Issue 2

by Max Hannum



The rest of Issue 2 coming soon, but it will include:

To Practice or To Play. I often struggle with practice. I have done so ever since my folks used to make me sit at the piano and do my assigned exercises over and over. This was "Practice" with a capital "P".

Everyone must make their own peace with the demands of the instrument and how to deal with them. Theoretically, practice is a necessary and good thing. It makes sense that it is impossible to improve on an instrument without practice. However, I seem to do better if I trick myself into believing that what I am doing is not "practicing," but rather, "playing." So, I really don't do much "practicing" at all.

I do enjoy playing, however. And it occurs to me that I enjoy playing the most when I play along with others. I think I tend to use music as a way to hang out with people and be a part of social group. Of course, in order to be appreciated in this setting, and to continue to be allowed to hang out, you must display a certain amount of ability.

Practice as the Enemy of Music. There are some problems with practicing that go to the heart of what music really is.

Some would say that music should be about feelings and personal expression. Some would say that it is a search for "flow." Or for "oneness." Or for "fun." Still others would say that it's about getting in touch with your soul and your essential spirit.

While I wouldn't argue with any of these, I think at some point every musician realizes, that, at the very least, music is about sound and not about notes.

This distinction between sound and notes is subtle and slippery, but very important.

Because, sometimes things that are practiced tend to be less about "sound" and more about "notes." Sometimes, I want to say to someone who is trying to play something that is clearly practiced, "Just play! Don't worry about impressing anyone. Just play what comes easily and naturally."

Of course, this is tricky. The whole point of practicing is to groove something new into your muscle memory so that it, too, can become part of your bag of tricks, your repertoire of things that come easily and naturally. As usual, there are no rules that really work here, but I think everyone would do well to concentrate on making beautiful and interesting sounds rather than correct notes.

Practicing to be Someone Else. Another problem with practicing is that you tend to practice other people's stuff. This can be good if other people's stuff becomes an influence. There are a lot of great musicians who began by imitating someone else before eventually finding their own voice.

However, there needs to be room for your own stuff. At some point, practicing can serve to crowd your stuff out of existence. Again, this is a balancing act, but at some point, practicing other people's stuff can be practicing to be someone else instead of being yourself.

Practicing Mistakes. One more problem with practicing is that it is very easy to practice mistakes. As I've said, practice ideally should be a way to place a series of physical movements into muscle memory so that you remember how to do it on a very basic and reptilian brain level. In a sense, the goal of practice should be to make the music reside in your hands rather than in your head.

However, if you start to practice something that you can't do, then you run the risk of grooving the wrong thing into your muscle memory.

I think it's a little like trying to force a bolt into a nut before lining it up. If you get the threads started wrong, and continue to work the bolt, you will end up stripping the threads. And the more you work it, the more the bolt is cutting new threads into the nut and vice versa. And these are not the kind of threads that you want to have. These are the wrong threads. These are threads that lead to nowhere.

Likewise, the last thing you want after a grueling session of practice is to be very good at making mistakes.