(Okay, it’s not one weird trick so much as it’s a multi-part framework, but if you expect a clickbait title to be truthful, hello sweet summer child, maybe the internet is not the place for you.)
So I spent most of 2020 feeling really crappy on the practicing front (and also, on all the fronts, ICYMI we are in a whole-ass pandemic). I had bursts of forced productivity where I bullied myself into expending all my energy pounding away at music like everything was fine, followed by long stretches of burnout where I felt hopeless and uncreative and all my discipline evaporated like it had gotten dusted in the Thanos snap. My pre-pandemic practicing routine was pretty rigorous and at the start of 2021, I found myself wondering how I was going to work my way back up to that, particularly as my relationship to practicing felt overly burdened with guilt and self-loathing after many months of false starts and forced busywork.
For the past few months I’ve been working my way back into a healthy practicing routine, and making minute but definite progress, and it all is happening only because I gave myself new rules and expectations that would have horrified my pre-pandemic self and honestly may horrify you too. But they’ve been instrumental (ha) in getting me to move forward and trust myself and actually feel good about sitting down at the piano, so I’m going to share what’s worked for me. (I have already written about and been interviewed about the crappiness of maintaining a practice routine during the pandemic with no live performances to work for, so that’s all I’ll say here because this post is not about that.)
Some disclaimers before we get started: the tips and methods I detail here are what I consider “harm reduction” guidelines for practicing; they are not practice/productivity hacks, they are not how I normally operate to achieve professional-level work, and I do not endorse or recommend this with kids—this is solely an account of the framework that has helped me to drag myself forward while in the recovery stage of dealing with a protracted crisis.
Before we get into it, I’m going to be totally honest with you guys: I was floored by the reaction to my last post. The subject was so niche and I thought the issues were so dense and complex that I figured maybe three people would skim it, and I would have been thrilled—thrilled!—if one person eventually said something nice to me about it.
I did not expect the link to get liked and tweeted hundreds of times, both by professionals in the field who I deeply admire, and by total strangers who sent me messages saying they had experienced the exact same things. (I got enough of these messages and comments that I realized my assumption that there’s no demand for published non-standard historical works was totally wrong. There is a demand, and it’s high time publishers did something about it.) I did not expect people in music to write to me telling me that I’d changed their perspective on their work, or people outside of music to tell me that they’d learned a lot about classical music from my post. I did not expect to get messages of advice and support from librarians, which made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside because, man, I love librarians so much.
It all made me painfully cognizant of one thing: I was a dolt who had referred to an esteemed composer as “my homegirl” and said things like “my dudes, it was real bad” in an Intellectual Piece of Writing that actual smart people read, you guys.
So, let’s pick back up where we left off. We’ve been over some of the weird, specific hurdles that stand in the way of playing music by non-canonic composers (which in my experience is women composers, but this also applies to POC and LGBTQ+ composers.)
It would be disingenuous to claim that it’s all downside. I’ve only just embarked on this journey—and I’m in awe of all of you out there who have been doing this work longer than I have—but I’ve already discovered so many beautiful, wonderful benefits to wandering off the beaten path.
When I wrote last year’s post about branching out of standard piano repertoire (recap: it’s all by white dudes) to explore music by women and people of color, I’ll admit I had a secret little fear that I wouldn’t be able to follow through and that my good intentions would wilt and I’d go back to my usual diet of Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin.
Well, I’ve been chugging along at my personal crusade of searching out and learning music by female composers, and I’m happy to report that 1) I haven’t given up, and 2) I have a lot to say about the journey so far, which has been a roller coaster of fear and discovery (hence the blog title). There are a lot of unique challenges that come with straying from the canon, as well as a lot of really special bonuses that you don’t get playing music from the standard menu.
This post will be a two-parter, because I started writing this and it got…really long. So Part 1 will focus on the challenges I’ve encountered so far, and Part 2 will be all about the wonderful, magical parts of the process that (spoiler alert!) make the challenges worth it.