Practicing and Making Perfect

With August underway and my CD Release Party at the end of the month, I’ve decided to play my accordion every day.  So far my experiment into playing each day has been going well.  Ok, that’s only been two days, but I’m still feeling good about it.  In addition to running through the songs I’ll be playing at the release, I’ve been challenging myself to play simple tunes with accompaniment, sometimes chordal, sometimes contrapuntal, sometimes both.  For those of you who didn’t go to music school, the chordal accompaniment just hold chords underneath the melody, while the contrapuntal accompaniment involves finding a nice harmony line to go with the melody.   My Star-Spangled Banner is sounding killer, as is my America, the Beautiful, and Komm, süßer Tod.  However, it has brought me back to a subject that have I agonized over and dwelt upon for many years: Practicing.

The trombonist Buddy Baker says it quite well in his method book:

Practice

It is a privilege—
to have a situation
where you can practice

It is a joy—
it was in the beginning
and it must remain a joy

It is improvement—
one must strive to improve
with each practice session

It is relaxed—
in the arms, in the face,
and in the breathing process

It is beautiful—
settle for nothing less
than your most beautiful tone always

It is expressive
show something of yourself
in everything you play

It is forever—
if you wish to improve and grow as an artist

I agree with every part of that (especially that first one: “It is a privilege to have a situation where you can practice), and yet the art of practicing is deeply troubling for me.  My issue is that Buddy Bakers words ring true completely, except when they don’t.  Sometimes it doesn’t feel beautiful or joyful or expressive.  Sometimes it feels exhausting, painful, and unrewarding.  I can even accept the justification that perhaps the reason I feel this way sometimes is that I’m “doing it wrong.”  In that case, the act of figuring it out how to do it “right” is often exhausting, painful, and unrewarding.

Tubadan practicing in happier days

Tubadan practicing in happier days

It wasn’t always this way for me.  When I was in school, long practice sessions on the tuba were a regular part of every day.  Typically, I’d get about an hour of practice in the morning, perform with ensembles in the afternoon, and get another hour in the evening sometime.  I would scour the library for useful studies, etudes, and technical exercises and incorporate them into my daily routine.  From time to time, I would adjust the routine depending on the areas I wanted to focus upon or the different types of techniques I wanted to develop.

These days, I have so many components of my life that I have to fit into a limited amount of time.  I work a full-time job, have a wonderful relationship with a swell (not swollen) gal, and have a number of projects I’m working on.  Often that means that I do not have much time left to practice.  Truthfully, though, that’s a cop-out.  Even when I have the time to practice, I don’t take full advantage of it.  I’ve always said that we make the time for the things that are important to us, and this is something I just don’t make the time for.  I procrastinate until I only have a short amount of time to accomplish anything, and my daily routine has not changed in several years.  Most of the time when I’m practicing tuba, I’m getting myself into shape for playing in public, or maintaining the skills that I have.  And if you couldn’t guess, I am bored!

I think part of the reason my practice skills have gone downhill is that I’m still perceiving practice in the same way I did when I was a student in college.  When I consider what “good practice habits” would be, my mind returns to the “hour in the morning, hour in the evening” paradigm.  I have failed to account for whether that’s actually what works for me.  Additionally, it is difficult for me to find material that I feel motivated to work on.  The days of salivating over practicing a tuba concerto or an orchestral excerpt are long gone.  The direction I find myself taking with my playing is more bass lines in jazz, rock, and eclectic genres, as well as soloing.  How does one practice those things by oneself, though?

One of the tools that has worked better for me in recent times is defining practice as conscientious exploration of a subject or activity.  When I’m going through my stretching routine, I’m just doing yoga.  When I’m in a yoga studio and concentrating on the specific exertion of my body, I’m practicing yoga.  When I’m following a recipe I’ve done countless times before, I’m just cooking.  When I experiment with the food I’m making while searching for a particular flavor, I’m practicing cooking.  Bringing it back to music, when I’m mindlessly playing through the same scales I’ve played countless times, I’m producing sounds and working out muscles.  When I’m thinking about those sounds and the muscles that are producing them, that extra concentration means I’m practicing the tuba.

Interestingly, one of the positive things about having spent time practicing extensively in the past is that I now recognize the amount of hard work it takes to be the best at anything.  I have seen the difference between a professional and amateur musician, so I can extrapolate and see the preparative difference between say, a person who likes to play sports and a major league baseball player, or a carpenter and a master craftsman.  So when I get baffled by where to turn with practice, I don’t have to just consult musicians for advice; there are immense resources from the many people who do whatever they do well.

My friend Adam Prosak is among the top in his field, which happens to be one of my favorite games, Magic the Gathering.  It’s the biggest collectible card game in the world, and it requires great skill, strategy, knowledge, and luck.  Many players spend hours per week playtesting the decks they build against their peers to do better in tournaments, but Adam takes a different approach:  “Nearly all Magic I play is done in a tournament setting. I only practice for tournaments by playing in other tournaments. This way, everything is not just a means to an end but an end itself” (from StarCityGames.com).  Now, while few musicians are able to do all of their playing in a performance setting as opposed to a practice room, there’s something to be said about getting much of your experience by actually experiencing things!

I don’t have a tidy way to finish this up.  Practice continues to be a source of anxiety and often disappointment to me.  I’m hoping that explorations in practice on this other instrument, the accordion, will help me to reclaim my love of playing by myself on the tuba.  I’m hoping that the joy that it was in the beginning can be found once again.

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11 thoughts on “Practicing and Making Perfect

  1. Anonymous says:

    In my attempt to learn clarinet I;ve found the initial idea of practicing to be exciting, the journey towards learning something new and one day becoming good at it. But then the reality of being an “adult” hits home and I realize the 2 problems. 1. I don;t have a whole lot of time to sit and concentrate for an hour a day because of work and all the headaches of daily life and 2. The impatience that comes along with it being an adult and thinking that “I;m smart enough to already have an understanding of this , therefore it should come to me easier and quicker so why am I sitting here playing scales over and over when I should be soloing already?”.
    Even now I welcomed this as an escape from practicing !

    Alas, I have to return to my new dreaded arch enemy….Mr. Ab

    • neonandshy says:

      Thanks for sharing!

      Your second point touches on something I just scratched the surface of: the difference between practicing and performing. If we take a different mindset in the practice room than we do on stage, are we truly preparing to perform? The quote from Adam touches on that distinction.

      It’s especially difficult when you’ve already mastered an instrument already, and the next one is taking more time than you remembered the first one taking. In those situations, I try to keep it as fun as possible to not go crazy.

  2. MN says:

    I hope you find it too. I’m planning on retiring when you become so rich and famous that you have more money than you know what to do with. You can give some to me!!! No pressure though.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think what practicing is changes as we get older and enter into different phases of our lives. I certainly don’t practice as much as I did when I was in my 20s, but it was all of those hours that created who I am as a musician. Now it grows and develop and changes in a different way. Don’t worry about the hours you put in…..sometimes I am super inspired, and other times I am just trying to get something ready or in good shape for a performance. Luckily the inspiration is still there, and comes unexpectedly, often. Just keep playing as long as you love it!

    • neonandshy says:

      Sometimes I wonder if my choice of instrument has something to do with my lack of inspiration. With something like piano, it seems so versatile that you can play just about anything on it, while on the tuba there are certain limitations. It also feels like a cop-out to say that, but I wonder anyway.

      It’s great to hear you still have flashes of inspiration that push you to greater heights. And it’s also good to hear that you don’t worry about the time spent. It does make much more sense to pay attention to what you do, not how long you do it. Like I said, I need to replace my old way of seeing things with a new paradigm.

  4. Anonymous says:

    ps, that last one was from Melody 🙂 (not so into signing in to stuff, but had no intention of masking my identity!

  5. Panic Slim says:

    Stimulating, as usual. At Glenn Dodson’s 75th b’day party, I was talking to a tuba player who retired from the Phila Orch while in his 50’s. Broke down physically, in some way, I gathered, and he seemed to suggest this was not unusual for brass players. I asked if he could explain why Glenn didn’t seem to falter. He put Glenn in a unique category, a freak. He said Glenn just picked up the horn and played, never practiced. I asked Glenn about this. He rejected the idea that he had some unique gift. He said he did a lot of practicing in his youth, then learned to focus his attention, so that playing WAS his practicing. Possible? I watched a video interview of Jorgen Van Rijen today, principal trb of Concertegebouw when he was 24 or so. He spoke of the challenge of continuing to challenge himself after attaining a dream position in his youth, took up a soloist career to keep stretching to attain. It’s a familiar issue for any professional, or anyone who cares to do a thing well: how to keep up your chops, and maintain an interest in keeping up your chops. Professionally, I struggle with those issues. Much easier as a would-be prof. musician. There I have the advantage of lack of mastery, and the dream its still possible to get there (run to crank out some new neurons, hope the beer does’t kill the m off. Moderation in all things, except moderation).

    • neonandshy says:

      I often wonder if that ability to focus on what you have to do to improve (work smarter, not harder) comes in the form of an epiphany or from trial and error (or both). I’m still waiting for mine!

  6. […] wasting my time.  (This is a theme that pervades most of my pursuits.)  My friend, Dan, wrote a blog post about practicing a few months ago where he quoted trombonist Buddy Baker’s entry in his method book.  Baker […]

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