I really should be practicing

My earliest piano lessons were intermittent and inconclusive: like an old lawnmower, I had to start it a few times before it caught.

As a very small child (I hardly remember this at all) I took lessons from a little old lady who taught the Kelly Kirby Kindergarten method, which had (much to my parents’ amusement) a rather unfortunate cover:


A year or two later, in maybe 1974 or 75, I took a lesson or two in the “The Big Green Machine,” a green school bus full of electric pianos and hippies that would roll up to my school once a week. (I like to imagine they were investigating ghosts and solving mysteries when they weren’t teaching group piano lessons.)

I really started playing piano relatively late, about age 9. I say “relatively late” because, in the ordinary scheme of things, age 9 isn’t that late to start anything, really, and it’s never too late to start playing music.* However, high-level professional pianists, like Olympic gymnasts, start early, and it probably tells you something about the competitiveness of the classical piano world that my “late” start on the instrument would later cause me untold anxiety. Though when I went to music school, I realized that anxiety is pretty much the habitual condition of the musician’s life. My daughter, a violinist, just sent me this graphic, which pretty much sums it up.


Child prodigies are genuinely terrifying.

The only thing wrong with this graphic is the amount of time given to “thinking about practice.” It should be much larger. The title of Gary Graffman’s autobiography, I Really Should Be Practicing, is every music student’s motto. It is the inner script that is to the music student what a halo is to an angel. It’s not just a nagging thought, it’s practically what defines the music student. Thinking that you should be practicing is as much a practice as anything you do with an instrument. Like the ascetic whose task is to meditate every moment upon the name of God or his own impending death, the music student turns this thought into a permanent adaptation, an inner compass pointing always in the direction of the Good they have sworn to serve. As Peter Sloterdijk writes, the practicing person, homo repetitivus, is a different species from everyone else, the comfortable and complacent who have not roused themselves to measure their lives and strength against some infinite vertical scale of achievement.** Members of the species Homo normalis, we could call them.

You know how you hear people say, “music saved my life”? Usually they’re talking about high school; for me, it was grade school. I was a weird little kid, deeply withdrawn into my own head, and I had a lot of trouble with school. I couldn’t figure out what people wanted from me, either the teachers or the other kids, and I was put in the “special” (read: slow) group, which at that place and time was how teachers warehoused the kids they didn’t know what to do with. When I really got into music, it was as if the music coordinated the disunified parts of my body and mind. It felt as if someone flipped a switch in my brain, or, better, as if some more rational and fully evolved entity had fused its consciousness with mine, like what happens to Ed Firmley in Philip K. Dick’s never-written last novel The Owl in Daylight. I have always been alive to the fundamental mystery of music, the way that it alone among the arts can reach into us and remap us according to its own design.

Music acts upon human beings, on their nervous systems and vital processes … This power—which poems and colors possess occasionally and indirectly—is in the case of music particularly immediate, drastic, and indiscreet: “it penetrates to the center of the soul,” Plato says, “and gains possession of the soul in the most energetic fashion.” Schopenhauer, on this point, echoes Plato. By means of massive eruptions, music takes up residence in our intimate self and seemingly elects to make its home there. The man inhabited and possessed by this intruder, the man robbed of a self, is no longer himself: he has become nothing more than a vibrating string, a sounding pipe. [Vladimir Jankélévitch, Music and the Ineffable, trans. Carolyn Abbate (Prince University Press, 2003), 1.]

For some, this represents a terrifying loss of control; for others, a Dionysian revel; for me, rescue.

People don’t become monks because it’s a sensible career choice. It’s probably impossible for anyone who hasn’t taken holy vows to understand why anyone would. I certainly don’t claim to. But I suspect that inner motivation behind such decisions is not so different from what I experienced when I became possessed by music. It wasn’t just a matter of liking music a lot. It was a feeling of being called. Called by what? Well, something bigger. Hard to put into words. Sloterdijk uses Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” to express it.

We never knew his head and all the light
that ripened his fabled eyes. But
his torso still glows like a gas lamp dimmed
in which his gaze, lit long ago,

holds fast and shines. Otherwise the surge
of the breast could not blind you, nor a smile
run through the slight twist of the loins
toward the center where procreation thrived.

Otherwise this stone would stand deformed and curt
under the shoulders’ transparent plunge
and not glisten just like wild beasts’ fur

and not burst forth from all its contours
like a star: for there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life. [Trans. Edward Snow]

It’s not as if I actually felt, “this music is demanding that I change my life.” But what music called forth from me was the change in my life; an irresistible force. What was called was a new kind of being, one in which every moment would be given its meaning and proper direction by the holy vow I had taken: “I really should be practicing.”


In his post listing the benefits of a musical education, Jonathan puts “How to take (and benefit from) constant criticism” in first place. I think a little more needs to be said about that.

The present-day surveillance-and-quantification regime of schooling that I have bitched about elsewhere might keep kids hopping from one assigned task to the next, but it also fosters a weird sort of passivity. Kids are busy checking off boxes on some hypothetical future college admissions application, but at every step in their Bataan Death March of Academic Accomplishment (leading, they hope, to the glorious moment when the fat acceptance envelope from Yale arrives and all their struggles will finally end) some over-steering adult has been there to document, manage, measure, and evaluate their experience. The kids so raised—like veal calves, fattened with skills and knowledge and accomplishments but denied room to move—learn that education is not something they do; it is something being done to them. If you do something great, well, good for you, but you didn’t really do it yourself, did you? And if you screw up, there’s usually some helpful adult around to help you deal with that.***

Either way, though, the students suspect that they’re being cheated. And they are. For all their accomplishments and hard work, they are not really being pushed to their limits. Their best selves are not really being called forth by all their busywork. When you are pushed to your limit, there is always the possibility that you might fail; in a true test of mettle, failure is absolutely certain, sooner or later. But to the accomplishment culture that raises our kids, failure is an embarrassment, like a fart in church that everyone pretends not to notice. Or maybe it’s more like Philip K. Dick’s notion of precrime: if they could, the educrats would create a system in which students would never even have the chance to fail, because it would be set up to forestall every circumstance under which failure could arise.

And yet, when you eliminate the possibility of failure, you eliminate the possibility of victory—not “success,” which is a limp modern-day substitute gratification, but motherfucking victory, in all its fierce and bloody-knuckled joy. Victory is what you earn by the most terrible disciplines and trials, by the most humbling failures enacted before the most pitiless of judges.

Maybe I’m being a bit dramatic. “Pitiless judges”? No, my teachers were never pitiless, but the standards against which they measured my efforts were. And remain so for everyone coming up now. It is the standard of music itself, a discipline that will always present me with a horizon greater than my own.

It’s not the only such discipline: I think that kids are drawn to sports for the same kinds of reasons. It might be dramatically satisfying to suggest otherwise, but a kid who plays football seriously has a whole lot more in common with a kid studying jazz drums than either has to homo normalis.

The dinner-table conversation pictured in Whiplash is in a certain sense untrue, like all of its lurid scenes of psychotic abuse and obsessive practice. (I mean, come on, it’s a movie.) But it’s true insofar as it bears witness to (and takes revenge on) the archetypal scene that plays out as members of the tribes homo repetitivus and homo normalis glare at one another in mutual incomprehension across the Thanksgiving table. Music students, you know what I’m talking about. “When are you going to get a job? Like, a real job?,” etc.

Whiplash is literally wrong but poetically true. What it gets right is the musician’s existence on what Sloterdijk calls “the planet of the practicing” — a strange, self-enclosed, hermetic world of training musicians, where you suffer frank, non-negotiable, nothing-to-do-about-it-but-get-back-in-the-practice-room criticism, and suffer brutally, sometimes. And yet, for reasons that will remain forever opaque to those not on that planet, you get up the next day and do it all again.

A memory, by no means remarkable or untypical, from my first semester in music school: I have been assigned Bach’s C minor Partita by my teacher, James Tocco, with whom I have been working only for a few weeks. He is one of the greatest living American pianists, and I really want to show him that he was not wrong to accept me as a student. The Partita is not a famously difficult work, like the Goldberg Variations or something; it’s just your basic garden-variety Bach. But Bach is inherently difficult: whatever the piece, it will be harmonically complex, restlessly contrapuntal, intricately finger-twisting. I learn the piece and bring it in to a lesson. While I’m playing, I realize (too late!) that I don’t really know it. I could play it in the practice room well enough, but now, before my teacher’s gaze, the solid feel of the music in my hands becomes papery and insubstantial. My mouth gets dry, my shoulders start pulling up towards my ears (tension! relax! I bark at myself, but it doesn’t help), my fingers feel tremulous and begin to forget their places . . . my mind starts growing blank . . . my teacher begins to frown . . . Hours later, I’m in my dorm room, crying, with my non-musician girlfriend looking on, baffled. “Music is a harsh mistress,” I say, self-pityingly. But it’s true. I fucked up. I can’t lawyer this shit away. Bach is what it is, and my playing was what it was. Nothing for it but to get back in the woodshed.

So why live like this? If nothing else, moments like this are authentic.**** They tell you who you really are, even if what they tell you isn’t all that much fun to hear. And if you are going through life with a nagging sense that, whatever your accomplishments (I got into Yale! that’s got to count for something, right?) you have never really amounted to much; that all the rewards promised you in return for all your hard work have turned out to be vain and empty; that, for all your hard work, you have never really been called upon to do anything that matters — if you have ever felt that, then you can understand why such moments are precious. To come up against something hard, something real*****, something that you cannot negotiate away, is a gift.

You must change your life.

*If there is one thing I would add to my last post on music education, it’s that music is too important to leave to the professionals; it is your birthright, as a human being, to play music, and you do not need anyone’s permission to start. My wife often likes to say that what we need is music education not only for kids but adults as well, and that the YMCA — a place where people of all ages and degrees of skill can come and work out — is a much better model for life-long participation in music than the conservatory model. What would a YMCA for music look like? That’s a question music-education advocates should think about.

**Peter Sloterdijk, You Must Change Your Life: On Anthropotechnics, trans. Wieland Hoban (Polity, 2013).

***I’m guessing that my fellow profs have encountered this kind of student—the one who gets busted for plagiarizing a paper and whose automatic response is to call up Mom and Dad, your department chair, the Dean, the Provost, the University President, the President of the United States, etc., moving up the chain and hoping that, if this grownup is proving difficult, some other grownup can be found who can fix things. This is learned behavior: it’s always worked before, so why not now? And it only makes sense: if students are denied individual agency, then it only makes sense for them to use the only power left to them, which is the agency of the system itself.

****And yes, I am using that word without any historicizing irony at all.

*****Philip K. Dick defined reality as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Our lives present us with surprisingly few things we can’t change by changing our belief in them. But if you screw up on your Bach Partita, you can tell yourself anything you want, your failure is still there, staring you in the face.#

#By the way, did you notice? I scored the hat trick of getting three PKD references into a blog post that otherwise has nothing to do with him. I should get a prize for that. Victory, baby!

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
This entry was posted in Life, Piano. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to I really should be practicing

  1. Clare Ford says:

    Phil, I love this blog, and so did Larry by the way. Thanks so much! lots of love, Mum XX >

  2. grahamlarkin says:

    Well said, brother. Re your note #3 (***), this just in from NYT Magazine: “If students have adopted a litigious approach to regulating campus life, they are only working within the culture that colleges have built for them. When your environment so deeply resembles a Fortune 500 company, it makes sense to take every complaint straight to H.R.” Source: https://twitter.com/freddiedeboer/status/641584920431841280

  3. philphord says:

    Hi Mum! Hi Graham!

    Yeah, I like Freddie Deboer. His stuff on the omnipresence and radical vacuity of snark in online political chatter is right on.

Comments are closed.