Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Musicians are born to practice as the sparks fly upward

Continuing our obsession with practice and all of its ugly ramifications, I wish today to offer this paradoxical thought.

I have spent years engaged in the science and/or art of practice. The study of how to practice is in its own way rewarding, and it is certainly a profitable enterprise. Anyone who wants to master their instrument needs to know how to practice well. That doesn't just mean practicing a lot. It means spending that time wisely and well. It is directed effort, not simply effort.

When I was growing up studies kept coming out about how Japanese kids were eating American kids' lunches with regard to math. And the typical response from American legislators and policy crafters was "we need more math class." It was not, as it should have been, "we need better math instruction," because that would have required that we put a lot more effort into how we went about the business of this important branch of human knowledge. It is also unnecessary to add that nobody (among the politicians) bothered to explore the symbiotic relationship between the arts upon which Japan also placed a great deal of importance and those math classes which, in the U.S., were being added in place of all of those arts classes that were being cut to make way for them.

The simplistic approach to any problem is simply "more, more, more." Which is why I sometimes get tired of hearing music teachers telling their charges to practice--without telling them how. Of course, much of this is context driven. If most kids aren't even spending time with their instrument to begin with, then it is a victory simply to get them to practice at all. This is unfortunately where the battle line is drawn much of the time. Good practice is apparently a pie in the sky luxury. But if you are bothering to read this at all let's assume you are one of those relative few who want to do more than simply put in your time.

And the paradox comes in when we realize that, if we are engaged, or better yet, engrossed in what we are doing we may lose track of time altogether and not experience it as tedium. When we are really about this business of practice it isn't a drudgery in which the passage of time seems to slow to a crawl and we spend 90% of the time wishing it would be over. Instead, with every technique we learn, every trick, every diagnostic tool, every internalized habit from our teachers, when in effect each practice is a lesson in which we are both teacher and student and are so full of desire to get the piece learnt well that it is a pleasure instead of a burden to take that piece in our metaphorical teeth and thrash it around like a cat does with a cardboard box (thanks, Rosie, for providing that illustration), our whole relationship with practice changes and we are not suffering any longer.

Under that rubric the teachers who simply send you out into the word after a weekly lesson and tell you to practice are sending you to suffer and the ones who teach you how are showing you how to actually make it fun. Promises like that certainly ought to get a few students to read blogs like these, no?

Here is the problem with that, however. As much as we would all love to enjoy what we are spending so much time doing, I don't know anybody, doing anything, who has never had days when it seemed like a drudgery. You could be a major league baseball player, playing a game you love for a living, and I can guarantee that, being required to play 162 games every year, whenever they are scheduled, sometimes on little sleep, or after long travels, to a high standard, is going to mean sometimes you really don't feel like it. Now imagine any other job in the world that is less glamorous. But I'm sure you don't have to because you have one. And if it's school you probably don't love every minute of that, either. Do you love both math and gym? How about social studies and English? What about the cafeteria food?

None of us can escape having to do things that are not fun. Life is endless, uninterrupted bliss for no one. Discipline is just that.

Effective practice, once achieved, has the pleasant side effect of cutting down on that. But it can never kill it completely. Sooner or later, you just won't be having fun. And it is a vitally important skill to be able to deal with that head on and keep going when it is difficult. This is a skill that you develop by doing it often and by being able to deal with not enjoying yourself at the time. You learn to suffer. And keep suffering. And be able to suffer longer, and harder.

Some music teachers online have been trying to get their students to simply practice. They don't say anything more than that. It is easy advice for them to give. It is also easy to want to step into the void and try to flesh out how when so many don't seem to know (including younger versions of myself).

But it is also important to simply show up and do it. And if it is hard, so be it. It is going to be hard. This is a test of your character. Can you do it even though you thought it would be fun and now it isn't? This is when many people quit. What do you have in you? Can you keep going?

If you want to get there from here, you are going to have to. There is no other way.

Deal with it.

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