Adult Piano Student Strangles Burgmuller’s Pastorale

Nancy M. Williams reflects on the dangers of over-practicing a specific piece.

Here is Burgmuller’s Pastorale, Opus 100, Number 3, performed by yours truly at her adult piano lesson, in all its straightjacketed glory.

I recently experienced, in my study of Burgmuller’s Pastorale, the hazards of excessive practice.

This past March, while I worked long hours to finish the second draft of my memoir, the technique in my classical piano music felt daunting, the music’s emotions draining.  I had imposed on myself a deadline to send out my book to five selected readers by the middle of the month. Exhausted by the book’s demands, I could not summon the energy to practice my usual repertoire.

I cracked open Burgmuller Opus 100, a book my piano teacher Stephen had recommended as a good way to brush up on technique while playing pleasing music. The Pastorale, with its lilting melody and undemanding note sequences, relaxed me.

In mid-March, when I picked up the five bound copies of my completed draft at my local print shop, I felt both joy and relief. At my adult piano lesson later that week, I asked Stephen to videotape me playing the Pastorale. Stephen pointed out a few areas where the sound was uneven. “It sounds beautiful,” Stephen said. “I like the way you play this. Practice this some more, and it will sound perfect.”

Later that evening I watched on YouTube a few videos performed by talented amateurs.  There’s a mistake in measure seven, read one of the YouTube comments about an otherwise moving performance. Down the center of my body, I felt the part of me that wanted to record the Pastorale stiffen.

Over the next week, as I practiced the music, I thought about those viewers (luckily few and far between) who lurked on YouTube and pointed out mistakes performed by unsuspecting amateurs. Not this amateur, I decided. Since the Pastorale was not technically challenging for me, I ought to play a pristine rendition with no mistakes.

At my adult piano lesson, Stephen, my daughter Mena, and I grouped around Stephen’s monitor to watch the video taken moments before. The music sounded less buoyant than I had hoped.

“What do you think?” I asked Mena.

“It’s comme-ci, comme-ca,” she said with the truthfulness of an eight year old who had taken two years of toddler French lessons.

“What’s wrong with it?” I asked Stephen.

“Your rhythm is very good, but it’s almost too regular. The downbeats sound a little heavy. It sounds less musical than last week.”

I groaned, then dropped my head into my hands.

A few days later, I remembered something my Evolution yoga teacher, Jagadisha, once had said: when we become more satisfied with what is within us, we fret less about what is outside of us. Worried about the YouTube wrong-note squadron, I had strangled the Pastorale. I had lost touch with the inner bliss I had experienced from this musical companion during the final days of my book draft.

I resolved to put the music away for a few months.


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