Music practice, enjoyment and awareness
I love that in English we use the word ‘play’ to refer to musical activity. Children know this instinctively - music is fun. As adult musicians (and especially if it's our job) it can be forgotten. Have you ever found yourself in a rut of robotic practice, frustration and a lack of engagement with what you're doing? It's not uncommon and I find myself there periodically.
A breakthrough came a couple of years ago when I began to slow down and become more deeply aware of what I do on a day to day basis in the practice room.
Music making is about engaging the senses (the intellect and the emotions complete the picture) but we lose appreciation for the sensuality of playing. These days I'm trying not to take for granted the pleasant feelings that playing an instrument brings me and also not to deny it to myself when I'm not happy or feeling frustrated. (In this case the guitar often needs to be put away in its case for a few days - we need a break from each other).
I enjoy slowing down to sub-metronome speeds to focus on my sense of touch and to bring a sense of intimacy to my daily practice. I don't always succeed, but the intention is there.
It's easy to become distracted by our preconceived notions, our minds contain ideas about what we SHOULD be doing rather than what experience is teaching us here and now. Preconceived ideas about technique for example, such as ‘this is how an arpeggio should be played' (because I read it/ heard it/saw it elsewhere) can hold us back from an open-minded, playful and experimental approach to development. Any idea or notion received from a teacher, friend, colleague, book, video etc. needs to be judged against our own experience. What works for the other person may well not work for us.
It's easy also to be hindered by preconceived ideas about progress - 'I should have improved more' / 'I should be able to play this passage more easily'. By getting back to the direct unmediated experience of playing, we enjoy what we're doing more and get better at it. It’s about the quality of attention we’re giving to what we’re doing; it’s about concentration, attention to detail, and prioritising quality over quantity. Becoming more aware of the physical minutia of playing and the sensuality of contact helps us experience our music making in a deeper way. In my experience, 30 minutes of this type of practice is worth 3 hours of mindless repetition.
A commitment to deeper awareness has helped me see what needs to change in my playing in order to develop. Being more focussed and more concentrated has given me insight into what my obstacles are and opened up pathways to overcoming them. It also helps me see what to accept about my limits and limitations - at least for now.
Bring awareness to developing technique
Here’s an example of how we can apply awareness to practising an element of technique such as a single note played as a free stroke in a simple arpeggio figure (in my case on a guitar):
With an open attitude and in a spirit of playful experimentation I ask...........
What is happening here?
Which finger on the right hand do I intend to play the note with?
What are the fingers which aren’t playing a note doing?
Where is the tension?
Can we be aware of all the physical movements of preparing, executing and releasing a note?
On what part of the finger tip/nail do we plant?
What joints are activated?
How much pressure do we apply?
When we execute how far do we follow through? How quickly does our release come? How far do we release?
Is there tension at any point?
At what point in this cycle does the next finger plant itself on the string?
What is my posture?
Are my shoulders tense?
Etc. etc. etc.
In a performance a note may be played in a fraction of a second, but in practice we can enjoy ourselves by dedicating a lot of time to it.
Turn the metronome down to zero (and the awareness up to 11 :))