The Value of Practice

Some musicians are lucky; they are driven to practice by an internal need to do so. They do quite well on their own, providing themselves with goals and internal reasons for sitting down with their instruments. Other musicians need to have an external impetus for doing the work, whether it’s a collaborative work with someone else, a group project or gigs on the books. These folks need a reason to practice other than self-improvement. Sometimes this changes over time because we tend to change as we age. But sometimes what we thought was one reason, was really the other.

When I was getting ready to audition for music school and then while I was in music school I was a practice room demon. Prior to my audition I was working a minimum of three hours a day, every day. After I entered music school a five hour practice day I considered to be a short maintenance day. Most days I put in about 8 hours, and then did my homework for my various classes. I was driven to become the best classical guitar player I could be, and I thought that this was my internal drive. It was to a certain extent, but I was ferociously competitive with the other guitar players, often to a fault. I had my competitors targeted and being on par with or surpassing them was my most ardent and immediate goal.

The folks who I viewed as my “competition” were about a year ahead of me and when they graduated I found myself at a bit of a loss in terms of drive. I also was recovering from a major ego bashing crash and burn from my junior recital the prior year and found myself becoming increasingly interested in going fishing over spending eight hours a day in a cement box. I was out of both internal and external juice and wasn’t willing to talk to anybody about any of it.

I was accepted to graduate school my senior year, but decided instead to join the military, and go through officer training in the hopes of starting a new career. It was a bad match, but that’s a different story in itself. It wasn’t until after my stint in the army that I found myself slowly but surely being pulled back into music. I have found that I need to be a musician and that it is one of my core needs. I have also found that I am one of those musicians that needs external stimuli to practice. I need to have gigs on the books, and ensembles to work with. They help keep me focused on the things that make me function as a human being. Without them I am lost, not just as a musician but as a reasonably well-adjusted human being as well.

Practicing is important and really is a necessary evil of being a musician. Where you get the motivation to do the work doesn’t really matter. What does matter is self-knowledge, knowing what it takes to get you into communion with your instrument and to do the work that allows you to become a better musician. The need for this is great in our formative years, but even more so as we get older. When we are younger our muscle memory is sharper, so what we did a couple of days ago is easier maintain. As we age, our skills physically require regular upkeep, and will fade faster if we do not do so.

It is quite depressing to be faced with the concept of “I used to be able to do that but don’t have the ability anymore,” particularly when it is a skill that we value. I know this from hard personal experience. We might end up slowing down in our elder years but we still want to be able to navigate complex pieces of music, or what we could touch in our prime. If we’re lucky, at some point we feel our fingertips slip across greatness, but if we’re diligent over the years it is more likely that we will embrace our competence, appreciate what we can still do, and be able to enjoy it for our entire lives. This is what practice delivers and should be the ultimate goal of the ritual.

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4 thoughts on “The Value of Practice

  1. I’m going to be 40 in a few months, so I started learning music late. This post scares me. There are sounds I have in my head that I don’t have the capability to execute yet, and I do fear that by the time I have the physical capability, I’ll not be able to enjoy it for long. I also noticed that learning is slower for me – I’m learning the bass fretboard and its been close to a month now, but I only have a basic familiarity with the E and A strings. My hope is to learn enough that in a few years, my daughter (who’s 2 1/2 right now) can pick up drums and we can become a father/daughter rhythm section.

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    1. That sounds like a fun thing to do with your daughter! The amount of practice one does should be influenced by what the goals are. If the intent is to become a professional, then the hours have to be put in to do so. Most people who learn instruments do so for fun, though and that is something that must be taken into account. It is a good thing to allot a planned amount of time to practice with a plan for what is to be accomplished. For instance, why not block out a half hour a day that is dedicated to your bass? When learning to play, that amount of time is enough that you keep the fingers moving and learning, but you’re not overtaxing yourself. Making it into a daily thing is also good because you end up with regular reinforcement.

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      1. Since starting again in January, I’ve been devoting at least 30 mins/day to practice. There are some days when I can’t do it because or other commitments, but this is the most consistent I’ve been in a long time, and I’ve been reading and watching bass or theory-related stuff daily. I remember reading that thing about needing 10,000 hours of practice to master something. I don’t know offhand what a competent, sub-10k hour goal is though, which is one of the factors that bothers me. Most of my friends who play instruments started in their teens and 20s, so they’ve had half of their lives to learn and improve. It does make me feel a few steps (I’m trying not to make an interval joke here) behind.

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      2. I just realized that my previous reply might come across as a woe-is-me comment. Its really just me trying to be realistic about what I can accomplish at my age and with my current time commitments. I’m learning every day, and hopefully, will learn enough in time that I can enjoy it with the people I want to. I get the feeling that when she’s older, my daughter (if she does show an interest in learning music) will surpass me quickly, because both my wife and I plan on encouraging her to learn music (and I’m really hoping for a drummer!).

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