Posted by: yoko | July 21, 2004

On Practicing Music

“There is no way that writers can be tamed and rendered civilized. Or even cured. In a household with more than one person, of which one is a writer, the only solution known to science is to provide the patient with an isolation room, where he can endure the acute states in private, and where food can be poked in to him a stick. Because, if you disturb the patient at such times, he may break into tears or become violent. Or he may not hear you at all… and, if you shake him at this stage, he bites.”
~Robert Heinlein, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls

I think the same things could be said of musicians when they are practicing. One difference between writers and musicians, though, is that writers can be silent during their creative process (oh, they can talk loudly to themselves, but the writing itself is fairly quiet), but you can hear what musicians are going through– and that’s with the instrument, let alone any expletives that issue forth from their mouths away from the instrument.

Listening to a musician practice is excruciating– it certainly can be to listen to myself play sometimes. It often involves playing a difficult passage over and over, now fast, now slow, now improvising rhythms, now playing what’s on the page, and then putting the passage back into the context of the musical phrase. There are lots of subtle adjustments– blow harder, open the throat to let the sound resonate, emphasize the second note of a group instead of the first, relax the hand, move the lip a micrometer down on the mouthpiece– and so on.

So much of practicing is the mental process, and if there’s anything I’ve learned throughout my years of studying, it’s that forcing myself learn music is a very, very slow and inefficient way to learn. Old habits die hard, though, and I catch myself straining, cursing, yelling at myself oh come on! When this happens, it’s time to put the instrument down, walk away, get a drink of water, and clear my head. After a few minutes, I can come back and start afresh.

During the more mental part of learning, I have to take care not to get distracted. Today while I was practicing, a car alarm went off outside my building, and the pulsing beat of the car horn was at odds with the tempo I was practicing a piece. Annoyed, I tried first to ignore it, and failing that, I went into another room and practiced there instead. That worked.

Jazz players call practicing “shedding,” like woodshedding. I like that expression– taking a rough piece of music and determinedly whittling it down to its essence.

“People ‘play’ sports and ‘play’ music, yet both involve hard work and discipline. Both are forms of self-expression which require a balance of spontaneity and structure, technique and inspiration. Both demand a degree of mastery over the human body, and yield immediately apparent results which can give timely feedback to the performer. Since both sports and music are commonly performed in front of an audience, they also provide an opportunity for sharing and the enjoyment of excellence, as well as the experience of pressures, fears, and the excitement of ego involvement.”
~W. Timothy Gallwey, Introduction, The Inner Game of Music


  1. I’d love to read your thoughts on rehearsing with other musicians –in groups with directors/leaders, and more collective/anarchistic groups.

    Also, what do you think about criticism and feedback from various audiences?

  2. Hey Ashy– I’m not sure what you mean by “various audiences”– could you clarify?

    Ooh– I could write a lot about rehearsing with other musicians, although some of the stories may get rather snarky. I’ll see what I can do.

  3. audiences of other musicians, audiences of people who don’t know much about the kind of music you’re playing, other audiences

  4. check out barry green’s new book–mastery–it is also very very good.

    i almost agree with gallway, but part of performing is learning to not shut out your surroundings but accepting it and learning to focus.


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