Doing The Work: The Practice Process
by Amy Likar
I can’t pinpoint the exact date I bought Burton Kaplan’s book Practicing for Artistic Success: The Musician’s Guide to Self-Empowerment but given it’s 2004 publication date, and the stamp from my address at the time, I’m guessing it’s somewhere around 2008 or 2009. I remember reading the book and thinking at the time, wow, this makes so much sense, I need to do these things in my own practice. And there were many that I “thought” I was doing. And then I got an email that Burton Kaplan was going to be in the Bay Area and I signed up for a lesson. There are two lessons out of several that I’ve taken over the years that stick out in my mind. My first lesson was on Jolivet’s Chant de Linos. I had always been terrified of that piece - putting way too much tension in my body when practicing it. And I thought it would be a good idea to take a lesson with someone on how to actually practice it with more freedom and musical intention since the lessons I’d taken with Alexander teachers on it were more about the freedom of the body and less on getting to the heart of the work. My takeaways from that lesson were:
- have a musical intention (it doesn’t even have to be the intention you ultimately end up with),
- have a note grouping intention and see how the composer is using meter and rhythm to drive that.
And from there practicing the piece suddenly didn’t seem so daunting and it was so much easier to organize myself physically to do it. Another lesson was on audition prep, and I took Mozart G Major Concerto and several excerpts. And again, after the work we did, my body always felt more organized, the playing felt easier and I knew what and how to practice. And as always at the end of the lesson, Burton would say, you need to come to the farm, Magic Mountain Music Farm in Morris, NY.
For over 30 years, Burton Kaplan has been organizing practice retreats at his farm in Morris, NY. Burton has hosted several types of retreats at the farm:
Practice Marathons - one or two weeks spent in coached practice
Pedagogy sessions - sessions that focus on teaching strategies
Orchestral excerpt sessions - audition preparation and mock audition practice
Performance Power - a two week session where you show up with a major work you have performed and want to take to a new level
I had heard of other professional colleagues of mine going to these and always raving about what it did for their playing and musicianship and at the time I was taking these lessons with Burton in San Francisco, my kids were young, and when I travelled, it was to work. So I kept waiting for the right time to go to the farm. That moment came in 2015 when I signed a contract to play a premiere performance of a concerto written for me by Martin Rokeach with the Oakland Symphony. Right after I signed the contract, I wrote to Burton and said I wanted to come to the farm. I have now gone to the farm seven times in the past 6 years to work on several projects. Five of those trips have been for practice marathons and two of the trips have been for Performance Power sessions. I consider it some of the best professional development I’ve done for myself both as a performing artist and a teaching artist.
Burton has been hosting Performance Power sessions for twenty-eight seasons and now 2021 was the last one. In August, ten musicians from around the country came and spent two weeks intensely working on a major work from the repertoire and we performed with collaborative pianist extraordinaire, Cullan Bryant. [And to be Covid-19 safe, all participants were vaccinated and tested before arriving, and we did regular temperature checks. It may have been the first time I’ve attended the farm where no one caught a cold!]
Burton always says that it’s only through performing that you actually learn how your body reacts mentally, physically and emotionally. So learning how to perform when you are in your “revved” up state actually needs to be practiced.
Life at the farm:
You are given a room that’s fairly sound proof to both sleep and practice while you are there. The set up is communal living so turns are taken doing daily chores that are assigned and people that like to cook get assigned lunch duty or every other night dinner duty. (There is a wonderful chef, Susan Sebeck, who comes to prepare meals every other night). You either have a lesson with Burton or you play in a workshop everyday. You also get to work with Cullan everyday, either in rehearsal or in your lesson with Burton. So there is lots of time to receive feedback on your process and usually time to practice up to 6 hours a day. If you have read Practicing for Artistic Success you understand that practice is not just time spent on the instrument. It’s also time spent thinking about the music, listening to the music, and score study. I also found discussing how practicing was going with my fellow attendees while preparing meals or doing chores to also be very helpful. And for me, a very important part of the work I do at the farm is recording all of my lessons, watching the videos from the workshops or lessons and also recording and listening back in my personal practice sessions. It’s so easy to record ourselves with our phones. There is no excuse to not record and listen back. So watching back and observing is an important part of my process. And by listening to others perform in the classes you learn from watching the process of your fellow participants as well. There is also time to take walks outside and there is a workout room on site.
There have been recurring themes from all of the sessions I’ve attended whether they were practice marathons or Performance Power. First, better is perfect and perfect is irrelevant. This is a common BK quote. Improvement is the aim, not perfection. Music is meant to express emotion and musical expressiveness is why we play and perform. Musical Intention drives whole body organization. Maybe it’s because I’m an Alexander Technique and Body Mapping teacher, but I really experience this when I'm at the farm. And this year, Burton started us off with a quote from Johannes Kirnberger who had been a composition and keyboard student of JS Bach’s from 1739-1741:
Thus tempo, meter and rhythm give melody its life and power. Tempo defines the rate of speed, which by itself is already important since it designates a lively or quiet character. Meter determines the accents in addition to the length and brevity of the notes and the lighter or more emphatic delivery; and it shapes the notes into words, so to speak. But rhythm establishes for the ear the individual phrases formed by the words and the periods composed of several phrases. Melody is transformed into a comprehensible and stimulating speech by the proper combination of these three things.
This reminded me of a quote from Practicing for Artistic Success on page 17 where BK was discussing practicing at different tempi:
Tempo: The tempo you choose must fulfill all three of the following criteria: you should experience physical ease, second you should feel calm, and third, you should be able to experience the notes as a musical pattern in slow motion.
So every lesson, every rehearsal with Cullan, every workshop is organized around musical expression and how tempo, rhythm and pulse organize it all.
Some of my Favorite Practice Techniques both from Burton’s book and attending in person sessions:
Rhythmic Super-Learning - I had been taught all along to use dotted rhythms to learn technical passages. However, applying the metronome to using rhythms to learn technical passages in a systematic way has really sped up my process for learning challenging passages.
Click Track Strategy - developing a relationship TO time, not just with time. Using the metronome not just for small beats, but for larger and large units and being able to maintain a sense of pulse and subdivision.
Intimacy - practicing passages so that you become so familiar with them that you can feel as though you can successfully play said passage 5 out of 10 tries to your musical satisfaction. And if you aren’t achieving musical satisfaction, then you need to change up your practice strategy. (see Chapter 5 in the book)
Technique of the First Try- The idea behind this practice strategy is to replace the informality of the practice room with the formality of the concert or audition situation, when there are no “second chances.” Schedule a time with yourself, for example, tomorrow at 3 pm, to perform the piece or section of a work, or full concert to determine its readiness. You may warm up and practice before the designated time, but do not practice what you intend to perform. At the appointed time, you begin, regardless of how you feel (just as you would have to do in a concert situation). Once you begin, you do not stop, even though you may not be satisfied with how it’s going. Record your performance; I prefer video recording. When your practice performance is over, you make note of how you felt it went, to what extent you were satisfied with the performance. You follow this immediately by listening to your recording as if you’re the audience to notice any problems that need solving.
When practicing, we often give ourselves several tries until we feel like we are in a good groove. But we never have that luxury when performing. So using this technique in the practice room, we act as if we’re on the stage, i.e., we continue our play-through to the end of the work whether or not we’re “in the groove.”
We work hard on our music over many practice sessions and, likely as not, we manage to play each and every passage in our music well at some time in those practice sessions. Often we go into our performances subconsciously hoping that the performance will be a culmination/combination of all those “perfect moments.” However, we never actually performed all those moments so well in any one session; to expect such a magic moment in the performance is unreasonable - and so, when we encounter the first error in the performance, we can become emotionally distracted/disappointed, which may well lead to still more errors. After six days of this demanding trial of your readiness to perform you will have confronted the “truth” of your readiness. I have often used this technique to prepare for recitals and I find that it greatly helps me stabilize my technical and expressive control and significantly reduces my performance anxiety.
I’ve attended flute masters classes both as a participant and an auditor for decades, and what makes the work at MMMF different is the attention to the practice process to achieve the artistic result you are seeking. You are given time and spaciousness to work out problems that you may not always have time to do when you are only taking lessons weekly, or just playing a one off performance in a master class. The work at the farm is daily, the coaching is daily and the observation of other people working is daily so the whole atmosphere is focused on working with an individual's practice process to grow artistically.
Here is a link to Burton’s website to purchase Practicing for Artistic Success:
Amy Likar is a performer, teaching artist, and advocate for musicians’ wellness. She is committed to the transforming power of music for all. She is a member of the Oakland Symphony and the Director of Training for the Association of Body Mapping Education. www.amylikar.com