Feed on

To Practice or to Play

I got a lovely note from a recently graduated student, one paragraph of which got me to thinking.  “I’ve recently decided I will no longer practice [my instrument].  This is because practicing has a ‘task’ associated with it.  Now, I will just play.”  The profundity of these three sentences gets to the heart of what a lot of people experience around their music study and practice.

This speaks to the way in which we approach the activity of playing or practicing.  The very words ‘play’ and ‘practice’ carry such different connotations.  As we commonly think of it, ‘play’ is the opposite of ‘work.’  Yet in the age of Google and other imagination-based companies play has an essential place in the realm of work, a creative space where people are encouraged to bring their imaginations and creativity to the common enterprise.

For professional musicians, playing is our work.  Those who play for a living are very fortunate.  But it is still work – it can at times be a challenge to maintain one’s chops year in and out and to learn new pieces (usually chosen by someone else) while retaining the sense of joy and of play.

The idea that I return to in my writing, the nature of Practice, does contain the idea of consistency, discipline, analysis, and dedication, as well as of exploration.  So often a student who’s been extensively involved in music quits because for them it has become a task.  Yet there are both amateur and professional musicians who continue to explore and practice music over several decades and always retain that sense of joy and discovery.  My dear departed friend Ilana Mysior was a wonderful musician – pianist, teacher, coach, and accompanist.  But she also took up the cello later in her life, and for many years relished playing in a community orchestra even as she continued her professional piano work.  For her the cello offered the fresh perspective of a sustained single voice string instrument and the group experience of playing in a string section, in contrast to the often solitary nature of the piano and its nature as a percussion instrument.  Playing cello as an amateur, along with piano in her piano trio, enabled her to retain the joy of playing all her life.

I am personally attracted to the idea of music as a practice, like sitting zazen or tennis, or any path of self-discovery that involves a sustained commitment.  But I must confess that at times the requirements of maintenance of my trombone chops seemed like a ball and chain: the same long tones, slurs, scales, and tonguing patterns to keep all the elements of my playing online.  (Now I don’t feel that way.)  In stricter times parents did enforce practicing more than seems the norm today (though even now we have the “Tiger Mother” phenomenon).   Today the value of perseverance and investing sustained effort toward a distant goal of mastery is less a part of our culture than it once was, perhaps with sports being the exception to that.

The ability to play an instrument is such a gift – and the higher level one attains the rarer a gift it is.  So what is it that can make playing feel like a task?  I’ve never heard anyone say about music ‘I’m so glad I quit!’  But I have seen students quit and not look back, not reflecting on what they are giving up.  Or perhaps liberating themselves from whatever baggage had accumulated around the notion of playing a given instrument – people seem sometimes to switch instruments for this reason.

To cut to the chase, practicing is both about having a goal and about process.  Sometimes we are practicing for something – a performance or an audition.  In order to get better, we need to clarify what that means in the context of the moment – developing our tone, fixing our intonation, developing speed, cleanliness, dynamic control, range, or endurance.  If the goal means enough to you, you will endure the process.  But whether the process of practicing is one to be endured or enjoyed has everything to do with how we frame it and how we interpret the experience of practicing.  Is it deathly dull repetition, or is it fascinating analysis of the nuts and bolts of negotiating a slurred passage that spans 2 octaves?  Is it getting us closer to a goal that is dear to us – even just acquiring a greater sense of competence at playing?

On the other hand, play is about process, the primary goal of which is having fun (or it might be winning a game and having fun in the process).  The activity is understood to be inherently enjoyable.

How we think about the process and goals of playing/practicing an instrument – how we frame this activity in our minds – is key.  In other words, we have more control than we realize over how we think about practicing, or playing, our instrument.  Is it for the pleasure of producing the sound?  To be able to play with others?  Is there a goal of getting better, learning a specific piece, landing some accomplishment like getting into a conservatory or an orchestra?  Is it for the pleasure of doing something well, of feeling your neurons zapping into new pathways in your brain?  Do you want to do this for a living, to play with great players?  What attracted you to music and to your instrument in the first place?  Has something gotten between you and your love of playing?  How can we regain that?  How can we create the right combination of challenge and enjoyment that brings us back to the instrument?  How can we keep it interesting?

Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi writes in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience that we crave opportunities to be challenged and stimulated which will allow us to continue to grow and develop.  Music is ideally suited for this.  As with anything that’s a long term proposition, sometimes our training or practice will get stale unless we change things up, reframe them in some way, or take a break.

Leave a Reply

404 Not Found

404 Not Found