The single word 'practice' has the remarkable ability to affect creatives in several unexpected ways.
When asked about practice, some musicians' faces light up and invoke a passionate speech about technique, new learnings and overcoming the once-impossible. But some feel averse to practice when faced with the idea. They writhe with discomfort, sinking into feelings of guilt or awkwardness when asked about their feelings on it.
I've talked at length regarding this subject on a recent episode of the Sitting In podcast titled making practice personal. Practice is a personal journey that I continue to learn from and explore every day. The forth-coming reflections are anecdotal learnings paired with my own experiences. For anyone struggling with practice, I hope there is enough insight to help unlock a door for you.
At some point, all musicians must determine the importance of practice in conjunction with their creative motivations. Each of us has an inherent desire to become more competent, rounded musicians. We hope to express this through the songs that we write, how we improvise and create connections with other musicians. So, it makes sense that we would interpret the gateway as consistent, focused practice. But one of the first hurdles on the path to clarity around this subject is that very few of us have a clear view of what practice truly is. My private students will often ask what or how to practice and which practice methods are the most effective. Quite often, this leads to a more profound discussion arising from the undercurrent of our conversation. Even students who are not philosophically inclined will at some point ask themselves, "Why do I need to practice?". At this point, it becomes necessary to spend some time broadening the definitions of practice.
As an educator, it's one of my core beliefs that students become confused and disillusioned with practice when they rely on one definition. They become uninspired and feel like failures when they don't live up to the expected result of that singular definition. In simple terms, their goal might be to "get better at the guitar," but it doesn't seem to be working, regardless of how many scales and songs they learn. Their sole definition of practice might translate to: "If I serve my time by playing scales and learning songs, I'll eventually become a better guitar player". There is a grain of truth and a gram of fiction with this particular definition. The bittersweet truth is that "being a better guitar player" is an intangible goal. We will never feel small moments of triumph if we set the finish line beyond the horizon. The truth is, most of our desires are not realistic! It's great to dream and imagine ourselves being entirely new players by tomorrow or next week. But hypothetically, if we had this wish granted, we would inevitably repeat this thought cycle quite soon after.
It's common for people to feel a loss of direction or belief after achieving a life goal. It's also common to feel that way when you can't see the finish line. There is no end to the journey of practice and creative discovery. At first, this might be a bitter pill to swallow. But given time, it can be liberating to realise that the only parameters that matter are the ones that help you to become creatively free and inspired.
After I graduated from music school, I found it hard to maintain the motivation to practice as intensely as I previously had. I decided to investigate books like The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron & Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner. Both of these books largely influenced a change in my mindset. I started to realise that I had been approaching the guitar from a formulaic practice routine that no longer served my long term goals. My focus shifted from 'short-term achievement' practice to a more ritualistic, explorative approach. I became more concerned with developing a daily relationship with the guitar rather than implementing a cold, systematised procedure for learning.
It didn't happen overnight. But eventually, I found more clarity in each session by asking myself some basic questions before I sat down to play each morning:
"Why do I want to play today?"
"What do I want to play today?"
"Do I have an objective yet? Or, is this an adventure to finding one?"
For myself, answering one or all of these questions is a necessary first step. Having a mental point of origin works like a charm. It immediately causes you to focus or accept a lack of focus when you sit down to play. It's also okay to have no answer. In some ways, having no answer can address all of the questions with a sense of unknown mystery. That can be a fun starting point if I remain lenient with myself.
I often talk about an approach I describe as meditative vs concentrative practice. The idea is simple. Concentrative practice refers to the process of consciously working on a phrase, technique or concept. Half of your practice time should be about drilling an idea or piece of information in a focused mindset. The other half of your practice time must include a form of meditative practice. I would define meditative practice as a cognitive disconnect from the information matched with creative exploration. This creative exploration might be working with drones, backing tracks or entirely free playing. The goal here is to depart from having an achievable goal. Internalising information is about making it second nature and, we can only enact this process by freeing ourselves from mistakes. I like to make sure that I can sing new ideas before playing them. For some, this can be a profoundly spiritual exercise as you're connecting with something deeper than your cognitive ability to learn. You're teaching yourself to bond information to an emotional vocabulary. Comparing music to learning a language might be a tired analogy, but it is the most accurate and well-defined one we have. All art forms are in some way communicative. We can draw a lot of learning from other creative disciplines and their approach to practice.
Some of the most original sounding musicians have the most unconventional approaches to practicing their craft. We often teach music using a method of assimilation and through the lens of conformity. Often, without realising that we are training the person, not the instrument. As people, we are all incredibly different from each other. The creative realm encourages us to step outside of conventional practice and find methods that speak to us on a personal level. Over time, I have found that my true goal as a musician is to become more articulate in every creative venture I explore. It might still be an intangible one, but it's more precise and in keeping with my sense of creative direction.
To dispel a common practice myth: There's no such thing as aimless practice. 'Aimless' might imply wrong, and music is an expressive art form.
There are no wrong ways to express yourself, especially in a creative space. Perhaps, the type of practice you're engaged in doesn't have a label yet.
8 Tips For Better Practice:
Instead of a parting thought, I've compiled a list of 8 tips to help you switch up your next practice session.
Keep a journal of practice sessions. Whether, it's to keep yourself accountable or to document new learnings. I can promise you that it's a pleasant experience to look back on old practice journals and see how far you've come.
Scale down the material you're working on. If you keep your focus/objective small, it's easier to retain the information days, weeks or even years after a session.
Monitor your self-criticism. There is a point where self-criticism ticks over from being constructive to self-deprecating. Be aware of your self-talk language as you play and try to reframe your experience in a positive light.
You can always dig deeper into an idea. Find variations or other applications for a concept before moving onto a new area of study
Make sure to value noodling time! Noodling is a common musical habit that players engage in idly. There is a benefit in noodling with an idea. Noodling can often lead to new ideas and concepts to study.
You are training a person, not an instrument. A guitar is a box of wood and a set of 6 strings. Without you, there is no music. Working on visualisation techniques and ear training is as valuable as the technical process.
Creative practice is the greatest of proving grounds. Composing, improvising, playing with others, and personalising exercises helps you to use the material that you've been learning.
Ask around for new ideas. Having musical friends is excellent! Other creatives such as writers, artists and actors will have processes for practicing their craft that can inspire you to think outside the box. Use them!