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  • Writer's pictureKate


All this Beethoven practicing must be getting to me. My bleary-eyed spouse reported to me this morning that at 4 am I woke up, sat bolt upright in bed, yelled "Four! C Minor!" and went right back to sleep.

I was practicing the Op. 30 No.2 violin/ piano sonata last night before bedtime, which is in C minor, so I suppose that incident hammers home my earlier point that sleep consolidates our learning from the previous day and is especially important when you are trying to learn new material.

Anyway, that is not what I want to write about tonight. I had originally thought I might talk about practice journals or something practical like that, but at the end of this practice day and the end of this week of intense Beethoven study, and three days before climbing on several planes in a row that will eventually take me to New Zealand to play Beethoven sonatas with Justine, I want to talk about motivation.

What keeps us practicing? What drives us forward to work to increase the tempo of a passage one more notch? What makes us skip social events to drill notes (as I did this afternoon)? Why do we work on creating our own interpretations of this music, when there are already many outstanding recordings?

My students and I talk so much about how to physically wrangle the instrument, how to practice efficiently, and how to go about learning a new piece of music. We talk about the fine details of interpretation, and we discuss performance issues like anxiety and tension.

Sometimes it's easy to forget what all this effort is about. So tonight I want to share some of the reasons I keep practicing.

The physical aspect. I think it's sort of magical that I can think about musical ideas and my fingers will coordinate themselves to produce organized sound that approximates my inner intention. By the time you play an instrument for a while, you no longer have to think about the individual notes your fingers are playing. Sure, that's obvious to anyone who has played an instrument for a while. But think about it - somehow, your hands and fingers have absorbed the instructions from your brain to the extent that it's possible to just think about a particular arpeggio, for example, and then play it without effort. It's sort of an amazing feat of coordination, and it feels really neat when everything aligns just right.

The piano. I love the instrument itself. It's an amazing machine and I am in love with the various colors it can produce. I enjoy the feel of the keys under my fingers and the sound the piano makes in the room while I practice. I love sitting at the piano and losing track of time. My relationship with the piano is longer than most of my relationships with actual human beings.

The composer. After all, music is a means of communicating feelings, and Beethoven had a strong desire to express something: so strong that he devoted his time and precious life force to painstakingly writing notes on parchment one by one with a quill pen, not stopping until he got it just right. When I can think past the execution (always the goal), I can connect with what I deduce to be the composer's intentions, and position myself as an intermediary between the composer and an imagined future audience. I enjoy exploring a piece of music and sleuthing out the composer's ideas, which is a path into a composer's inner world.

Playing the piano can be frustrating. There are days when things inexplicably don't go the way I want them to, and there are days when I just don't feel motivated. Some days I feel pulled in a million directions and have difficulty even getting to the instrument. But days like today help remind me why I still do it at all.

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