This semester, I re-read Ruth Slenczynska's excellent book Music at Your Fingertips. It's a very practical manual for pianists, and I was encouraged and intrigued to discover how many of its lessons had become a part of my own work during the years since I had last read it.
Slenczynska suggests that a pianist think not so much in terms of learning musical works as absorbing them. The idea is that simply remembering a collection of facts to be recalled more or less at leisure (which might be what the word "learning" connotes for many of us) does not provide the broad and incisive grasp required to do the work of a pianist. Indeed, a pianist is expected to remember an astronomical number of facts which must then be reproduced in sequence and in real time through physical means that, ideally, convey a high level of thought and some spiritual engagement. I like to think these information-rich, real-time, pressure-performance qualities make being a pianist a little like being a trauma surgeon - only for a surgeon, the stakes are a tad higher.
To truly be up to the pianistic task, one must absorb the work to be performed. The work itself must become part of us, and the absorption process necessary to bring that about takes time. The numerous steps and sustained effort required are quite different from what we might picture ourselves doing to prepare for a quiz, for example.
Because of all this, and as odd as it sounds, "eat paint" has become our unofficial studio motto this semester, mostly because I've talked about it a lot.
Imagine the following. For some inexplicable reason, you want to literally ingest a large Rembrandt canvas. You're desire is to truly absorb a physical work of art into your system. How would you proceed?
The wise course, short of seeking psychological help, would be to eat the paint in tiny portions over a long period of time. Otherwise, it will very quickly make you very sick.
This silly scenario sheds important light on the music-learning process.
First and foremost, it helps us envision the tiny amounts of musical material we ought to consider at any moment in the practice room. The temptation to go with the flow of the music and just play through things is very strong and is often not even recognized as a temptation. Being in the moment with the music is what we desire, but slowing down and maybe even stopping the musical flow to zero in on the details is what we need. To continue with these liquid images, performance is baptism in a rushing river while practice is discovering the life in a few drops of water as viewed through a microscope.
In addition to helping us understand the appropriate scale for our musical study work, "eating paint" also reminds us that if we try to absorb too much too fast the experience will become toxic. I am sure this happens most days in most practice rooms. And the symptoms are probably pretty much the same as if we were to eat too much actual paint: frustration, fatigue, fuzzy thinking, physical discomfort, and other phenomena.
Click here to view and consider eating paintings by Rembrandt.