Imagine you are preparing a cake. You collect each ingredient according to the recipe, apply yourself diligently and follow the instructions carefully. When you finally taste it however it’s not quite how you wanted it. Clearly, you may still be happy with it or you may want to make it better, so you start wondering where you went wrong.
The mistake may have happened in specific actions you took or in their order. Maybe something was overlooked during the process or an ingredient was too abundant or perhaps entirely missing. You need to look at details as much as at the entire process.
The more you look the more perspectives emerge. You start considering the tools you used, the precision in timings and proportions, the specific quality of each ingredient. Focussing on the taste will help you point out where the problem is. Answers start to appear, and you take mental or written notes for different things to try the next time.
Apparently, to make the cake exactly the way you wish you need to acknowledge every little thing, each necessary action, ingredient or tool, and consider them with more attention than you thought. More than that: if the problem is an old oven or a not too reliable book of recipes, you might realise that it will be hard to fix certain mistakes by today or tomorrow.
Whatever you decide to do about your cake, let’s have a look at this simple experience: it has an origin, a motivating element that drives you in engaging into creative (cooking/baking in this case) activities. The engine of the entire process that makes it all worthwhile is your taste. Your taste told you that a cake was in order, which cake you decided to bake. Your taste reveals that your efforts did not provide the result you wanted, it guides you in identifying the mistakes you made.
Now imagine you are preparing the same cake every day. How much easier would it be to discover what goes wrong each time? By repeating the process every day, your attention to detail is enhanced: your sensitivity to flavours, the knowledge of ingredients and the skill to choose the best ones, the ability to spot potential issues before making mistakes and the ability to plan according to the available resources; each aspect increases exponentially just through daily exposure. Not just that: soon you’ll want to try a more challenging recipe. You got it: this is practice.
Your taste is the best teacher that ever existed in culinary art; and music, by the way! It tells you what music you like to play and how to play it. Actually, it tells you how not to play it. It does this constantly, every time you sit at the instrument. It’s that little voice that, while you play, keeps going: “Mhm, that wasn’t very good… that also… ouch! a mistake… etc.” The same way it happens for baking cakes, your musical taste keeps pointing at problems but it does not suggest solutions: at least it doesn’t in the same way your teacher can.
As a matter of fact, there are often too many problems to consider at once (tone, fluency, dynamics, phrasing, coordination, you name it!) to which we don’t seem to have answers or solutions, and to a certain degree it is very difficult to imagine one way (or one answer) that solves more than one problem at once. There are infinite ways to go wrong and only very few to get it right.
As your teacher should point out, patience and resilience are required, allowing you to approach one problem at a time. To return to our cake analogy: “I need a better quality of butter”, translates into ‘I need to find a window of time to go to the store, I need to learn about butter, what makes one kind better than another, I have to stop by the dairy aisle and start browsing and reading labels on each item that seems right, until I pick one’. The full answer to whether my choice was correct, comes only after I incorporate that ingredient in the cake, after another attempt at baking it.
So, the process or the journey allows for improvements, more than ready answers from a specialist, like your teacher. Good teachers, I believe will not provide fixed answers unless by doing so they aim at showing you the practice strategy or a research method. They should help you focus on what is important, what needs to be developed or needs attention. The actual process is in your hands, completely. And it should be no other way, given you will be owning every bit of success when finished.
Good musicians, which hopefully includes your teacher, those not above following a book of decent recipes or those looking for that extra flavour in their performance, have learned the right way by excluding the wrong ones.
The first-hand experience of unsuccessful ways you feel stuck at and the will to eventually excluding them one by one, provide an artist with better ways to produce the desired results. Slowly, with patience and a bit of faith, you too will narrow down those paths that time has proven most efficient: experience will do the rest, adjusting your practice methods for better musical outcomes.
In the end, good teachers should not provide you with ideas of right or wrong or good or bad: you don’t need that, musically speaking your taste knows best. Your coach, however, can help you discriminate the useful from the useless, the nice from the beautiful, the important from the necessary. This constant active check will develop your taste to the point that you will be able to do all this by yourself: at that point, a mistake becomes a clear sounding instruction for improvement.
So, if your taste is the only authority that matters, here is our goal: we want to make your taste as refined as your teacher’s. To the point that it will not just whisper constantly how not to play, but also provide options for how to make it better. We want your musical taste to become your teacher!
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