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.

8 comments:

caribookscoops said...

I like this post because I could totally relate. Once upon a time I studied music at a University and those old habits can be hard to break. I especially liked what you said about writing "thank goodness writing does not have a physical memory component"

I'll be stopping by tomorrow for Poetry Friday. I am new to book blogging and am excited to see how it works.

Thanks!

TadMack said...

This is really interesting -- My experience with rehearsal comes from the vocalist's end, and it's only slightly different from the pianist's version -- all those hideous little mistakes or places where you slurred through notes and forgot the pacing really will come back to haunt you if you're not quite careful... Hm. Ugly pots. I think that's what NaNo ought to be renamed!

Fiddler said...

Thanks for this post--a good reminder to take it slow when learning a new piece of music and to "begin with the end in mind" in general!

Are you the same Yat-Yee Chong that is listed as a consultant in the Music Tree books? I'm using those books with my son (when I can get his nose out a book long enough to sit at the piano).

Cheryl Reif said...

Hi Yat-Yee--Thank you for providing a different, and thought provoking, perspective on the "ugly pots" idea. I wonder where the line is drawn, between the value of pursuing quality and just moving forward? I bet there's a happy medium. As writers, we have to develop both our abilities to write quickly and to write with skill. Eventually, we hope both skills will work at the same time!

Yat-Yee said...

caribookscoops and tadmack: Ah! Fellow musicians who've experienced those scary and sometimes horrifying I-thought-I'd-taken-care-of-that-mistake moments.

I like calling NaNo ugly pots. "say, how are those ugly pots coming along?"

Fiddler: Yes I am a consultant for the Music Tree. The years spent apprenticing at the New School for Music Study under Frances Clark and Louise Goss taught me a lot about teaching and thinking. I'm so very glad you're choosing The Music Tree. I've taught using others and nothing gives a better foundation.

Hi Cheryl: You're right, we need to be able to write fast and well. I don't know if those two will coincide in the same process for me. And since I'm still entrenched in my quality-from-the-start thinking, I need to go the route of writing quickly and editing later.

I hope to have a whole house full of ugly pots to show for it!

Thanks for dropping by, everyone.

Fiddler said...

I had a fabulous music teacher in elementary school who was also my piano teacher at the time. She used the Francis Clark library, which I loved and retrospectively think gave me a great foundation, so when I started teaching I sought out beginning materials in the series. I've been very happy with them. The New School for Music Study, hmm? Sounds like a great place!

Yat-Yee said...

fiddler: my New School friends, and especially Louise Goss (Frances passed away about 10 years ago), would be thrilled to hear that a Music Tree "kid" is now teaching the next generation with it. Would you mind if I relate the story?

Fiddler said...

Hi again,

I don't specifically remember Music Tree materials (how long have they been around? I hit the big 4-0 next year!), but I did grow up with Piano Literature, Minor Masters, Supplementary Solos, and Contempory Piano Literature from the Francis Clark Library. I remember another book called Themes from the Masterworks (my first recital piece came from it), which was probably the beginning of my love of classical music. I don't know if that one is still published, though!