The Practice of Practice

Like most children whose parents decide they would benefit from taking piano lessons, I dreaded practicing for my next lesson. Piano practice was boring drudgery. I remember feeling a sense of victory after my lesson if I had practiced¬†just enough to convince my teacher that I’d been practicing as much as I was supposed to. I thought I was fooling her, but I was fooling myself. In my thrill at getting away with something, I overlooked the fact that I was depriving myself of the benefits of practice: learning to play music better–and with greater satisfaction.

When I started taking guitar lessons as an adult, I had a completely different experience. In part, this was because I knew I wanted to learn to play blues guitar. I had chosen this to satisfy a personal goal. In addition, practice was no longer a pain, because I enjoyed the process.¬†I enjoyed the sound of the guitar, even if I was just playing scales. It wasn’t long before I realized that practice led to noticeable progress. It made a difference! Even things that seemed difficult and frustrating to learn yielded eventually to practice. Patience and perseverance led to the ability to play more easily, more reliably and more expressively.

For me, “practice” is just a form of playing music. It takes place in a context of focused attention and may consist of playing scales, chords, exercises, musical phrases or entire songs, which are repeated to build new habits and ultimately better skills. It’s unfortunate that the word “practice” has gathered such negative connotations.

A musician–like any artist–can’t flourish on talent alone. It takes lots of patient work–playing music–hour after hour, day after day–until an acceptable level of mastery is achieved. Jimi Hendrix, for example, is considered one of the greatest guitarists of the 20th century. He no doubt had a lot of talent. However, he was also profoundly devoted to playing the guitar. Those who knew him report that he was almost never without a guitar and was playing constantly–either on his own or with whatever musicians he could find. When we watch his masterful performances at the Monterrey Pop Festival or Woodstock, we’re seeing more than talent. We’re seeing the results of countless hours of playing (and performing) music. There is something magical about listening to such a “musical genius” perform, but a good part of the “magic” is simply practice.

There is another reason “practice” has lost its negative connotations for me. I now associate the word with the phrase “spiritual practice.” This refers to actions or behavior that has spiritual meaning, reinforces a spiritual state or attitude, or contributes to spiritual development. Spiritual practices vary depending on traditions, but may include meditation, prayer, chanting, calligraphy or even flower arranging.

I believe that any creative activity–writing, painting, cooking, and, of course, making music–can serve as a spiritual practice. When I practice (play) music, I’m not simply trying to improve my musical skills, but also to reach a point where I have sufficiently internalized a musical element or song. My ultimate goal is to learn the music well enough that I can step out of the way–letting go of my need to play it “right” or “better”–and let the music play through me as its instrument. As with any creative activity, the biggest challenges are internal ones.

As with any spiritual practice, I see music as a path I walk. I take one step, trying to pay attention to each moment, and trying not to worry about where the path will lead. It’s a path I expect to follow the rest of my life.





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