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May 11, 2013

Practice really does make perfect for professionals

The Daily Star

---- — Shortly after I was hired at the age of 25 to work in the Music Department at State University College at Oneonta, I played a concert for members of this community. At the end of the concert, a young audience member said to me, “How many years have you been playing the cello and do you still have to practice?”

I answered, “I’ve been playing ten years, and I still have to practice.” The young person’s response was quick and to the point. “Gee — haven’t you learned it yet?”

His question was sincere and a bit discouraged. I suspect he had to practice an instrument at home and was waiting for the day when he had “learned” the instrument well enough so he no longer had to practice. My answer was not the one he had hoped to hear.

Music is, of course, can be a wonderfully satisfying activity for everyone. It’s great to listen to music and it’s a unique means of self-expression for anyone who plays an instrument or sings. Many musicians, both amateur and professional, can “say” things with music that they might not be able to say with words, and that can be a welcome means of communication.   

People who play music professionally, whether it’s classical music, jazz or rock ‘n’ roll, have made a decision to spend years of their lives dedicated to improving their musical understanding and their performance abilities.   

Of course, every professional in every kind of work continues to improve skills and to accept absolute responsibility if the job he does could have been done better. Musicians, however, have the added pleasure of playing their music and doing their jobs for an audience. We need to perform well for ourselves, but we also need to make the experience enjoyable and accessible for our audiences. 

After all, audience members could simply buy a CD of the music and listen to it comfortably at home or in the car. The musician who performs at a concert must give the audience more than can be found in a recording. That musician must give the audience a feeling of personal involvement. And successful musicians enjoy that interaction with an audience.   

Professionals spend thousands of hours alone with their instruments, working on technique and musical expression. Most of us have our own ways of learning music. I usually try to play something five times in a row without making a mistake. If I make a mistake on the fifth repetition, my own rule is that I must start from the beginning and try to play it five MORE times without mistake. Often, I must play a certain passage 50 or 100 times using this method, but at the end of the day, I feel I may have learned that music. 

Another issue many musicians must address is “stage fright.” Although we do not show this emotion to audience members, it’s still a factor from time to time, and every musician searches for the most effective method to deal with this feeling. Some try to control their apprehensions by thinking of their loved ones, and others think of quiet, calm scenes. Neither of these methods works for me, but I have found other ways to focus my attention on the performance.

There’s a famous joke about a tourist in New York City who asks for directions from a person he sees on the street. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer he received was, “practice, practice, practice.”

Although the joke is very old, I suppose it survives because the punch line tells the truth.

Performing music takes a lot of work and intellectual dedication, but it is one of the most rewarding experiences in the world. There have been times when I’m on stage waiting for the performance to begin, when I simply smile, glad for the musical truth I am about to enjoy with everyone in the concert hall. Musical performance clearly shows the identity of the performer and those who share music through their response to the music. It seems to me that an audience is grateful for that chance to share this basic, fundamental interaction between people. It’s a gift to everyone.

Dr. Janet Nepkie is a member of the music industry faculty in the music department of the State University College at Oneonta. Her columns can be found at