Benjamin Zander has two infectious passions: classical music, and helping us all realize our untapped love for it -- and by extension, our untapped love for all new possibilities, new experiences, new connections.
The conductor of my high school youth symphony loved to talk. One could say his long-winded lectures made him infamous among those students who worked with him. Being a teenager at the time most of the stuff he said went in one ear and out the other for me. It was a Saturday morning and a three hour rehearsal. My caring was... not there.
But there was one lecture that he gave that actually did have something of an impact on me. I remember the brass section had just completely fudged the section we were trying to play and basically my conductor was like, "This is a really important section for the brass. You guys need to know how it impacts the rest of the orchestra."
This segued into the long-winded lecture about the importance of having a music library if you were a musician. Now this was before YouTube (I'm dating myself here). So collecting classical music was actually kind of a big deal. Most stores only wanted to sell the popular stuff. Finding three or four different versions of one particular symphony took some searching.
What actually made this particular lecture stick in my memory was that the gist of what he was saying was not only about knowing your part but also because having a collection makes you have a sense of ownership over the piece. You've gone out of your way to collect the music and that establishes a connection to it.
Now, years later, I'm realizing how important that is for a young musician. Ironically, the lesson still applies even with the dawn of YouTube. YouTube and other online sites have made music gloriously accessible. I love how easy it is to find music these days. I love it when a student comes into his lesson and tells me about something he found online.
But listening to a recording once online does not establish that same sense of ownership. Music has to become "your music." This is a much, much deeper level of listening than casually streaming the "best of" list on Spotify.
All musicians should work on building up their music library. And with this means having the ability to listen. Crummy speakers on a laptop work in a pinch but they don't replace the fuller sound of a nice sound system.
Now I'm not saying go out and drop thousands of dollars on new albums and a surround sound system. I'm merely pointing out the importance of this aspect to musical training. We are studying sound art. As with any art, exploring other artists and paying attention to the details others have added matters. Just as how a painter should eventually care about paint and canvass quality, a musician should care about the quality of a listening experience.
I don't believe the brain has a limit to the amount of new information it can process. Even if science eventually proves me wrong, I don't care. I love the idea of a limitless brain.
Perhaps I should explain what I mean by "limitless brain." I think that most people--myself included--have an image of themselves. I'm not talking about body image. I'm talking more about what we see as our place in the world. For most people the type of work that we do shapes a large part of this image.
For example, you might see yourself as an "office worker" type rather than a "manual labor" type. It's not that either profession is bad, it's just how you see yourself. Most of the time an "office worker" would look for other office job positions should the need to change companies arise. It's not that you are incapable of doing a manual labor job, it's just not how you think of yourself.
"Of course I wouldn't look for a construction job if I worked in an office," you might argue. "I have experience working in an office, why would I restart at the bottom?"
And you would be completely right. I would be the first to agree that it's absolutely necessary to acquire skills and take the time to refine them. But there is an unexpected consequence to this refining process. As we age and spend more time refining a certain set of skills we being to think that those skills are the only skills we are capable of learning. We transform from a person that has limitless opportunities to start fresh in different jobs into someone that is limited to just one job.
While the brain itself does change as we age, most of these limitations are self-inflicted. The only reason why we don't see ourselves in any other capacity is because we consciously refuse to envision possibility.
A good example of this would be when most adult students start a musical instrument. They usually begin instruction because they want a hobby and are interested in music. But 99% of the time they have already shut off the possibility of being "a violinist." They are "retired" (or whatever) and they just "happen to take lessons." This is a self-imposed limitation.
If learning is approached from the opposite direction it completely changes the experience. Children take one violin lesson and they immediately consider themselves to be "violinists." If anyone were to ask them they would say, "I play the violin." They don't question their proficiency and this is what makes the possibilities endless. Their mindset starts with "I am a violinist" and everything that follows is just ways to become a "better violinist."
An opportunity has presented itself. And, like most opportunities, it came unexpectedly.
I was given the opportunity to become an institute director. I find this simultaneously daunting and exciting. I'm excited for the potential. I'm excited for what types of changes a Suzuki institute could bring about to the area I live.
But saying you're excited about this type of a job is kind of like looking at Mt. Everest from the base and saying you're looking forward to reaching the top. There's a LOT of...well... stuff between you and that peak. A lot can go wrong.
As I begin the initial planning steps I realized that this is going to be a totally different kind of teaching environment that me and the other directors are going to have to learn how to provide for kids. An institute is a break from the daily music routine. It's intense, exhausting but--most importantly--fun. The very nature of an institute has the power to respark a child's musical enthusiasm. It's the jolt of energy needed when practicing flatlines.
So this is a huge responsibility, to say the least. But one that will be--I hope--worth the work.
Think about practicing in three parts: warm up, technique and new pieces. The practicing should always have these three parts in some way, regardless of how long the session is.
Warm up should be done in the beginning for at least a few minutes. The goal of this time is to get your body moving and your brain focused, not trying to fix anything. Warm up can include actual physical stretching. This is also a good time to just play through a few review pieces.
Technique should take up most of your practicing session. The goal of this time is to try and fix something such as even tone or intonation. The main difference between technique and warm up is what the brain is focusing on. You are intentionally trying to fix a particular aspect of your playing rather than trying to get from beginning to end on a piece. Good technique work could literally involve playing open strings the entire time. In fact, this is one of the best things to do when working on tone because the sound is pure.
When the technique is starting to feel comfortable that's when you could start trying to apply it to review pieces. The review piece should not require any focus for the notes but will be more challenging than open strings because more is involved.
New pieces should happen at the end and only if you have time. During this time the goal is to learn basic things like notes, rhythms and bowings. This is also when you would work on adding things like dynamics and phrasing to a piece. Since the focus is on the piece itself and not your playing technique you should not try to actively add your new technique to the piece.