I remember when I was growing up, recitals were always organized such that they would start with the least-advanced piece and end with the most-advanced, and progress linearly in between those two points. So, it was very easy to end up comparing oneself to other students, and it felt like there was a lot of the mentality of, “I’m only in Book 4 when so-and-so, who’s my same age is already in Book 6,” floating around. That’s one of the reasons that we try to mix beginning, intermediate, and advanced repertoire throughout our recitals these days. We also hope it makes for more enjoyable performances for the audience to listen to overall!
I’m very pleased that, from what I can tell, there seems to be very little competitive comparison between students at WCS or their parents. For the moment we start comparing ourselves to others, we’re very likely to fall into the trap that Dr. Suzuki describes here, of wanting to “rush ahead” instead of being focused on improving the fundamental aspects of our playing like our posture, technique, intonation, and tone. The only thing worth comparing ourselves to is the version of ourselves that we were yesterday, and trying to improve that person. Everything else is outside our control, or really has no bearing on us.
I think one of the difficulties is that improvements in posture, technique, intonation, and tone can be very, very hard to quantify, whereas moving through repertoire and “finishing” Book 3, 4, 5, 6, and so on can feel like quantifiable progress. The trouble is that it’s entirely possible to be “playing” a piece from Book 6 with lesser quality than a piece from Book 3 could or should be played. To put it another way, it’s entirely possible to “progress” through repertoire without making any actual progress or improvement as a player. This is where we need to recalibrate what progress actually looks like and means.
This is not easy to do, but it can be done. It means learning to prioritize posture, and viewing playing the same piece – or even a review piece – with better posture as making progress. It means learning to pay close attention at all times to the finer details of one’s bow hold, or the shape of one’s violin hand and fingers, and viewing playing a scale, an etude, or any piece of repertoire with consistently better technique as measurable improvement. It means progressively developing an ear that can hear more and more precisely whether or not a note is in tune, and practicing in such a way that one actually plays consistently more in tune. And it means listening with the greatest of attention and care to one’s tone – the quality of one’s sound – and holding playing anything at all with a more beautiful tone in the highest regard.
For many of us, this is a big recalibration. It means caring less about what you’re playing than about how you’re playing it. It means learning to focus more on quality than on quantity, if you will. But in the long run, it means truly becoming a better musician, which is what all of us here at West County Strings are about!