The other night I had a friend, whom I hadn’t seen in years, over for dinner. We went to music camp together in the mid-’90s, and after spending a good amount of time examining photos and discussing the ways in which our hair has changed since then (one word: product), we shared how our relationship to practicing has changed over the years as well.
When I last spent time with this friend regularly (about 15 years ago), he was a full-time member of an orchestra and not terribly inspired to practice. He would strive to practice 30 minutes per week to make sure his technique didn’t crash, but otherwise, outside of his job, he mostly explored music and art away from his instrument. I, on the other hand, was an excessive practicer 15 years ago. Even though I was often motivated and excited to practice, I usually overdid things, winding up sore and frustrated at my lack of improvement. I made many lists and got through music, but it was effortful—I wasted time and energy.
Looking back, fear was a larger factor in my practicing than I would have admitted at the time. While my friend felt no incentive, fear-driven or otherwise, that motivated him to practice, my drive to work was certainly influenced by fear: fear that I wouldn’t play up to my standard at a performance; fear that I wouldn’t be playing on par with the others in my ensemble. Seeking perfection can be unhealthy in the study of classical music, and during and after graduate school, practicing was not always a satisfying experience for me. I was conditioned to worry about how I would stack up, which translated into a lack of self-confidence and over-preparation. While I found joy in working hard and accomplishing goals, I needed to find a way to do away with judgment and encourage playfulness in the practice room to get the results I wanted.
Integrating my own unique goals into a practice routine is what helped me reduce worry and find freedom. The more I experimented, the more I got results and felt excited about my ability to make things happen.
Exploring that elusive sweet spot between focused, goal-oriented practice and dreaming and experimentation is one of the things I enjoy thinking about the most for myself and for my students. I tend to do my best when my life is organized, so I structure practice time of all kinds: run-throughs, improvisation, intonation drilling, map-making, listening to new repertoire, slow practice, slow-fast tempo work, etc.
I’ve found that there is always time for the work I want to do if I’m intentional about it. In the words of Albert Einstein, “Everything should be made as simple as possible but no simpler.” Creating a new practice technique can be as simple as this:
1. Name your goal.
2. Observe what is preventing you from achieving that goal.
3. Find a way to creatively challenge yourself to achieve your goal (which directly addresses the obstacle).
For example, when it comes to creative practicing, I developed the Three-Times Rule (3X Rule) using this formula, which has become one of my favorite practice techniques for cadenzas and soloistic passages. I initially developed this to deal with my unrestricted playing-through of cadenzas and exposed passagework in music like Brahms and Beethoven quartets. I knew that I wanted these types of passages to sound improvised and free, but I would play them over and over again until I was satisfied. This approach was super inefficient. For one thing, it made me really tired. For another, all of the repetition numbed my ability to discern whether it sounded better or not. (Sound familiar?)
In order to achieve my goal (Step 1: Practice playing cadenzas and exposed passagework in an improvisatory manner) and overcome my problem (Step 2: Fatigue and too much repetition preventing real progress), I used a solution (Step 3: Find a creative way to work through the specific problem at hand), which literally places a restriction on the number of times one can play through a given passage.
For example, if the goal is to have the passage sound improvisatory, each of the three times needs to be played dramatically differently from the others. Especially if this is a passage that has been played a lot, it may take some real foresight before playing the passage each time in order to think of new ways to play it.
With the 3X Rule, I consider multiple phrasing and dynamic shapes (even if they’re not written in the music) and character attributes. I start listening for what I want the audience to enjoy. What could be a new high or low point? What if each time has a different name or color or age or place? When practicing the 3X Rule thoughtfully, I remember each time I played the passage the next day quite clearly, and I am inspired to do more. Because I am committed to the goal, and because I only have three shots in which to do it, those times really count.
We can all take more ownership and have more fun problem-solving in the practice room. It reduces worry and helps you make actual progress. Take three things that you want to improve in your playing, from the minute to the epic. Keep track of your findings in a journal or online platform. Experiment. You just may find new joy in your journey toward more meaningful playing.