Tuesday, October 17, 2006

What is Practice? Part 1 - My Experience

I presented a phemomenology of practice in my masters seminar last week. This is the first of a 4-part series containing some excerpts from the paper. I found that through writing the paper I have started to radically re-think the concept of practice, and what it means in my life.

I started by thinking about my personal experience of practice...

I think it’s fair to say, that until now I have on the whole been unhappy with my practice. I used to think that it was a burden to be grudgingly borne on the rocky road to the glittering hall of performance, but I am not so sure now. If I am to be a musician, it is something that I am going to have to do a lot of, and I am determined to find a way to make it an integral and enjoyable part of my life if that is at all possible.

So I set out to find what it is, why I have had such a fractured relationship with it, and what it has the potential to be in my life.

I don’t really remember much about practice from when I was a child. I remember playing the piano, but I don’t really remember practicing. I am not sure what distinction I am making between playing and practicing here, but I think it might have something to do with making a conscious decision to aim to improve the playing of a piece or to get to know it better. That’s an interesting phrase: to get to know a piece. There’s “knowing the notes”, which is different from “knowing” or “getting to know” in terms of making friends or becoming acquainted with the music.

I know that I have never thought that I have done enough practice, that I have never felt completely prepared for a performance. So that is one thing that I have seen practice as: preparation for performance. I wonder what “enough practice” would feel like – does anyone ever think they have done enough practice? I have always seen practice as hard, long, boring work that I have put off for as long as possible. It has connotations of endless hours at the instrument, repeating the same passage over and over again. It is necessary drudgery – slaving over a hot keyboard. Hours of scales; up and down, up and down, up and down.

I feel frustrated when I am practicing, and feel that I don’t quite know how to do it properly. No-one ever taught me how to practice. I don’t want to dislike practice. I don’t want to spend hours each day doing something I don’t enjoy. I am sure there is a way of enjoying practice, and I think I have felt glimpses of this occasionally. I don’t always hate practice, but it is certainly not something I look forward to. What do I think it is? Why do I not look forward to it?

I see it as stealing time away from me, and I feel directionless and unsure of what and how to practice. No matter what I am practicing, I wonder whether there is something else that I should be working on. I am not confident about my own decisions about what and how to practice. I don’t know how to measure my practice – how to know whether I am doing the right thing or whether I am doing enough of it.

I also find it hard to focus on one detail of the music when there are so many others clamouring for attention, and I often get discouraged.

There is a lot of guilt attached to my practice – either I’m not doing enough or I’m not doing the right thing. I can’t remember ever being entirely satisfied with a practice session. There is always the feeling that somehow I cheated, took the easy way out, glossed over something, or gave up on it. I have seen practice as something that is to be endured rather than enjoyed, and something that I have tried to do as little as possible of, rather than as much as possible. I don’t know what effective and enjoyable practice is – I’ve never done it. I think I’ve always just ended up playing things over and over again, hoping that somehow it would sink in. There’s a lot of blind hoping and not really feeling secure with anything. I feel that basically I have been flying by the seat of my pants. I haven’t really “known” the music that I’ve performed, and I’ve trusted to luck that I’d get most of the notes right.

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