Practical Teachings For Teaching Practice
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: