Presentation Review: Thomas Linde’s "Inner Focus: A Guide to Effective Piano Practice"
by Stijn De Cock
On a topic that has been the subject of much scholarly research and writing for decades, Thomas Linde presented an astute and incisive lecture, which not only proposed strategies for efficient practice, but also illuminated societal and historical changes that influence the way in which we perceive and learn music today. Whereas studies and articles on practice strategies often focus on musical and pedagogical features alone, Linde’s presentation drew on a wealth of historical, scientific, and interdisciplinary materials that approached the subject from diverse and fresh angles, shedding new light on a centuries-old topic. Accounts from historical pianists on the subject can be enigmatic, as Linde pointed out with a quote from Busoni: “Practice a passage with the most difficult fingering, then play it with the easiest one.” At times they can be revealing, as an account of Myra Hess’ practicing described her sitting at the piano silently, only occasionally playing a few notes or a melody line, patiently translating what she heard mentally into piano playing. As the title of his lecture suggests, Linde emphasized the necessity of silencing the inner critic and practicing gently and patiently, thinking and visualizing what one is trying to achieve before ever touching the keys. To common thoughts running through the minds of piano student stuck in a repetitive practice loop (“I can’t believe I messed up that passage again,” or “why can’t I play the faster and cleaner yet,”) Linde asked a pertinent question; “who is doing the talking here? Is the person to whom this inner voice belongs to different from the person practicing the piano?” As an alternative to the constant nervous repetition of difficult passages, Linde suggests the use of silent practice; uncover mistakes in a non-judgmental fashion, visualize and plan how to organize the musical material, and materialize on the piano what has been conceived in one’s mind before a single note is played. Slow practice is essential, as is architectural practice (practicing in sections appropriate to the particularity of each piece). This careful approach is crucial Linde explained, since “practicing doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.” He explained the cause of this phenomenon by elucidating the neurological process of myelination, during which a sheath of myelin coats nerve fibers allowing them to fire about 100 times faster than uncoated brain cells. The myelination process allows people to perform skills at extremely high levels; however, it is a one-way process. Once produced, myelin cannot be removed. If myelination occurs during incorrect practice, new connections have to be made at a later time to correct the mistakes, taking up much time and effort. Linde had started his presentation by saying that over the course of his teaching career, he had found that one of the most important skills a teacher can impart on a piano student is that of teaching a student how to become independent musicians who can learn and work on their own. He ended his presentation be instilling in his audience of young piano students that in the end the true responsibility for effective practice lays with the student. What makes a good pianist is the way in which he practices; a simple phrase that carries profound significance.