Healthy and Efficient Practice: Aim for Wanting This at the End of Each Session

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Part of my work as practice coach is in helping musicians clarify their wishes. This involves suggesting ways to reframe what they want in a manner that is most conducive to actually getting it.

One of the most fundamental desires I encourage my clients to cultivate has to do with how they feel at the end of a practice session. I typically tell them something like this:

At the end of your practice session, aim at having enough energy so that you feel like doing a little more. You should really look forward to practicing again the next day.

It sounds like a simple thing (and it is), but it is not always so easy to carry out.

You see, many serious musicians too often end their practice sessions feeling either one of two things:

1. Utterly exhausted

2. Utterly frustrated

(And of course, sometimes the practice session ends with feeling both exhausted and frustrated!)

Let’s examine both of these things.

If you end each session feeling exhausted (physically and/or mentally), you run the risk of  either:

Developing an overuse issue, which could lead to various types of repetitive strain injuries. Or…

Cultivating habits of coordination (movement and posture) that are a potential hinderance to your continued growth.

If you leave each session feeling frustrated, you run the risk of either:

Slowly smothering your inspiration (and pleasure) in making music, which can lead to burnout. Or…

Gradually diminishing your curiosity about how  you do what you do, which is also a hinderance to you continued growth.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the kind of frustration that is a result of simply not having enough time to practice. (That’s a topic for another blog post.)

I’m talking about having a reasonably sufficient amount of time to practice, yet feeling frustrated with the progress (or lack thereof) in the session itself.

If you regularly  end your practice session feeling frustrated, the first thing you need to do is to seriously examine and call into question how  you’re doing what you do. It may be that you are simply misdirecting your efforts.

Aim for a better understanding of the problem (specifically, how things actually work acoustically, and how your bodily design can cooperate with this acoustical reality) instead of carrying out the same, misdirected efforts. (A good teacher can help with this.)

And there is a need for finding satisfaction  with the balance between the quality  and the amount  of work you do in each session. I’ve coached a fair amount of musicians who use the feeling of being exhausted as the benchmark of a good practice session.

It is often the misplaced desire to feel  this way that causes some of the very problems that lead these musicians to seek my help in the first place. (I say misplaced desire, because that feeling is not what is leading them to what they actually desire most: efficient, effective practice and continued progress.)

When the criteria of practice shifts to quality of process  (as opposed to a preconceived notion of sufficient quantity), the need to feel exhausted begins to diminish.  It gradually becomes replaced with the desire to continuously explore and clarify. That’s what leads to progress. And satisfaction.

So how do you feel at the end of a typical practice session?

Do you feel sore and dull, or energized and inspired? Do you feel like the quality of your work is as good as it was at the beginning of the session. Do you feel curious? What worked, and what didn’t? What would you do differently tomorrow? How could you do what you did even better than today?

And you don’t have to figure it all out in one sitting. Instead, let yourself “live in the mystery”. Let your curiosity be your guiding light.

When I studied with the great multi-woodwinds artist and Los Angeles recording studio legend, Bill Green, he told me something that fundamentally changed how I continue to approach practice to this day. (Bill Green was well known for practicing prodigiously, always gaining greater mastery on all of the saxophones, clarinets, flutes, as well as double reeds.). I’d like to pass it on to you what he told me:

Practicing music is like enjoying fine food. No matter how good it is, you’ll always enjoy it to the fullest if you leave the table feeling mostly satisfied, but leaving room for just a bit more.

So let yourself be just a tiny bit “hungry” each day as you end your practice session. You’ll stay healthy, curious and always growing.

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