Some, by Marilyn J. Rowland
I’ve been imitated so well I’ve heard people copy my mistakes.
Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970)
Some people can play so well, so confidently, that you might imagine they never make mistakes. They probably do make mistakes, but the mistakes are minor, and many musicians, like Hendrix, learn how to incorporate their mistakes seamlessly into the music.
Not me. I make a lot of mistakes–every time I play. It can be frustrating. Careful, frequent practice eliminates a lot of mistakes, buy they still creep in. And there are a multitude of ways to make mistakes, not just by playing the wrong note. You could play the wrong rhythm, hold a note for too long or too short a time, play too fast or too slow, play out of sync with others you are supposed to be playing with, skip a line, measure, or beat, in the music if you are playing from sheet music, have a memory lapse if you are playing from memory, play too loud or too soft, too legato or too staccato, play a note or section imprecisely, etc., etc.
Unfretted string instruments (cello, violin) seem to offer a wider array of potential errors. Vibrato might be too fast or too slow, absent where it should be present, or present where it should be absent. Intonation–getting the exact pitch, rather than some approximation–is often an issue with string instruments, as is fingering and bowing. The same pitch can be found at several different locations on a stringed instrument, and some fingerings are more elegant and efficient than others, or produce a better tone. Bowing is not simply a back-and-forth motion; it is what creates the sound, and bowing direction, speed, and pressure, how the bow is held, and where it is placed on the strings all affect playing style and sound.
“Amateur musicians,” someone is quoted as saying, “practice until they get it right. Professional musicians practice until they can’t get it wrong.”
I tend to be guilty of the former. It takes some people more time to get it right (or not get it wrong) than others. Much has been written about whether talent or practice is the key to playing a musical instrument well. Some even claim that there is no such thing as talent, that practice, and dedication, is key in the long wrong. My sister is a talented musician; I am a mediocre one. She was wholly dedicated to her music and practiced many hours each and every day after school, so much so that she had time for little else. I practiced fitfully. I played flute in the high school band, but I remember relying on others in the flute section to take the lead. I just followed along. My sister is a professional musician; I am an always-struggling amateur, never practicing enough.
My children, on the other hand, who are adopted and not related to me or to each other, are both outstanding musicians (instrumental and voice), and tend to be fitful practicers. It has to be talent.
But the evidence seems to favor practice. One study showed that the best violin students at Florida State University were those who had practiced the most. Other studies show that a number of factors are involved.
It’s hard to say for sure what makes a good musician (I would guess love of music is key), but I do know that it is time for me to go practice my cello now. As talent has not yet manifested itself, I am depending on practice to help minimize my many and varied musical mistakes.