We all have off days. As a musician, this can be translated as those days when picking up an instrument in order to work on the next challenging piece or to improve our technique feels so far away from what we want to do (ie. the sofa seems just that bit more appealing). My thoughts turned to this after reading a blog post on parenting this week which highlights the stigma that parents feel when they too just long for a day off. Should we as musicians feel stigmatised when we just don’t want to practice and is there anything we can do about it?
Practising an instrument, like parenting, is a real challenge. It requires constant focus, physical and mental energy and an ability to envision which expressive qualities the music requires whilst working out how to achieve them. It is not something that can be carried out any time and any place, indeed it requires a certain set of conditions to present in order for it to be productive. And that’s not forgetting that practice is just that. It is a process, a means to an end, and one which needs to be repeated over and over in order to gain enough knowledge and control to enable us to recreate sounds at will.
So it is not always appropriate to practice. But when it’s not, is that it? Should we just stop and give in to the sofa and render ourselves unproductive? When we are truly exhausted yes, but perhaps not every time. For if our practice time is used in the way it should be, there must be room for time when we can simply play. Time when we pull out those pieces that we have already gotten to grips with which bring us the most pleasure, maybe some that we haven’t shaken the dust off for a long time, and just play. For it is in doing this that we not only remember why we strive to meet the next challenge that we practise for in the first place, but we are probably at our most creative, free from the worries of technical challenges and able to express fully what the music means to us.
So the next time that the sofa calls, be sure to pause and ask yourself ‘do I simply want to play?’ instead. You may have just asked yourself a question which not only saves you from the clutches of sofa but more importantly helps you to take your playing to the level that you’re striving for.
Today, we live in a instant world. A world which often feels like it takes place more often than not behind a screen than in reality. Not only is it possible to see someone who is across the other side of the world at the push of a button, we can access a wealth of information on any conceivable topic at any time of the day or night. That of course has its many advantages, but when it comes the art of learning to master a musical instrument, it would seem that the dominance of our virtual and instantaneous world can be more of a disadvantage which can have a huge effect on our ability to strive towards real achievement in a real way.
For many younger students, their first experience of learning to sing or play may also be their first experience of having to coordinate their brain and body in such a way that it can only be truly learnt once frequent repetition and intense concentration have been practised. This, when combined with the necessity to find time and a quiet solitary space without distraction where their senses of sight, sound and touch can all be perceived together (ie. whilst not in front of the a TV or computer screen), can make learning an instrument seem like a completely unapproachable and alien task. This has of course always been the case for anyone, however I believe that nowadays, the frustration and desire to give up at the first hurdle is more sorely felt, in some cases to the point where students really can’t comprehend the idea that to be able to get it right every time, diligent practice really is the only way.
But this is conversely exactly why I love playing an instrument so much and why I love encouraging and helping others to do so. It’s raw and real, and requires my own mental and physical energy to be controlled in such a way that a sound can be produced and replicated as I when I want it (and when taken to the extreme, for example in fluteboxing, can produce a really powerful natural high). It takes dedication, discipline and determination to keep going when its difficult, and even if technology can aid us along the way, it can never fully take a humans place when it comes to playing. Alongside these aspects, my instrument and my voice are themselves devoid of technology – they require no plugging in or charging up – and whilst modern in their make up, have an element of history woven into their development and understanding which gives them a real feeling of nostalgia before the music even begins.
So when faced with the struggle against our instantaneous hungry brains, the process of learning an instrument is one which can really teach us a lesson in stepping back and keeping it real. And even if a student once having taken those early steps decides that learning an instrument isn’t for them, I would hope that they have a least gained the realisation that not everything is instant – a most valuable lesson to have learnt.
When analysing any musical performance, it is easy to focus solely on those elements which are traditionally seen as being the building blocks of music – pitch, rhythm and dynamics for example. Whilst these are no doubt fundamental in the accurate portrayal of any piece, and mastery of them alone may appear to create that ‘perfect’ performance, should these elements be allowed to be the ultimate goal when it comes to a musical performance?
I would argue not. Although I’m not a composer, I’m pretty sure that if you asked the vast majority of them what they would like a performer of their music to ensure that they get right when they perform, it has everything to do with intention and less to do with the actual instructions which have been provided in the score. For it is often those elements which cannot be fully notated – the length of a pause or breath, the exact use of an accented note or the way in which a crescendo is executed for example, which can only ever be controlled by the performer themselves in the moment and which require a thorough understanding of what the piece is really trying to say in order to bring a piece to life.
And because of this, there may be a price to pay when it comes to being ‘note perfect’. If the sole focus remains on the notes alone during a performance, then the real intention of the piece is not given any attention. Of course, the intention of some pieces is to be precise and that is all, and professional performers at the top of their game are quite rightly expected to never get a note wrong. But for those of us who are still striving to progress in our musical abilities, and particularly those who are new to performing itself, I feel that if the intention of the piece is allowed to be the overriding aspect of the performance, then it will be a successful one, despite any misplacement of notes or details which may take place. It will also be a personal one, where performer and perhaps teacher have worked together on what the intention of the piece is, from their own and the composers point of view, and have sought to use the performers current skill level and musical abilities to shape the piece in a way which is possible and suitable.
So the next time that you hear a live performance that you particularly like, try to think to yourself why that is? I can almost guarantee that it will go beyond the basic elements to deliver music which has it’s focus firmly on intention and not just on what it’s composer set down on a page.