“I just don’t like that piece.”
I’ve said those words to at least three of my teachers, so it must be cosmic justice that I now hear them on the regular from my students.
As a young player, I used those words as a stamp, formalizing my rejection and excusing any weaknesses in my playing.
As a more experienced player –and now, as a teacher- I hear those words as an invitation and a challenge. I don’t like that piece- yet. My student doesn’t like that piece- yet.
Why don’t we like certain music? Sometimes, we just don’t- there’s not much more to it than that.
But a substantial portion of the time, we don’t like a piece because something about it makes us uncomfortable. We may not be familiar with its style. We may not comprehend what it is trying to achieve. We may have technical difficulties with it. And with music, discomfort almost always signals an opportunity for growth.
Thus, I propose that when you discover a piece you don’t much care for, instead of discarding it immediately, take my Fair Shake Challenge. It’s a three-step checklist I designed to make sure you and I are making dislike work for us.
And if, at the end of the process, you still dislike a piece? Well, then it might not be to your taste.
Fair Shake Step One: Time
You know how a person might initially irritate you, but if you spend more time with him or her, you see more and more things to like? It’s the same way with music. If you’re not crazy about a piece, spend time really getting to know it inside and out. If any of your discomfort was due to technical difficulties, more time will help to sort this out; you’ll also get a better feel for what the piece is and what it’s trying to do.
Fair Shake Step Two: Information
Before you dismiss a piece, make sure you have approached it from an informed perspective. Maybe there’s an underlying dance rhythm you’ve forgotten to think about, and the piece will snap into focus once you have. Or perhaps the piece has a structure informed by a popular chord progression or national style. Or maybe you need to think about the piece’s harmonic structure, or where it fits within a composer’s oeuvre. Gathering information is where having a teacher can really shine, but you can do some of the research yourself.
Fair Shake Step Three: Change
If you don’t like a piece, why not assume for a moment that what you don’t like is, in fact, the way you play it. So try something new. Shift your tempo, or change your articulation. Record yourself playing and listen back to see how you could alter your approach. Listen to someone else, or many someone elses, playing your piece, and see how their approaches might inform yours.
I went through this process recently with one of my least favorite Telemann Fantasias, No. 7, “Alla Francese.” I practiced the piece every day for a month, trying out different tempos and articulations. I listened to recordings. I thought about the influence of French music on the structure of the piece. I recorded myself and played it back, listening critically, five separate times. Then I performed the piece six times in three days.
And you know what? Now I like the piece.