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How much practicing?

The most basic part of pursuing music at any level is learning what it means to Honor your Craft.  Many books address this topic – some of my favorites being Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (see my first post), Eric Maisel’s Coaching the Artist Within, Eric Booth’s The Everyday Work of Art, and Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit.  One of the great gifts of music is the opportunity to have the experience of Craft – a regular, sustained commitment to maintain and improve your skills in a specific discipline; the experience of making progress at something challenging; a basic commitment to quality.  While in pursuing our Craft it will often feel like we are starting over again and again, over years the benefits of this sustained commitment to practice and quality yield innumerable personal rewards.

So what are the minimum demands of Craft?  Stated in more practical terms: for an instrumentalist, what is the minimum amount of practicing needed to maintain one’s basic skills and a minimal functioning level of being in shape?  It depends, of course, on many factors – including a musician’s level, instrument, and stage in one’s career.  Since I teach at a liberal arts school, this is addressed chiefly to the relatively modest purposes of an amateur or student (non-conservatory) player whose work or study doesn’t center on music.  A similar rule of thumb may also apply to a seasoned professional, whose work is itself playing but who’s pressed to find enough time to practice amidst the demands of performing, teaching, and life.  For developing or maintaining a good sound, range, tonal control, and being able to automate or maintain essential skills like scales, arpeggios, slur and tonguing or bowing patterns, a musician needs at least 30 minutes to an hour a day on their instrument.  Students in music school should aim for more in the range of 2-3 hours (at least); for professionals, perhaps on average 1-2 hours on top of time spent in rehearsals.

For students who are not music majors, and those for whom music is important but not a career path, 30 minutes to an hour every day may seem daunting.  The intention is not that if you can’t practice at least 30 minutes a day, to not do music at all – but rather to offer a reality check and to establish a benchmark to strive for in balancing all the elements of one’s life.  The Buddha said we should not rely on other people’s assertions, but on our own experience.  It’s up to each of us to compare this benchmark against our own personal experience – what amount of practicing allows us to keep our skills sharp, keep up our chops?  What amount is necessary to get better?  We each need to figure this out for ourselves.

A couple of additional points are needed to put this in further perspective.  First, consistency is essential.  Entropy starts to set in within 24 hours after a practice session.  This is why practicing just 3 times a week, or just on weekends, isn’t enough to maintain a solid foundation.  Playing at least some every day is really necessary to keep entropy completely at bay.  Time spent playing in rehearsal does keep your hands on the instrument, and is certainly better than a day without any playing, but cannot replace time on your own working on fundamentals.

The principle of balance is also crucial.  Some days and some weeks are simply more hectic than others.  As in sports, the principle of stress and recovery applies to music as well; as my teacher John Marcellus would say, hard day – light day.  From my own experience, this is critical and cannot be stressed enough.  Finding some kind of stress and recovery rhythm over the course of a week is ideal.  Observe yourself, learn your limits and how to work within them.

Finally to the question of how this can work in someone’s life.  Twyla Tharp in her book The Creative Habit has much to say about the importance of rituals that routinize our working on Craft.  I find that different routines have somewhat different effects.  Doing a morning warmup routine on the trombone feels in some ways like doing yoga; focusing on producing a rich and resonant sound that vibrates through your tissues and bones, and gets you breathing deeply, has the most wonderful grounding effect that leaves me feeling ready to face the rest of the day, knowing I’m warmed up physically, mentally, and spiritually if you will.  By comparison, playing scales and Bach at the piano (again, preferably in the morning) has the effect of waking up my hands and fingers, getting the neurons firing between hands and brain, and activating and connecting various parts of my brain, not to mention visiting the wonderfully ordered sonic universe of Bach.  Practicing basic conducting stick technique has yet a different feel, not producing any audible sound, and being more purely about kinesthetic expression and creating qualities of energy and texture in space and motion.  I am certain that a brain scan of these three kinds of activity would look somewhat different from each other.

Morning warmup and practicing routines have benefits comparable to (though not identical to) other morning rituals like exercise, stretching, or meditating.  On the other hand, some people like to practice at night – practicing at 10 or 11 at night may be what works for some college students.  The key is consistency.

It is interesting to observe these differences between various forms of practice, and to figure out what fits best in our lives.  We also experience an evolution over time of what kind and amount of practicing feels right (and practical) for each of us.  Even when it’s impossible to reach that minimum amount of time required, 15 minutes is better than zero.  And our Craft is always available to us to return to.  Having that sense of honoring your Craft gives us a basic sense of integrity and legitimacy, and keeps us connected to the path of music that helps us to define ourselves.

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