waiting for Beethoven

You know the old joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.”

We musicians have a strange relationship with practising: we know it has to be done, but we develop a wide range of strategies not to do it. Procrastination is one of the most effective, but anxiety over the fast-approaching performance is usually sufficient to overcome the inertia. Strangely, the gift of an empty day with ‘nothing to do but practise’ is sometimes less productive than a concentrated hour or so snatched from a busy schedule.

Gary Graffman, the concert pianist, wrote a memoir called I Really Should be Practicing. I recently saw a flow chart posted near a music studio— a sort of list of activity choices. No matter what you chose, the result was the same: “Go practise.” Artur Rubenstein was well known for choosing partying over practising; and Fritz Kreisler had to be ‘encouraged’ by his wife and friends to open his violin case. He sometimes said he’d check, shortly before a concert, to make sure it still had four strings on it. Jascha Heifetz was more disciplined: “If I don’t practise for a day, I notice; two days, the critics notice; three days, everybody notices.”

I have a partner in my practising: our resident Border collie. At first he seemed only to notice violin music, but now he’s expanding his repertoire. Just about any music, but particularly Beethoven, provokes not only howling, but warbling, keening and vocalizing of impressive range. I can hear him warming up ahead of his favourite passages.

It doesn’t stop me from practising, and I sometimes feel a responsibility to keep both of us in shape. For more about dogs and Beethoven, see Billy Collins’ hilarious poem Another Reason I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House.

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