Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

04.23.13Slowly, With Precision, With the Brain

denkGREAT piece in the April 8 New Yorker by pianist Jeremy Denk… a retrospective on the role of practice in his development. Deeply reflective and insightful. Definitely worth the read though this video gives you a really good sense for a couple of the key sections, especially his first serious teacher’s use of feedback in his practice journals. In the piece (and the video) you get to see the actual comments. Striking how effectively the teacher, William Leland, uses humor to establish rapport and caring and to allow him to give lots of constructive feedback that might otherwise be excessively blunt.

So, go watch that video or read the whole piece … or if you are really so pressed for time that you cannot, read this utterly and completely brilliant paragraph on the connection between repetition/automaticity/precision and insight:

Learning to play the piano is learning to reason with your muscles. One of the recurring story lines of my first years with Leland was learning how to cross my thumb smoothly under the rest of my hand in scales and arpeggioes. He devised a symetrical, synchronous, soul-destroying exercise for this… Exercises like this are crucial and yet seem intended to quell any natural enthusiasm for music, or possibly even life.  As you deal with thumb-crossings, or fingerings of the F-sharp-minor scale or chromatic scales in double thirds, it is hard to accept that these will eventually allow you to probe eternity in the final movement of Beethoven’s last sonata. Imagine that you are scrubbing the grout in your bathroom and are told that removing every last particle of mildew will somehow enable you to deliver the Gettysburg Address.


The great footballer Johan Cruyff made a similar point, which we discuss in Practice Perfect — that the highest works of creativity rests on a platform of meticulous precision with skills that to some — even to those in the midst of its rigors-might seem mundane. But when a student can do these things, to quote Denk, “slowly, with precision, with the brain” he (or she) may be able to push him (or her) self towards greatness. Keeping a practice journal seems like a great tool to achieve that end.  Do you keep one?

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