confront The Horrid Truth and possibly abandon the instrument altogether.
No it won’t. Ad astra per aspera…..
I’ve also learned that turning all these prophylactics into new habits will take time. I won’t fall into them quickly. I need to do them over and over until they are as much a part of me as the tattoo of Myron Florin on my shoulder.
I need to practice practicing.
I breathed. I visualized. I planned. I wrote. I turned on the camera. I played. I screwed up everything.
Excuse me while I brace myself and play back the video. 9422 hours to go.
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[i] Ulysses actually didn’t play the accordion himself, but it might have come in handy to combat the Sirens
Copyright © 2017 Stephen A. Hirsch