Thursday, November 13, 2008
Ugly pots, awful sentences
A little while ago, over at the Tollbooth blog, Sarah Sullivan related the story about two groups of pottery students. One group was told their work would be judged solely on quantity, and the other group, quality. The result surprised me: the "quantity" group produced the higher quality work. When I read the same story again, this time on my friend, Cheryl's blog, I reacted again to the results.
My surprise has to do with my experiences as a musician. For most of my childhood, my approach to piano playing was sloppy. I got by with as little practice as I could get away with. At around fourteen, attending a music camp and going to a different teacher turned my mild interest in music into full-blown love. I became a piano fiend and gobbled up music. Beethoven, Debussy, Schubert: anything my teacher put in front of me, I learned, quickly.
That period was my equivalent of "work judged on quantity alone" in the pottery story.
When I got into conservatory, my professor was impressed with my big repertoire but appalled (he was, and is, a true gentleman and never showed it) by my lack of finesse and detail. Under his tutelage, I revisited pieces I had "learned" earlier so that I could improve on phrasing and voicing and fingering and articulation etc.
To my dismay, I discovered that my fingers and arms knew those pieces in a certain way and changing it was very difficult. In my earlier haste to learn new music, fueled by eagerness and passion, I had overlooked details, ploughed over important sections, and smothered all nuances. Even with determination and hours and hours of re-practicing, I wasn't always successful in changing old habits.
I gained a much deeper respect for the process of learning a new piece.
In twenty years of teaching, I've seen the same thing in my students. Those who took time to analyze their pieces, work out fingerings, and began learning at slower tempos mastered their music more quickly and securely. Those who wanted to get to the finished product quickly found themselves addled with stubborn mistakes that would surface, even months after they'd been eradicated, at auditions, recitals, competitions and other stressful situations.
Quality from the start: that has been my belief. Haste in "finishing" a piece: a guarantee of unpredictability.
And that's why the pottery story surprised me.
Obviously there are a number of other factors besides the contrast of quality vs. quantity. For example, the pottery students' interest in quality. That is why during the process of producing their many ugly pots, they learned how to make beautiful ones.
The thought I concluded from this story and my own experiences is this: thank goodness writing does not have a physical-memory component. In music, my muscles become conditioned when I learn something new. Reconditioning it takes a lot of time and effort. In writing, I can type a thousand bad sentences and the physicality of it won't hamper me from writing good ones.
I'll take time when I learn new music (gearing up forChristmas is when I get to learn lots and lots of new music for the church choir) but I'll be writing lots of words to get the ugly pots out of the way.