Whenever I meet with a musician for the first time to give a practice coaching session, I ask lots of questions about musical goals, as well as the procedures to attain those goals.
In essence, these questions fall under the category of two broader questions:
“What would you like to have?” and “What are you doing to achieve that?”
From here we have a good starting point to look at things objectively and constructively. Both of these questions require clear and detailed answers in order to optimize progress and minimize frustration.
Often, the “What would you like to have?” part is fairly solid. (If it’s not, we need to start there.)
But too often, the “What are you doing to achieve that?” part is lacking. This is where the frustration flourishes.
Many things fan the flames of this frustration, but one of the most overlooked is very simple: Too much of what is being practiced is devoid of pleasure.
Pleasure is a component of practice that is sorely overlooked.
A good number of musicians come to me for help who simply dread most of what they do as they practice. This makes it nearly impossible to get any kind of expansive, inspired growth.
The sad part is that many of these musicians think, to a certain degree, that if it’s pleasurable, it’s not really practice.
That’s just not true. Most of the great, virtuosic musicians love (or loved) to practice. For them it is not simply a means to an end. To a certain degree, practice is an end unto itself. It’s a form of meditation.
I look forward each day to my practice sessions. They are nourishing, satisfying, centering, calming, enlivening, challenging, fun, illuminating, somatically pleasurable…all at once.
And I continue to improve as a musician as I practice.
There are two main reasons way practice should be mostly pleasurable:
First, the obvious: If something brings you pleasure, you’re more likely to spend time doing it. It becomes less a matter of discipline, and more a matter seeking gratification.
Second (and this is less obvious), you simply learn better when you enjoy what you’re studying and practicing.
This is one of the reasons why skilled teachers use play (games, role-play, etc.) to enhance the learning experience for learners of all ages. (I often use play to great effect in teaching the Alexander Technique to college and conservatory students.)
Pleasure and learning work together well, as pleasure is a powerful motivator. Pleasure lights up and integrates different parts of your brain. It enlivens your senses. It makes you receptive to experience, to possibilities. It makes you curious. It makes you fearless.
Do these sound like good qualities to have while playing music?
Without a doubt they are.
Don’t misunderstand. You still have to work. Focused, intentional, productive work that you need to hold yourself accountable for. You must reflect and assess, and reassess and redirect, being constantly vigilant.
But you’ll do so much better if you learn how to do so pleasurably.
One of the things I encourage the musicians I coach to take responsibility for is altering how and what they practice in order to make it pleasurable for them.
Their job is to turn problem solving and skill acquisition into a primarily pleasurable activity.
It’s a matter of transforming the activity. This calls for creativity and inspiration.
So let’s say holding sustained tones to improve your sound (long tones) is drudgery to you, try playing beautiful songs at very slow tempos. Play as if you’re really “singing” these melodies (like you really mean it!), with your finest, most personal sound.
By doing so, you engage your expressive consciousness while at the same time developing the motor skills necessary to cultivate and implement a beautiful sound in order to carry out your expression.
Don’t like to run scales mindlessly? Okay, organize the scale you’re practicing into a lovely sounding four or five-note melodic pattern and play it up and down the range of your instrument. (You can get lots of these kinds of melodic scalar ideas by looking at the music of Bach, Brahms, or even Cannonball Adderly; just follow the music you love.)
In the simplest sense, aim at making what you practice musical as opposed to mechanical.
The whole idea of a written “etude” is to turn a particular pedagogical aim into a musically satisfying expression and experience. It’s to teach a particular lesson by telling a good story, so to speak.
See if you can think in this “etude” way to bring your practice into the realm of pleasure.
For example, if there is a particular technical passage that give you difficulty, rather than just repeating the passage over and over as it is, see if you can play with it a bit. Make variations on it. Play games with the tempo as you work through it. Play it by ear in different keys. Use it in the context of improvisation (in fact, build and entire improvised solo based upon the technically challenging passage.)
If you work this way, you’ll help build a more expansive and flexible technique.
And it doesn’t have to be only because something gives you a direct musical pleasure to make it otherwise pleasurable. I have a student who loves holding long tones on the trombone because the resonance he feels in his face and chest give him pleasure. This Kinesthetic sensation is like a healthy narcotic for him. He loves to practice long tones!
Maybe it’s pleasurable because you love to be challenged. Maybe it’s pleasurable because it gives you a sense of ritual and routine. Maybe it’s pleasurable because it helps you imagine beyond what you can already do.
Or maybe it gives you pleasure because it reminds you of why you play music in the first place. All good.
There are so many resources these days to make practicing more enjoyable and efficient: backing tracks, smart phone apps, video tutorials, etudes…take advantage of these things!
And always remember to digress that which is out of your reach. If something is to difficult for you to play in the moment, transform it slightly to bring it back into reach, then raise the bar slightly once you’re successful doing so.
As a final thought, be good to yourself. “Use yourself well”, we’d say in the Alexander Technique. That is, aim to play with an easy, flexible balance and with a minimum of excess effort. And speak to yourself kindly. Be clear about what you want, and ask yourself gently for it. Remember that music, even the most serious music, involves play. So play!