Thoughts on Practicing

2011 Symposium2

I have spent a lot of years practicing when I didn’t feel like it. I practiced my first year of playing the clarinet because my mother made me. She went to great lengths to make it fun, but I was all too glad when the required practice time was over. When I reached middle school, and my playing finally sounded something like what it was supposed to sound like, I enjoyed practicing because I liked the teacher and I liked playing in band and wanted to do well. Then I started taking private clarinet lessons. I liked that teacher too, and he was very demanding. I think he was the first music teacher I had that actually believed I could become a really good player. He gave me confidence, and newfound hope and motivation that all of this was worth while after all. I remember he was particularly excited when I began to learn the Neilson concerto. I think he considered it a feather in his cap to have a student who could even seriously attempt to play that demanding work, but that didn’t matter to me. He was excited about what I was doing, so I was excited too.

I went to undergraduate school, matriculated as a music education major. Being surrounded by music courses, music lessons, music coaching, and music ensemble rehearsals was amazing fun. I couldn’t get enough of it all. This is what I had wanted to experience, and now I was there, doing it all, or so I thought. But as happens when you leave a small pond as a big fish, and enter into a big pond as a small fish, eventually my short comings caught up with me, and I was no longer practicing because I couldn’t wait for the next lesson or rehearsal. I was practicing because I had to. I was practicing because I had a jury coming. I was practicing because that was how I was going to make to the end of the now arduous task of graduating from a music conservatory. Things didn’t improve for me until I insisted on changing clarinet teachers. The one I had didn’t have very high expectations for me, and the fact that I was not a performance major but a music education major made me not quite worth his while. So I convinced the best teacher at the school I could find to take me on. He had high expectations for everyone. I didn’t know it that day, but switching to him would be the most life changing decision I would make until the day I proposed to my wife.

He wasn’t just about teaching clarinet, he was about teaching life. He wasn’t just a Picture1virtuoso clarinetist, he was a student of pedagogy and of human psychology. Some couldn’t take the pressure of his demanding ways, but somehow we understood each other in a way that was different from the other students in the studio. He knew I would never be his star pupil, but he found reason to invest his teaching and influence in me anyway. There is no way I can describe what that meant to me in words, except to say that it is from those kind of relationships and investments that students rise to excellence, and achieve things beyond their expectations, and occasionally even beyond ours.

I don’t perform much anymore on my clarinet, but I practice regularly, and have never enjoyed doing so more. Why? Because I enjoy being able to play better than I ever thought I would be able to, enjoy playing pieces I once though were out of the question, and I just love playing my clarinet because after all those years and all those hours, I’m pretty darn good at it. That’s a pretty hard sell to a lot of students today, who are used to receiving perfected music instantly on their phones, and used to “playing” music perfectly via pre-recorded loops and perfect sampled sounds on a keyboard. But when I play for my students, there is always, and I mean always, a wow factor. They want to know how I played like that, and I tell them. I tell them I started 49 years ago, and have practiced probably somewhere around 15,000 hours or more in those 49 years. Like me, those who “want it” bad enough are inspired by that, while those who don’t shrug and decide they really don’t want to go through all that.

There always has to be a balance between what a student wants to achieve, and how much time they are willing to put into achieving it. Not everyone wants to practice even an hour every or most days, but a few can’t be retrained from practicing more than that. We can’t influence every student to give their life to practicing and perfecting musical performance, nor should we even if we could. I’m convinced everyone has a special and unique relationship with music that they must find, if not on their own, at least in part on their own initiative. We as teachers can and should inspire, encourage, motivate, and offer ourselves as examples of what is possible should they choose a path similar to the one we followed. There are always those who rise to the top because they were forced to practice, and hated every minute of it, and perhaps never really enjoy music from the heart, but just enjoy the accolades of those who think what they’re doing is terrific, unaware of the inner misery. And there are others that seem to rise to the top in a way that is so effortless, and the result of so little practice, that people like me just shake their heads and feel like it’s all so unfair. But talent never outlasts effort, and those who never have to work for it often don’t finish the race or truly value the gift.

In the end, students and I suspect most of us as well, practice because of the joy of music before us, because of the promise of completing an expressive act that our whole humaness longs to convey and enjoy and share with those who want to share in that expressive act. We all make music for ourselves and for others. We give much more than we receive in terms of time, much like a chef spends much more time preparing a gourmet meal than diners spend enjoying eating it. But that meal, that musical performance is so exquisite, so sublime, that we embrace the chance to prepare again and again, over and over. Any student with this joy set before him or her will want to practice. It is up to us to be expressively focused and builders of musicianship so that music is to our students much more than dubious honks and squeaks of a beginner, or sterile platitudes made of over rehearsed scales and chords. I would gladly accept a wrong note in exchange for a masterfully shaped phrase. It is that way of thinking and teaching that produces students who practice.

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