Put the Stick Down: Redefining Practicing

You know what stick I’m talking about: the stick you beat yourself over the head with for an hour every day with your instrument or voice (…except for those days when you don’t…). You beat out the scales, drills and repetitions because in thirty days you have a recital, in thirty hours you have your next lesson, and in thirty minutes you will be relieved to jump back onto Twitter or the Xbox.  When you don’t keep up the beatings, the guilt settles like a splinter in your chest when you walk into your teacher’s studio, because you know he or she has a bigger stick.

That stick is called PRACTICING.

Everybody who has ever studied music knows what it feels like. Young or old, it doesn’t matter. And some of us raise the stick against others, like our children or students, whether we mean to or not.

A rare few have succeeded in transforming the art of practice entirely. I’m not one of those people (yet), but I have made it one of my goals in this blog to try. Just today I rediscovered the joys of using a metronome at the keyboard. I know, I sound like an alien when I say that; but believe me, I decided to welcome that sure, steady pulse into my practice studio…

…like a mother’s heartbeat heard inside the womb…

…I settled into it and didn’t fight it…

…I played the same phrase over and over again…and again…

…and I’m thinking now that I’d like to do some more later today!

Sounds crazy? Well, it’s just as crazy to equate practicing with punishment, to think that your self-worth is measured in the number of minutes you practice every day.

Phillip Johnson would agree.  The creator of the Practice Spot website and author of The Practice Revolution has made it his work to transform the practice experience into something fun, rewarding, and even motivating. One of the biggest motivators he discovered was to let students choose how long they wanted to practice. The goal was not to practice for thirty minutes a day, but to practice until you got the job done–when you mastered that scale, or that pesky fingering. Practice is not about filling up time, but making your time count for something.  If you fulfilled your goal in ten minutes, great! Back to the Xbox until tomorrow.

But there’s a catch: if you turn your focus away from time spent and toward efficiency gained, you may discover yourself practicing for as long as your teacher prescribes, and perhaps longer. Johnson’s article, Doing More by Doing Less describes this phenomenon, which I find beautiful, though a little less Taoist than the title suggests. And I say Taoist because one of my favorite things from the Tao Te Ching is, refrain from doing, and nothing is left undone, while Johnson’s method is about putting more efficiency in the act of doing.

It’s the difference between working hard and working smart, as they say.

But I’d like to go further.

As we go through the month of September, I’ll be sharing some insights on the art of practicing that will infuse new life into your practice, no matter what kind of music you do, no matter what level you play at. Whether you’re new to music lessons or an old hand, this will be an opportunity to start fresh and rediscover the joy of what you’re doing. I’ll get to share some great books and words of wisdom from fine teachers and authentic students. And it won’t just be about practicing as such; this whole enterprise is about reconnecting life to music and music to life.

How does that grab you? How can we reconnect life to music and music to life?

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