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Practicing a Musical Instrument, or Eating Cilantro?

by Valentina Jotovic on April 8, 2010
Practicing an instrument is for me a lot like cilantro.

Let me explain.

I used to really dislike cilantro. Indian food was tainted by its smoky, pungent flavor. In Mexican food it was an something to be picked around in salsa and guacamole. Any other cuisine and it was simply an unpleasant surprise. Ick.

That same "ick" factor is one that all too frequently accompanies the idea of practicing an instrument. Speaking to my own past experience, it's so much easier to go for a walk on a sunny day than it is to sit inside and work out a technical passage in a piece, or, heaven forbid, practice scales. Again, I say "ick." However, even in cases when the sun is shining, the weather is balmy, and all of Nature cries out to me, I often find myself in front of the piano, working assiduously and often

Stefanie Watson, Piano Teacher at Hunterdon Academy of the Arts.jpg

 even happily. How is this possible?! One word: cilantro.

It wasn't a conscious choice to overcome my distaste for cilantro. On one experience eight or nine years ago, I unexpectedly ended up with a hefty garnish of it in some soup. I took a spoonful, and can still remember thinking, "I never want to taste this flavor again." Yet bit by bit, I began to discover that guacamole wasn't completely ruined when cilantro snuck its way in there. I didn't have the urge to spit out my dal when that little speck of green weaseled its way onto my spoon. Soon, I bought my own bunch of the herb and consciously added it to recipes, and even, dare I say, enjoyed eating the results. Perhaps it's just something for which I had to acquire a taste, but I truly believe that introducing it in subtle, effective ways was my key to falling for cilantro.

Likewise, through my various esteemed piano teachers, I've discovered that there are ways to tackle an issue that don't involve beating your head against the wall (figuratively or literally). No more repeating two measures over and over again with the hopes that your hands will decide to cooperate and miraculously work the way they ought to. Instead, for example, find a way to use rhythm to trick your brain into focusing on something else while simultaneously teaching your body exactly what it needs to do. Or, for younger students, perform your pieces for an audience of stuffed animals, one time for each "friend" that listens. Be inventive. Make up little self-rewards. But above all, find Mary Poppins' "element of fun" that makes the medicine go down. I truly believe that practice shouldn't be an onerous task, but it should be one done conscientiously. In the words of one of my graduate school professors, Judith Nicosia, "Practice makes permanent." If a passage is learned wrong, it takes FAR longer to un-learn than it would have to study it carefully and accurately in the first place. That spoonful of soup with the mouthful of cilantro took years to overcome; the notes I memorized incorrectly in my Beethoven sonata took no small amount of time to fix either.

Above all, I am of the opinion that the majority of prejudices in life, culinary, musical or otherwise, can be overcome with an open mind and the right attitude. Whether you're talking about some food you dislike or sitting down to finally learn how to play an A-flat arpeggio, give it time and the proper context and you may just find that there are ways to overcome your bias. So, whether your opponent is a multifarious plant whose leaf and seeds have totally different names (cilantro and coriander, incidentally) or a seemingly insurmountable piece of music, my advice remains the same: give it a try. Baby steps. Open mind. Take a bite.

Bon appetit.


Stefanie Watson

Piano Teacher, Hunterdon Academy of the Arts

Flemington, New Jersey 

Topics: practicing a musical instrument, piano practice, piano teacher, music teacher

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