Practice, play, perform.
Those are pretty much the three ways to make music. And the words create different feelings in musicians or music students.
“Practicing” sounds like drudgery, delayed gratification. Doing something dull now so that you can do the exciting stuff later.
“Playing” sounds like fun, of course! Kids play all the time; grownups have to work much of the time but look forward to chances to play.
“Performing” sounds even more exciting — that’s what got you interested in music in the first place, hearing others perform. That’s what the big-name artists do, perform all the time. Performing might involve pay, applause, admiration and all that good stuff. But it also might sound scary: am I ready to perform? What if I screw up in front of all those people? What if they just don’t like me?
So let’s look more closely at these three Ps and see how they work together. A student was complaining about not finding time to practice, and another student suggested that the first book a gig or at least schedule a jam session or some kind of public show. “I only practice when I have a gig coming up,” the second student noted. That idea has some truth to it. That’s why I like to bring my students to an open mic every few months, so that they have something to practice for, a reason and a deadline to polish up a few songs for.
The trouble with that idea, though, is that you have to reach a certain level of competence — and you do that by practicing! — before you’ll be ready for any kind of public performance, even a jam session. And if you just start practicing a lot, lo and behold, you probably will start getting invited to more jams, you’ll develop the confidence to go to more open mics, you might even get asked to perform in other settings as people notice how good you are. So it’s really a better idea to just practice regularly whether you have an imminent gig or not.
Also, practice should be a meditation-like experience, a daily soul-nourishing and solitary activity that you look forward to and enjoy deeply. I am not joking! Meditation is a great analogy. You don’t meditate to prepare for anything, really, even though it might help you prepare for stressful life experiences. You do it for its own sake. Same with the runner. He might have a race coming up, and knows that today’s run is helping him get in shape for that. But he still enjoys today’s run. Practice with that kind of attitude and you will get to love practice, and by the way, you will become good (or better)! And just like the meditator or the runner, some days you will have to push yourself, even force yourself to practice. But after the first five or ten minutes you’ll be into it and enjoying that special time, just you and your instrument and the music flowing between you.
“Do you really think Hendrix practiced? Or Coltrane?” a musician who admits he doesn’t practice asked. Yes, I am sure they practiced constantly, morning and night. Such genius instrumentalists weren’t born that way. And didn’t just jump onto the stage. I’ve read that Hendrix even took his guitar into the bathroom when he had to go, because he liked the acoustics of that room. Coltrane reportedly had an oral fixation, and had his sax in mouth almost all the time. Earl Hooker was a dazzlingly inventive guitarist with a wonderful tone, a musician’s musician, generally considered the best Chicago blues guitarist. He was on the road touring most of the year, and the other musicians in his band watched TV or played cards in their free time. But Hooker did not watch TV or play cards, at all. All he did was practice. Is there any wonder that he is a legend and the other musicians are not?
I think the musician who said Hendrix and Coltrane didn’t practice meant they “played” instead of practicing. I’ve heard other musicians say, “Just play every day.” The idea is, if the word “practice” bothers you, just call it “play” and then you’ll do it. Well, sure, you can call it whatever you want. But you do have to practice! And it’s not the same thing as playing. If you ask me, “Play me a song,” I’ll play you something I know, and I’ll play it in a way I’ve mastered (through practice!). I could even ask myself to play a song, and do the same thing. And enjoy the playing and the sound. And sure, just playing the song I already know is enhancing my musical ability to some tiny extent — doing more for my music than, say, watching TV or playing cards. But it’s not going to lead to real improvement, any more than our marathon runner will improve by taking a walk around the block. No, if I want to improve — and I do! And I hope you do too! — then I have to isolate the parts that I have trouble with, and play them slowly and repeatedly until they become easy to me. Or break a new piece down, perhaps with the help of a teacher, into component parts and work on each one and then fit them together. (This is a very brief description of how to practice — there are books on the subject, and if you’re my student I can help you with it, but this is the basic idea, break it down and work slowly on the parts and then fit them together.) This is very different from “playing” or “performing.” But it works. Very well. And it can be enjoyable, very enjoyable, deeply satisfying even. Digging soil and planting seeds also are enjoyable and satisfying to a gardener. You probably don’t tell your gardener friend “Don’t garden. Just eat the food.” So don’t tell your musician friend, or your musician self to “just play” instead of practicing!