To be a musician you have to be in love with practicing.  You have to love the logical process of breaking something down smaller and smaller into manageable segments, then painstakingly putting it back together.  You have to love the process of treading the same ground over and over again, striving for perfection but being comfortable with never reaching it (because it doesn’t exist).

You also have to get comfortable with the difference between playing accurately and playing well.  This is easy to lose sight of in our current musical climate, which values accuracy so highly that sometimes it is conflated with art.  It is possible (indeed, required) to play with total accuracy; it is impossible to play with perfection.  There is always something that could be better.  Always.

You have to try to get inside the composer’s head.  What did she want you to show the audience at this moment?  What’s the most important thing, or the most interesting thing, about this passage, and how does it fit into the overall structure of the work?  You have to work out how you will get the composer’s thesis across to the audience; the tools in your box are articulation, dynamic level (volume), slight variations in speed, and other tiny nuances.  Your solution won’t be the same as any other musician’s and this infinite variety, not the technical sameness of mere accuracy, is what makes music interesting.

You have to get inherent reward from the process because practicing is hours and hours and hours of your life, much more time that you will ever spend performing or even rehearsing, and if you don’t love it you will lose your fucking mind.


7 responses to “practicing

  1. Your post highlights the primary reason why my father told a teenaged S that she could never be a successful professional clarinetist. He told me that I didn’t like to practice enough, and he was right. (I liked playing a lot, but didn’t like to spend hours and hours perfecting a piece.)

    In a way, this is a metaphor for many other things in life, too, isn’t it? It’s almost always more about the process than anything else.

    • First of all, clarinetists REPRESENT!

      And yes, this is definitely a metaphor. I wish that I could love other practices in my life in the way that I love my musical practice, i.e. without real regard for the results.

  2. I can tell you are truly passionate about what you do by the way you write about it. And I am another person who didn’t become a musician because I just didn’t enjoy the practicing part. Then again, to S’s point above, I’ve always stuggled with the “enjoy the ride” philosophy of life. Something to work on, I suppose. But, I do wish that baby making could be less about the process and more about the end result! (funny, when my husband and I were first TTC but not really admitting that’s what we were doing, we use to call it “practice.”)

    • I think most people are naturally either process-focused or end result-focused. When I was knitting, I was definitely a process knitter: I wanted to learn new techniques but didn’t care much about actually finishing anything. This is as opposed to a product knitter, who would be focused on making that sweater as opposed to making half of it but setting it aside once they mastered that cool cabling technique (not that I ever did that….) And i think most musicians are process people by nature, because of all the practicing.

      • Aha! I think you hit the nail on the head here for me. I am much more end-result-focused than process-focused, in every area of my life.

  3. Ha, that’s the truth. I took five years of piano as a kid and hated practicing. I would have rathered be outside climbing a tree, I guess. Now, I wish I had had the maturity to stick with it and keep taking the lessons and continue practicing hours every day.

    • This is going to sound like a cliche, but why not go back to it now? It’s never too late. Piano is a great skill because unlike the orchestral instruments, it’s totally possible for anyone to have a real, active, process-based musical life at home with the piano. I’m not necessarily talking about singalongs by candlelight, but piano I think is a very special thing that can stand on its own as a way for people to experience music as an activity as opposed to a passive reception.

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