Archive for April, 2011

Speed is Learned

A few years ago, I was an avid motocyclist.  One of my favorite things to do was to ride my motorcycle on a racetrack.  I was never a racer, and never entered a race.  But with a trackday organization, I could take my motorcycle out to the track and safely ride as fast as i wanted to on some of the best courses in California.  But before getting out on the track, I had to attend track school.  It turns out that our visual system is designed for 0-35 mph (about as fast as an Olympic sprinter can run).  In driver’s education, we learn that to drive on the highway we have to look further ahead due to the increased speed.  On a racetrack, where 55mph would be a slow turn, it becomes necessary to look even farther ahead.  This is not natural, and so, the instructors repeated over and over again that “speed is learned”.  In fact, they stated that as we practiced our brains would increase the speed at which they processed what was in front of us.  This would allow us to go faster without falling over.

It turns out that the brain is VERY conditioned to certain speeds and has a definite comfort zone.  This comfort zone is so narrowly defined on a racetrack that 2mph faster feels extremely fast and uncomfortable!  Unless conscious effort is applied, our brains have us lapping at very close to a constant time, lap after lap.  Going faster is not comfortable, despite being safe!  Despite being more than 60 seconds a off the race pace, my brain was convinced that if I went any faster, I would crash for sure.  Now, although going much faster than legal highway speeds, I was nowhere near the safe limits of my motorcycle.  On turns the racers would take at 130+ mph, I was only going 90mph and feeling like it was as fast I could go without falling over.  Despite being highly skeptical of the claim that my brain was sensitive to 2mph differences, it turned out to be true.

At the end of track school, the instructors staged a “mini race”.  There were no trophies, and it was only three laps.  We gridded up like the start of a real race and took off.  My first track school I came in at the back of the pack, having lost a pitched battle for 2nd to last.  At the same time, I had lapped over 15 seconds faster than my best time.  (15 seconds is an eternity on the racetrack).  The competition had distracted my brain and so it processed the track faster than it was used to by a significant margin.

The same thing tends to happen in music making.  Left to our own devices, without a metronome, we will tend to practice in a very narrow tempo band.  At the beginning, this will be very slow.  Our brains are convinced that going faster  is hard, uncomfortable and confusing.  Yet, the reality is that our bodies are capable of extremely precise and quick movements.  You can demonstrate this by simply rolling your fingers sequentially on the piano or fretboard.  Just roll from the pinky to the thumb:  5-4-3-2-1.  See how fast you can do it.  Even as a first-day beginner, this movement can be done faster than is ever needed to play great masterworks.  It is an easy movement, natural for the hand, and one that we don’t even need to practice to execute at very high rates of speed.

The issue is not our playing mechanism.  Our bodies are capable of fast precise movements all the time.  Our brains, however, struggle at first with the complex new patterns we want to execute with our fingers.  The issue is not our muscles, though they grow in strength over time.  Effortless speed comes when our brains know exactly what to do and how to direct very small movements with precision.  As the speed increases, our brain must “look” further and further ahead, as it has less and less time to coordinate each action.  Because these patterns of movement are new and unfamiliar, our brain struggles to figure out how to tell our bodies what to do.  With repetition at comfortable speeds, our brains gain confidence and learn how to control all the fine muscles needed to play with subtle expression, speed and power.

In the next installment, we’ll discuss several procedures for increasing speed.

Aspirational Instruments

My father-in-law is a master woodworker.  He has a special relationship with his tools, and is always looking at new and better ones, maintaining his existing tools, or devising new ways to use them.  As a musician, I’m not particularly interested in woodworking tools, but have a ongoing passion for the instruments I play.  When you spend hundreds and thousands of hours using the same instrument, you become very, very familiar with it.  Its strengths and limitations become very well known.  As with tools, the lowest quality instruments are not really suitable for fine work – they can be good for one time, or disposable use, but generally are not useful for artist-grade efforts.  Then, there is the level of “professional” tools. These are well-made, well-designed tools that will last a lifetime if well-cared for.  They aren’t cheap, but represent solid value, and a worthwhile investment.  At the very highest end, though, are fine, generally hand-made tools, put out in small quantities by passionate people.  In the tool trade, these items are often exquisitely finished, and yet they retain all the usefulness and durability of standard tools.  They are a pleasure to use, and for the woodworker, give pleasure each time they are used.

The parallels to instruments fall pretty neatly to hand.  The very lowest quality instruments at local music stores are more of a frustration than a help to diligent study, but there is a wide range of well-made instruments that offer excellent value and long-term playability.  This post, however, concerns the high-end, and the very high-est end, at that.  Most musicians retain a certain pragmatism about instruments – good professional quality instruments are expensive:  good guitars are $2-5k, and pianos are $20-50k for quality grands.  Concert-grade instruments are far more expensive, but any of these instruments will support advanced work, and represent a substantial investment.  Most people will sacrifice to purchase an instrument at the “professional” level and then use it for a lifetime.  Concert instruments are generally reserved for day-dreaming.   In fact, if one is thinking “rationally”, it would be hard to justify buying a better instrument as it isn’t necessary to keep improving one’s own abilities.

The piano in my office certainly falls into this category.  It is a delightful instrument.  When playing it, I have no sense of lack (except that I need to have the action regulated at present, which is no reflection on the overall quality of the instrument).  Truthfully, I could work on the most advanced pieces in the canon of piano music and not find the instrument holding me back.  But, that said, there are still nicer pianos….much, much nicer pianos.  This piano is my second, and a big upgrade from the piano I inherited from my grandfather. But I have played many high-end pianos, so I know that it is possible to upgrade yet again.

This past weekend, we were on the Oakland side of the Bay, and i remembered that there was a high-end piano dealer there.  It turns out it was only 2 miles from where we were, so off to Piedmont Piano, we went!  Piedmont is the San Francisco area dealer for Fazioli and C. Bechstein, both “Tier One” piano’s in Larry Fine’s ranking system.  Both are handmade in small quantities to an absolutely exceptional standard of quality.  They are as expensive as exotic sports cars like Porsche, or Ferrari.  You could buy a house or apartment for the cost of these pianos in most areas of the country.  But the sound, the touch, the finish – everything is magnificent.  There are different pianos, but not better at this level.  These are among the finest pianos in the world.

Previously, when living in the New York City area, I have played Steiways, Mason & Hamlin, Bosendorfer and Fazioli, among others.  The Bosendorfer and Fazioli were both amazing instruments, and left a lasting impression.  When looking at pianos in this league, I prefer instruments 7′ (200cm) and larger as the tonal quality shifts dramatically to the upside around this length.  After all, who wants a 4 cylinder Ferrari?  The real choices are V8 vs. V12 for enthusiasts of the marque!   Instruments at 7’6″ (228cm) and above are my main interest in a high-end piano.  These are considered “semi-concert grands”, since the full-sized versions are 9′ (278cm) or longer.  The extra length improves the bass substantially vs. smaller grands, and the much larger soundboards increase resonance across the range of the instrument.

I sat down first at a C. Bechstein C 234, a roughly 7’6″ grand, second in their line only to the 9′ instrument.  It was exceptional in every way.  The sound was rich and full, the action was magnificent (pointing out that I really do need to get my piano regulated).  It was effortless to play quietly, and evenly – the action was delightful.  The piano had a strong singing treble, and seemed particularly resonant in the 5th and 6th octaves, though there may have been something going on with the piano’s position in the room that made it seem that way.  I doubt there is any actual resonance difference from top to bottom in an instrument of this quality.  While having no complaints about my piano, the C234 was ample proof that much better instruments are available.  Taking the Bechstein C234 home would cost $135,000 USD at the sticker price.

Next, I sat down at the Fazioli F278 (9′) concert grand which was placed on a small raised stage in the showroom.  I believe this to be the finest piano that I have ever played.  At a list price of $180,000 USD, it is also the most expensive I have played.  This instrument was simply stunning in every regard.  The action was light, but fully controllable, it was effortless to play.  No matter how slowly I depressed the key, I could never feel the knuckle of the action.  The sound ranged from gentle to thunderous, with a deep, rich, toneful bass.  Harmonies two octaves below middle C were rich and sonorous, not boomy and muddy.   The treble sparkled and resonance extended to the very highest notes.

Photo from Fazioli website


At the suggestion of Ross Gualco, the friendly and professional salesman assisting me, I then went to the Fazioli F228, their 7’6″ instrument.  He indicated that for his money, it was just as good in a home environment and possessed a more intimate sound.  I had played a F228 in NYC probably 10 years ago, and enjoyed an almost trancendental experience on it, matched only by a Bosendorfer of the same length in Philadelphia, so I happily sat down at the bench.  The piano was tremendous, superlative, and over-the-top excellent in every way.  Action and tone were identical to the F278 except in the very lowest octaves. But just as when Ferrari aficionados debate V8 vs V12 engine configurations, there are differences beyond the size and price.  The larger soundboard and string length do provide an audible difference.  In fairness, this is a subtle difference.  The F228 has a lovely, rich bass, and would not disappoint in any way, and is far superior to my 6′ Steinway.  But where the F228 is excellent in every way, the F278 possessed magical properties in the lower register.  Playing soft 10ths in the bass of the F278 is something that I don’t think would ever grow old.  The additional price of exercising this level of discrimination?  $50,000 USD.   The F228 lists for $130,000 USD vs. the $180k of the F278.

Overall, on this day, with these instruments, in the particular location in the showroom they were placed, I preferred both Fazioli instruments to the C. Bechstein.  This is in no way a slight to the Bechstein.  At this level there are no bad pianos – this is the choice between having a day at the racetrack with a brand new Ferrari or a Lamborghini – there is no bad choice, but individuals will have preferences based on largely personal factors.  The Fazioli action felt faster and more controllable to me, but I can easily see where another pianist would prefer the Bechstein.  I suspect that if both were weighed off, the touch-weight might well be identical, but I preferred the Fazioli to a significant degree as it seemed lighter, yet with the same control.  Another pianist might well prefer what felt like an ever-so-slightly heavier action on the Bechstein.  Understand that we are discussing very small differences, so small that adjustment by a qualified technician might equalize the difference, making a final determination tricky indeed.   Between the Fazioli’s, I choose the V12 – make mine a F278, gloss black will do nicely!  I have always bought instruments for how they sound, and apparently my ear has little interest in commercial matters (not a new discovery).

The reality is that all these pianos are well past the point of diminishing returns.  They are constructed to a standard of excellence, not to meet some cost-benefit ratio in an accounting department.  The piano I currently own is an exceptional value.  It is worth as much or more than I paid for it because of the deal I obtained on it.  But the Fazioli and the Bechstein don’t have to be measured on a value scale, they are good enough to measure on the scale of absolute excellence.  Shopping at this level must not be about price, but about refinement, personal preference, and superlative execution.

Given that the median income in the United States is currently about $50,000, why even discuss this?  These pianos cost several years of income for all but our wealthiest citizens, and that doesn’t count living expenses or a big enough room.  If practicality and affordability are the primary concerns, this is indeed a moot discussion.  The reality is though, that if it was important enough many could eventually afford an instrument in this range.  Compound interest is an amazing thing, but  for me, the primary benefit of looking at the “ne plus ultra” of instruments is a personal matter.

Bechsteins, Fazioli’s, Bosendorfers, and other top brands are for me, aspirational instruments.  You see, I aspire to play as well as these instruments are made.  I want to play so well that these instruments are the logical instruments to play on. In every human endeavor, the finest artisans use the finest tools.  While anyone with the money can purchase the instruments, they still won’t deliver their ultimate potential outside of matching skill.  Just like a $60,000 medium-format digital camera will take bad snapshots just as easily as a cell-phone, it is capable of the highest quality photographic artistry in skilled hands.  If you know how to to use them,  there can be a lot of joy in working with the finest tools.  That is the experience I want – to be the artist able to exercise such a tool.  Though my present instrument can “say” all the things written in the score with proper training and practice, a better instrument will allow it to be “said” better at every level of technical development.

Ultimately, however, there is not some magical level of development where one “deserves” a Fazioli, or a Bosendorfer.  One simply affords them.  As magnificent as they are, they are still just pianos, sold in dealerships like many other goods.  They will wear out and need rebuilding under heavy use just like all other pianos.  If the money is available, it is only a decision as to whether or not to buy and enjoy one.  There is no artistic merit committee that hands these out to “deserving” artists.  If there were, it is unlikely I’d receive a phone call, but that is not the point. The dealership auditions bank accounts, not musicianship.    In fact, truly deserving artists often buy their own simply because it is the right tool for their personal practice and expression and they don’t want to be beholden to a marketing department where their art is concerned.  Certainly, some wealthy people buy them as status symbols or as interior decorations, which is perfectly acceptable, and takes nothing from their musical value.  From my view, this keeps these fine manufacturers in business producing the finest instruments in the world, so that I can aspire to own and play one.

Some musicians will find this to be just absurd, like a teenage boy fantasizing about the hard choice between buying a Ferrari or a Lamborghini while surviving a shift at the local fast-food restaurant.  But just like the boy can develop a career or business and someday buy that Lamborghini, so a musician can aspire to play and ultimately purchase a Fazioli F278, or a $180,000 violin.   Whether that is worth it for any particular person, I can’t say, but for me, I aspire to the big, black, V-12 Fazioli.  It is an instrument to enjoy for a lifetime, not only for what it is, but also for the world-class excellence it represents.  I fully understand that having the piano won’t make me a world-class player, but I’m quite sure it won’t hurt my enthusiasm for practicing!

Of course, Fazioli does make an F308 (10’2″)…. And there is the Bosendorfer 290 to consider….  What instrument do you aspire to?  What tools do you want to work with?  As a craftsman, what gives you pleasure in addition to the work itself?  Do you have an aspirational instrument?  Do you aspire to own the finest tools and learn how to wield them as befits their manufacture?

Feeling Sparky

The title is a nod to Kaja and Phil Foglio’s outstanding graphic novel, Girl Genius.  I tripped across it last week, and spent several hours catching up.  Fantastic artwork, coloring, and a wildly creative storyline.  If you follow the link, I can’t be responsible for the interruption to your schedule!  You have been warned!  Double warnings if you have a math/science/engineering background.

In this story, the main characters are all “sparks” – highly gifted intellectuals who build amazing things – the prototypical “mad scientists”.  They are constantly inventing, rebuilding, repairing or improving any technological device they come in contact with.

In transporting my keyboard this week, I left the USB cable plugged in the back.  This was not a smart move, as I managed to catch the cable while picking it up. This torqued the USB port sufficiently that it no longer worked.  As a result, I lost 5 hours of practice time over the weekend.  An expensive lesson in cable management!  While on the road over the weekend, I was unable to use it for practice as that was how I was connecting it to my computer.

Once at home, however, I felt the “spark”, and knew what I needed to do.  First I opened the keyboard up and removed the damaged USB jack from the circuit board.  I suppose I could solder a new one on, but for now, I just wanted to be back up and working quickly.  I buttoned the keyboard back up, and found a wall-wart adapter from the spare parts bin.  The keyboard was marked 9V, but USB is only about 5V, so I settled on a 7.5V adapter.  Sure enough, the keyboard powered right on.  I also had a 12V adapter, but ran with the more conservative supply since it was doing the job.  Most electronics accept a range of voltages and have compensation circuits in the power supply, so I wasn’t worried about it not being exactly 9V.  Next was getting the keyboard connected back to my computer.

This keyboard has the USB port I removed as well as standard MIDI ports.  I haven’t used the MIDI ports, ever, I don’t think, but rather than buy a new keyboard over a $1 jack, I dug out an old USB-Midi interface that I haven’t used in years and found some drivers on the Internet.  After a quick reboot, I was back in business.  Having a MIDI keyboard is important to me because it makes early morning practice a reality while the rest of the house is sleeping.  I now have an extra cable and a small green box to take with me if I travel again, but the keyboard is still useful.

As electronic surgery goes, this was pretty minor, but it rescued me from my own disaster.  I find it funny that it ended up on top of a Linux pocket reference, that is itself on a stack of raw hard drives.  How geeky is that?   Now I need to tuck it away so that it is all invisible.  Sometimes it comes in handy to have a miscellaneous collection of electronic music stuff, cables, etc.  When feeling sparky, sometimes it all comes together!

A Week on the Road

This week, I was scheduled to be out of the house for four days, but within driving distance, so I decided to bring my keyboard setup to keep practicing.  This is the same rig that I use for my early morning practice, as I can work without disturbing a sleeping house.  Here’s what it looked like in the dimly lit hotel room, courtesy of my phone:

The keyboard just fit across the backseat of the car, and was a bit of a hassle to get up to the room (elevators are small when carrying something 5′ long!).   Once set up, it was quite workable.  This particular keyboard is just a controller – it has no sounds built into it.  The cable to my computer is a USB cable that allows me to play samples located on the computer.  I use Apple’s Mainstage application for this as it is built into Logic Studio.  The default Steinway grand samples are quite acceptable for practice use.

Also visible in the picture: my music (on the left), my practice notebook (on the right), metronome, audio interface, etc.  Despite having metronome software on both my computer and my phone, the physical metronome is faster to adjust and use.  The phone was sitting next to the metronome, and acting as my practice timer.  It is certainly more than I would want to fly with, but it worked fine for this trip.  The sound, touch, etc are all much less satisfying than the grand piano in my home office, but when trying to make do on the road, it was a great way to keep moving on my pieces and skills.

I do find that once a piece is headed into the “performance polishing” bin that it is not useful to practice on this rig anymore.  It is great for working out fingering, and getting things to a base tempo.  The action is not sufficiently responsive to work effectively on subtle interpretive details, though the outline can be put in place.


For those wondering, I have a thin rubberized keyboard overlay with all the shortcuts for Final Cut Pro printed on top.  It is useful for that application, of course, but also keeps the keyboard clean.  I forget about it, but people always ask what happened to my keys.

Getting Perspective

One of my favorite things about taking lessons is how it broadens my own perspective.  After playing a piece for a week or two on my own, I’ve instinctively fallen into certain habits while playing it.  Then I show up at a lesson, and I get asked questions like, “Have you thought about playing it this way?”, and then hearing it in a new way.  I am asked how I want it to sound, and then have to compare it to what I am producing.  I leave changed – my ears opened to new possibilities, and suddenly, I can’t accept the old way anymore, I am free to choose from a broader universe of possibilities.  Even though I try to build an interpretive map on every piece, I’m still at a place where I discover new ways of hearing a piece, and find stronger options than my first take.  This process of gaining perspective is a massive help to my development, and a big part of what I look forward to at my next lesson.

This past week, I had one other perspective adjustment that I appreciated.  I have for some time held 120bpm in 16ths to be the target for basic scale work.  It is quick enough to handle most of the things one might play, and, I figured that once I get there, then I can see what else may be needed to work on the larger works in the literature.  I’ve been after the 120 bpm for so long (several years), that it took on a life of its own as a goal.  But in my last lesson, my teacher and I were discussing scales, and she related a recent experience at a Master Class she attended.  The artists giving the class informed her that he doesn’t allow any of his students to begin work on the Beethoven Piano Sonatas until their scales are flawless at 160 bpm in 16ths.   I paused for a moment and realized that this was a pretty wise perspective.  Often the fast movement of his sonatas are marked “Presto”, and frankly won’t sound right at 120bpm – they would seem slow and lack the thunderous impact of a faster reading.  By setting the bar at 160, he assures himself that his students can play at the required rate to fully engage the music.

So, I walked in with scales that I had prepared, and walked out with a new goal!  That kind of perspective expansion is always welcome.  I had my internal meter adjusted to better reflect the level of technical development consistent with my goals.  What is interesting, is that this led to a breakthrough in practicing.  I had been coasting at 80bpm, working on learning some of the minor scales, but realized that I can actually play the ones I know at 100-120bpm with a little work on the crossings at certain points.  Given a new goal, suddenly I had wind in my sails to accelerate my practice and to move ahead to where I need to be.  Once I set goals that satisfy the inner artist, I find perspective on what it really takes to get there quite valuable.  I will have the Sonatas ordered well before I hit 160bpm, but I know what I need to do to start them in earnest.  Now I have great motivation to get to work on my scales!

What perspective do you need on your own playing, performing, or teaching?  How do you get it?

Lesson Frequency

What lesson frequency yields the greatest impact in playing results?  If having a lesson a week is good, is having one every day better?  Or is better to go every two weeks, so that more individual practice can be done between lessons?  There are several factors that influence the decision of how often to obtain instruction.  External factors include things like:  how often can you schedule lessons into your life?  How many lessons a month can you afford?  How often is your teacher available?  For most students, these factors tend toward weekly or bi-weekly (every two weeks) lessons.  But there are several other considerations that merit investigation.

First, one’s level of technical and artistic development has a lot to do with lesson frequency.  In the beginning stages, a lesson every week is highly advantageous.  There is so much to learn, and so many questions, that if you are making any effort at all, you will be looking for some expert input after a week.  At this level, it is not about artistic craftsmanship, but about identifying and fixing harmful or poor playing habits before they become ingrained.  It is about renewing one’s motivation by checking in and finding out if progress is being made.  It is about receiving encouragement when you really don’t know quite what to make of the process.  When you haven’t yet learned how to isolate, diagnose, and solve problems on your own, checking in weekly for even 30 minutes does wonders in the beginning for keeping everything moving in the right direction.

Second, one’s weekly practice volume must be considered.  As we have discussed elsewhere, there is a lower bound to effectiveness.  If it takes about 6 hours to make noticeable progress, then it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have lessons more frequently than this occurs.  For most this is accomplishable in a week.  But there is nothing to suggest that showing up with the minimum possible volume produces the most effective lessons.  In fact, it is my experience that substantially more volume produces the greatest benefit from a given lesson.  I find that keeping a practice volume where music can be brought back with fingering intact and basic interpretations mapped yields the greatest results.  The tempo may be half the target tempo, but if the basic technical problems have been solved, then the interpretive map can be refined with experienced ears and fingers.  This level of preparation makes for happy teachers, and ultimately contributes to a productive relationship.  Setting lesson frequency such that substantial progress occurs also makes for a highly satisfying lesson.  You KNOW that you are better than the last time, and it shows.

Thirdly an individual’s general rate of progress is important  For a given practice volume, different students learn at different rates.  The main issue is not really the practice volume as such, but the measurable progress between lessons.  On the one hand,  it is actually possible to go longer between lessons as skill develops.  Once a student is able to identify technical and musical problems, isolate them, diagnose the issue, and solve them, it is possible to continue work without worrying that something is going horridly wrong.  This is quite freeing for the responsible intermediate student, and allows for independent work to be done.  At the same time, if practice volume is high, and progress is rapid, it is quite possible to have too much time in between lessons.  My experience is that there is a point at which you know that it is time for external input.  I find myself WANTING a second opion – to practice performing it for someone to see where my nerves throw it off, to figure out how some section could be better.  I know I am at this point when I stop pushing the metronome up, or I find myself playing the piece well, but without stretching any further, or feeling lost as to other interpretations.  As an adult student, there may be times that you continue to practice heavily, but miss a lesson date for whatever reason.  It can feel long, when the completed work is piling up and you know that it needs to be evaluated and corrected!  This is a good time to put a piece on maintenance mode and to start work on a new piece where there’s lots of basic work to do before needing input.

At the higher levels of musical development, taking lessons more than once a week can be common.  With a 6 hours representing two days of practice or less, it is possible to take lessons twice a week and be making rapid progress.  The idea here is that if technical issues are not in the way, then extra time and attention can be paid to artistic matters, with the student working not so much at playing the piece, but on finding the most musical expression of the piece.  This level of work tends to be done as an advanced student, working with performance coaches and preparing for major concerts or recitals.

As with other areas of practice, you will ultimately have to make your own map for how lesson frequency fits into your development at this time.  The truth is that the various internal and external factors will change over time and you will want to regularly evaluate whether or not your lesson schedule is aligned with your goals at the instrument.


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