There are a few thoughts that have been on my mind while practicing recently. One came from an off-hand remark from the university oboe instructor to one of her first or second year undergraduates. He'd played a piece at a master-class like thing I happened to be present for. He'd worked hard, the piece had improved since the last time. My overwhelming impression, though, was from the tremor in his tone. Nervousness? Physical issues like I struggle with? How was the teacher going to handle it? You can't just yell at people to not be nervous, obviously. What she said was something like this: "There's a bit of tremor in your tone. That's just endurance, and it'll go away with more practice. We'll take a look at your schedule." Practical, reassuring, with a straightforward answer. All you have to do is practice three hours a day, and it'll sort itself out. Comforting! This kind of combined with my worries that in fact I'm not progressing, and have instead reached some kind of equilibrium, more or less, in how I play. The "10,000 hours to mastery" viewpoint is that practice is cumulative, and every hour adds to the total. I'm currently thinking this isn't quite true, not that simply. Some skills you lose in a week without working on them, and others you can't begin to develop unless you're maintaining a baseline of excellence requiring a couple hours a day to keep up? Would my playing and progress be any different if I practiced three hours a day, instead of sneaking in 30 minutes before getting the kids to school? I made a schedule, just like the oboe teacher suggested, and if I followed it, I would be playing 3 hours a day. Over winter break I did play a fair bit more than usual, and things did start to feel different. So play more: more is not just more, more is different. That's the first idea.
Another is "No clams". I mentioned the CSO horn player's practice, with every note, from the first to the last, being beautiful. Sure, I could try to do that, I thought, but I'm not a world-famous professional. Ha ha, they probably didn't play everything perfectly during their decades of practice while getting to where they are! Or so my thought went. But seriously, does that make sense? Did they get to where they are by practicing playing badly? Playing wrong notes, or notes unbeautiful in any sense? Put it like that, and my thought is very stupid. They got to where they are by practicing playing well. As gorgeous as possible. Every note, every day, from the first to the last, attack to release. Well fine, my brain continued, all well for them, professional or future professional, but you're a permanent amateur, you don't have time for that! ...right, brain. Because I, an amateur, know how to practice more efficiently than these world-class performers? And my more efficient practice, making better use of my more limited time, involves playing badly? Does that make sense? No, not at all. I have even more need to be as efficient as possible. So every note needs to be as beautiful as possible, in every sense. No clams. I still make mistakes, obviously, and accepting them, not beating myself up over them, is correct. But no tolerance for lack of beauty in anything I play. If that means I spend 20 minutes playing three notes of a scale, because the tone I hear with my ears doesn't match the tone I hear in my head, so be it.
The latest is really simple. Joy. I just read Born to Run, which is largely about the Tarahumara tribe of primal runners. Lots of fun inspirational stuff in there, we are all born runners, except maybe me, with my wonky feet. But the greatness of the Tarahumara, along with other ultra runners from other traditions, seems to result from their joy of running. The Kenyans, one expert wrote, run like kindergarteners. As fast as they want, on the balls of their feet, when they feel like it, and stopping when they wish. My little jog home from work the other day, instead of slavishly following the instructions of my heart rate monitor (a new Christmas present), I tried to run while maximizing joy. It was a different perspective, analytical along a different axis. Certainly I was much quicker, at times, than usual, but that was not the point. I was more sore the next day, too, but that was not the point either. The point is joy, the internal feeling, and any external outcomes that flow out of that are just exernalities. I think that much of my practicing is in fact counts as practicing joy: I'm looking for sound, and the pleasure of playing. Only rarely am I practicing out of fear: fear of embarassment at a lesson or rehearsal, or fear of failure. And only rarely do I practice things out of obligation, or suffer on the assumption that suffering will make me a better player, or a better person. I play a lot of scales, it's true. But if I'm honest with myself, I play scales largely because I enjoy playing them, because I'm fairly good at playing them and they sound good, and because I enjoy working on making them sound just a little bit better. I think children are better at practicing joy than I am. My son, in particular, when he gets going on improvising piano, you can hear the joy flow out of him, through the keys, and into the sound. And he's been able to maintain this, despite the exams, the lessons, the external commitments and imprecations to practice for them. Or perhaps in part because of them. You have to love your playing, and maybe it helps to have defined avenues for development. Still, practicing to optimize your internal sense of joy: for me, that's a cue to remember.