I once asked my mother, who recently retired as the piano professor at the University of Tampa, what the most important quality is for a successful musician. At the time, I was surprised by her answer: “the desire to play well.”
But I came to see she was right. It is the desire to play well that fuels the commitment necessary to do everything else: all the hours of practicing, the lessons, the expense of instruments, etc. This comes to mind because I am playing the Shostakovich 1st Concerto on September 24, and the amount of hours of patient practice to work out the details are really something. We it not for the desire to play really well, to have as much technical control as I possibly can, I would not be sitting in my office at 10:15 PM on a Saturday night finally winding down.
Hours and hours over the course of weeks on a few particularly difficult passages. And the challenge is not to practice “hard” but to practice with calm and comfort and intelligence. After a while, the motions become automatic, and playing the once-difficult passages can become calming and centering.
Bernard Greenhouse used to tell me when I was his student that “any technical problem can be solved.” He was (and is) right. But it takes time and thought and patience. He also pointed out that it just takes many, many hours of practice. Another of my teachers (sorry for all the name dropping), Leonard Rose, was famous for his commitment to regular practice throughout his career. And whatever problem I mentioned to him, his answer was always to practice more!
I started learning the Shostakovich in the late spring and have worked on it on and off since then. Now, of course, it is much more “on” than “off”! Passages that initally seemed impossible are now actually easy. I am feeling more and more confident and calm.
Why am I going on about this? Besides the fact that it is on my mind, it illustrates something important. While I have always been naturally musical and imaginative and expressive. Maybe that sounds egotistical, but those just happen to be my gifts. But cello technique? No gift there. I think I have virtually no natural talent for actually playing the cello. Every bit of technique has been worked out and developed. I have been smart enough to listen to my teachers and observe good players and learn from them.
And most of all, I have had the desire to play well that has brought me back to the cello every time I tried to quit, that drove me to study and practice and learn, and that gives me the patience to sit for hours and hours and hours.
Mom, as is so often the case, is right.