How often do you practise your instrument? How often do you play it? What do these two terms mean to you? How are they different and how do they overlap? Practice is always a hot topic in music teaching - how much should students practise and how should they practise? There's more talk about practice strategies these days than there is about lengths of time, but the "how long should I practise for?" question still pops up repeatedly. Music teachers still vent their frustrations over students who "don't do enough practice".
I find that adult students in particular tend to 'confess' to a lack of practice - many, many lessons begin with "I haven't done as much as I'd like/ I should have". Sometimes that means they haven't had the time/ energy/ motivation and they've hardly picked up their instrument. But sometimes, it turns out that it means "I haven't worked on the pieces we worked on in my last lesson, and I haven't done those exercises that we agreed would be beneficial to improve my high notes, but I have played my instrument at wind band, and met up with some friends to do quartets, and played along at a folk session in the pub". Yet, they feel like a 'bad pupil' because they haven't done the assigned tasks.
The interplay of play and practice isn't always easy to unpick - I like a sports analogy when it comes to learning music, but is it really like football, where you train (practise) then go out and play a game (perform) or is it more like yoga where the doing (playing) is also the practising? Is it somewhere in-between or a mixture of the two? With the student who's doing lots of playing, I always think (and say) that that's brilliant, it's what playing an instrument is about! Playing is both practice in itself, and putting practice into action. You learn so much from playing with other people, you get pushed by having to 'keep up', you pick up or improve skills in context. So why do we do this other thing, this practising which is generally less fun and less 'musical'?
The simple answer to that is that practice builds the skills that make playing more enjoyable. If you join an ensemble but find it difficult to play at the speed that everyone else is galloping along at, you might feel frustrated. Then practising exercises on your own that will help increase your finger speed will hopefully lead to a more comfortable experience in the group, feeling like you're part of making music rather than struggling to keep up. If you feel self-conscious because your high notes are squeaky or out-of-tune, then working on those in isolation boosts your confidence when you next share them with other people. We practice scale patterns because it means that when we're presented with a new piece of music, some magic* thing occurs in our brains which means we see that string of notes and our fingers know exactly what to do to produce them (*not actually magic at all, but it can seem like it if you've never reached that point yourself, and even if you have, sometimes you still step back and think "woah, how DOES that happen?").
I will admit to some, err, debates with students over practice, but it tends to be when they've set themselves a goal, such as an exam, but aren't doing the things they need to do to reach that goal. Even then, often the problem is not so much not practising their scales or whatever, but actually just not playing the instrument very often. And perhaps that is in part because they feel that if they take it out to play then what they should be doing is practising, and practising is hard and not always fun. Whereas the difficult practising bits would actually be made easier by the familiarity with your instrument that comes from playing it regularly.
I've experienced this myself with the piano. I neither play nor practise the piano very often. Sometimes I'll sit down to play something on it, but because I'm nowhere near as familiar with it as I am with the flute, I get frustrated by not being able to do things so easily. I 'need' to play the piano maybe a couple of times a year, to accompany early grade students in exams, and these accompaniments which I think I should be able to play quite easily sometimes take a fair bit of practice. However, I KNOW I actually enjoy playing the piano when I feel more competent at it. I don't love it in the same way as I do playing the flute - it doesn't feel the same to me as a way of expressing things through music - but it is a useful skill in my line of work and, well, I think I'm intrigued as to what playing the piano better would actually feel like! I really enjoy accompanying, but I know that my skill level limits how much of this I can do. So, I've set myself a challenge, to do some regular piano practice and playing. I've chosen three pieces, initially, that I want to work on 'properly'. I've got a list of scales and arpeggios from a particular grade exam to try to master, because it seemed like a good point to aim at, to start with. I've got a big pile of books to pick and choose things to try out, so I'll also be playing as well as focussed practising. I'm going to give it a try over the summer, while other work is quieter, and see what happens when I practise what I preach! I'll let you know how I get on.
A reporter once asked the celebrated orchestra conductor Leonard Bernstein what was the most difficult instrument to play. "Second fiddle! I can always get plenty of first violinists, but to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm, or second French horn, or second flute, now that's a problem. And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony.”
It's supposed to be the pinnacle of ensemble playing, being on the 'first' part. It means you're the best, you can play all the hard stuff, you can do the twiddly bits. It's just one step down from being a soloist. It's fascinating watching the jostling for position - both physically and metaphorically - that can happen in some groups. So-and-so should play first because they've been here the longest. Whatshername should do it because she's 'better'. Ask a big group of musicians to allocate themselves to parts and some will rush to either end - they want to play first because they're 'good enough', or they want to play fourth or fifth because they're 'not good enough'. They want to show off or they want to hide. They'll insist on playing the top part or they'll step back and offer it to someone who they think is better than them - there can be a game of "no, no, after you"... "no, no, I insist".
This ranking of musicianship is ingrained in us from the early stages of playing - 'first' is something to aim for, it's where the better players end up. And it's true that first parts tend to be more technically challenging and mostly, in a higher register, which is something that flute players, at least, learn as we get more advanced. But that doesn't mean that playing second (or other parts in different ensembles, such as a flute choir) is easy or any less valuable. You might not get the high twiddly bits, but you might have a vital harmony part. Can you blast out those lower notes so they blend with the higher ones elsewhere rather than being drowned out by them? Can you maintain a repeated pattern on the same couple of notes for ages without it losing energy? Can you handle playing on the off-beats for ages? Can you concentrate to count for lots of bars rest?! Can you match your sound to that of the person playing first? Someone once described the role of orchestral flutes to me as the first providing the 'colour' and the second having to adapt into that first players sound - that's quite a skill. Sometimes the second or third part will be doing something completely different to the first, and having to blend with the violins or the French horns.
As individual instrumentalists, our education doesn't always prepare us for this - flute players, for example, mostly learn solo repertoire. We're used to playing the tune (I've had transfer students who could only play the top line of duets because they'd never played the second part - they found it such a challenge visually to follow the lower line!). So when we join an ensemble, we might opt for what seems like the 'easier' part, but then discover that it isn't that at all. We're not accustomed to playing harmony parts, to making so much use of our low notes, to playing parts with so many gaps in them. Equally, ensemble directors might order the parts with the most experienced players on first and least experienced on 'lower' parts, and find the balance really not working.
I wish we could get away from this idea of first as better. One of my very accomplished flute colleagues likes to sit in different places at our ensemble rehearsals, and noted that some less advanced players asked why she was "lowering herself" to play third or fourth flute. But it's enjoyable, good for your playing, and great for exercising different skills to mix it up. In the orchestra I play with, we have three regular flautists, and we rotate around parts, depending on who would prefer to play what and playing to our strengths. For our next season, we're playing first for one concert each, and second for one half of each of the other concerts (with the occasional piece that needs all three). We figured it out through an online chat whilst one of our number was sunning herself on holiday, and I was on my sofa. We put forward our requests to play certain parts because of musical preferences, because we wanted to be in or out of our comfort zone, and so we could have a quieter time when other parts of our lives were hectic. It works - nobody feels left out or under pressure. It keeps us on our toes and makes us better players because we all get a turn at the twiddly bits, the harmony bits, the counting, the matching our sound to other people's.
So, I guess this is an appeal to players, not to get hung up on the numbers. The composer wrote two parts or seven parts because they wanted them all, so they're all important. Try them all. Feel how glorious it is to play a bassline, to harmonise under the melody. Twiddle away on top or embrace those syncopated rhythms in the middle. And to teachers, too - get your students playing duets with you, and group pieces with each other, right from the start. Help them to be a flexible player who can happily get stuck in with any part of an ensemble and do a great job of it.
A few links:
This article by flautist Rachel Taylor Geier has a great summary of the skills needed to play second flute.
An excellent blog post by David Barton Music about the role of duets in lessons.
"Who's on first?" - nothing to do with music but I was introduced to this comedy sketch last year, it inspired the title of this post, and the play on words makes me laugh so much!
Do you ever feel like the worst musician in the room/ orchestra/ world? I'm sure we've all been in situations where we feel like we're much worse than everyone else at whatever it is we're doing. Sometimes we are, actually, technically, the worst. I could recount many memories of playing various sports or games where I was the weakest, the least coordinated, the slowest runner. There was the time I played rounders with some work colleagues and everyone else was good or at least passable at it. I failed to catch anything, other than a ball to the head when I entirely misjudged how fast it was coming at me.
I have also been in musical situations where I've been the least technically-accomplished player or the least experienced. I remember sitting at the far end of a row of six flutes in a youth orchestra, feeling like everyone else was so much better than me, probably because they were.
It's something I hear from a lot of other people too - they worry about playing in a group or coming to a workshop because "I'll be the worst there", "everyone is better than me". It's fairly common with adult learners, as they feel they 'should' be more accomplished simply because they're adults.
I understand that worry, but if you can re-frame 'being the worst' it can help you enjoy and benefit from experiences that you might have otherwise avoided. For one thing, the language of 'better' and 'worse' is fairly unhelpful, and suggests that it's in some way a failing not to be as 'good' as someone else. It is language that sadly pervades some musical environments so it's no wonder that people feel intimidated by this sense that they're being ranked into levels of 'how good you are'. It's part of the (damaging, in my opinion) discourse of 'natural talent' that suggests you're somehow inferior if you can't currently do something.
However, I think it's better to think of yourself as at a different stage on your musical journey - perhaps you started later, or you haven't had as much time to dedicate to it. It may be that some people have found solutions that work for them to problems you're still struggling with. This is all OK, and nothing to be ashamed of. If you're willing to learn and try to find solutions, then the only people who should be ashamed are those who look down on others for not being at the same stage as them. Maybe you could have practised more/ better, but it's more productive to go and do some constructive practice now than to beat yourself up about not having done it in the past.
Yes, it is difficult to feel like everyone else in the room can do things that you can't. It is OK to feel like you've got a long way to go, and even a bit envious of someone else's lovely tone or amazing finger-work. But you can turn that around - see it as something to aspire to. Learn from them. And don't forget to appreciate your own skills too - maybe you can't play super-fast but you can get amazingly loud volume. Maybe you don't yet have the tone you want (if you're a flute player, that's a lifelong search!) but you can sight-read/ busk your way through most things. Maybe you aren't the best at any of these things, but you're a generally reliable, happy soul to have around in rehearsals. Whatever the case, you have your own unique qualities in your playing, and none of these things make you a better or worse person (except maybe being reliable and cheerful to be around, which is definitely a good thing).
The vast majority of people will not be looking down at you because you're not a virtuoso - in fact, most will be too busy worrying about their own playing, but those who are more advanced can make things easier on other people too, by being sensitive to the fact that others might find their level of skill and/ or confidence intimidating. If you find something easy, it can feel natural to always be the one volunteering to demonstrate, or play the solo, but you can support other people by stepping back sometimes, by being supportive, offering encouragement and sharing things you've found helpful in your own learning (without sounding like a know-it-all!). Teachers can help by making their teaching constructive and encouraging, rather than a list of things that the student has done wrong. They can openly talk about the aspects of playing that they find/ have found difficult and how they've worked on them.
I've written before about awareness as part of my series on being a reliable musician and I think that applies here too - be aware of how your behaviour is affecting yourself and other people, whether that's putting yourself down and grumbling about finding things too hard, or acting in a way which might make other people feel bad about themselves and their playing. And remember that how you play is not a reflection on your worth as a person!
I'm borrowing this phrase from a friend of mine who uses the word 'cheerful' a lot - not a word I had heard or used a great deal before I met her, but one which I now think should be used more! I don't mean you have to be relentlessly happy all the time, but constant complaining and muttering about things is really off-putting and disrespectful to the people around you. If you have a problem with something musical and someone can help, ask about it! If you have an issue with something else to do with the group, find an appropriate time to raise it with whoever can do something about it.
If you don't like the music, well, that's something you have to put up with sometimes - if you like the majority of what a group plays, then try to see the odd 'horrible' piece as a learning experience. If you don't like the majority of what a group plays, then you'd need to have another very good reason for carrying on playing with them (maybe you're getting paid huge amounts of money and that's more important to you at this point of time). Grumbling about it isn't going to change how much you like it.
Despite the photo above, a comedy grumble about a tricky key signature is usually acceptable. It is fine to explain if something is difficult on your instrument - a group of flautists I play with has a non-flautist as a conductor, and he's very open to learning about the peculiarities of the flute and why we are struggling with something in particular! Explanation is nearly always much more useful than complaint or excuses (more on this below).
You should apologise if you're (occasionally, unavoidably) late for rehearsal. You should apologise if you accidentally knock over your colleague's music stand or hit them on the head with a piccolo (if you're doing these things deliberately, you probably shouldn't be there). You really don't need to apologise if you play a wrong note or make another musical mistake - for one thing, everyone does it. For another, there's a chance that nobody noticed anyway, and by apologising, you're just drawing attention to it. If they did notice, they already know about it - if they think it needs to be pointed out, they'll point it out ("remember that's a B flat in that bar"). If they think it was just one of those slips that happens to everyone sometimes, they won't mention it, so you don't need to mention it either. Everyone has bad days, and everyone knows that everyone else has bad days, so if you're having a bad day, just do your best, try to remain as cheerful as possible and don't make a huge show of what a bad day you're having.
Often apologies sound like justifications - "I know what I'm doing, really, I just didn't do it that time". Instead of telling people you know what you're doing, it's far more convincing to show that you know what you're doing, by doing your best to concentrate, practise and improve. It's fine (and indeed a good idea) to acknowledge things you need to work on - say you're in a quintet and you're trying to figure out part of a piece, and you know that it'll fit together better once you've mastered those semiquavers, then it's good to say "I know my timing is a bit off there, and I need to practise those semiquavers before next time" - it shows awareness, both of what you're doing and how it affects the whole (then do go and practise that bit for next time).
Don't make excuses
The same goes for making excuses - "I haven't had time to practice this week" (that will either be obvious, or it won't, either way, you don't really need to tell everyone). As discussed in the last post, explanations are OK, if they are helpful - if you tell the conductor "my flute has suddenly broken and I can't play any Fs" that is possibly useful, as they then know there's a technical issue and there's no point in replaying that bar with all the Fs in it this evening, because no number of repetitions is going to make it sound right.
This isn't to say you shouldn't offload to your friends if there's something bothering you about a group - or you had a bad tone day or you just can't stand a piece of music that you're having to play - that can be very therapeutic and a good idea, indeed a better idea than muttering behind your stand when you should be listening to the conductor. Playing music isn't going to be completely fun all the time, and it's unlikely that a group is going to completely suit you 100% of the time. If you're unhappy a lot in a particular group, then maybe it isn't right for you. If you can cheerfully accept that there will be bits that are challenging, find that fulfilling and get on with what you're there to do, things will be much happier all round.
The first part of my series on the skills that make you the sort of person people want to make music with talked about being on time. This second part leads on from that, and can be summed up simply as 'be there'.
Even worse than being late is just not turning up without letting anyone know. If you say you're going to do something, do it. If you later find you can't do it, then let people know as soon as you can, and if you not being there is going to cause a problem, offer a solution if you possibly can, such as finding someone else to replace ('dep' for) you at a rehearsal. As with normally being on time, if you're normally dependable, people understand that you might occasionally need to be absent through illness, an unexpected situation at home, an occasional accidental double-booking, or something else that comes up where you need to make a decision whether to attend. Even nice things, like a holiday that means you miss one of the weekly rehearsals you go to, are not generally a problem if you let people know well in advance. If you regularly agree to do things and then don't turn up, that is a certain recipe for not being asked back, asked to do other things or recommended to other people.
The thing is that rehearsals are not just about learning your part - in fact, that's what practising at home is for. They're about learning to play together as a group, and how the piece works as a whole. They're about finding out how your conductor/ group specifically wants to play that piece and for all the little bits of information that you pick up along the way. They're about getting help with those bits that you can't quite figure out on your own. Even if you can play it all easily, the other people around you also need to get used to playing with you and hearing how it sounds as a whole.
I think there are two things that help you do manage to 'turn up' - the first is keeping a diary. 'Keeping' a diary as in actually writing in it (or using an electronic one). Put appointments in as soon as you can - I generally put everything in my Google calendar immediately, then sit down once a week or so to update my paper diary. Whatever works for you, but don't rely on scraps of paper or your memory. However good your memory is, writing it down helps to reinforce it, and it gives you space in your brain to think about more important things like what to have for tea. Of course, if you put appointments in a diary, you do then need to remember to look at it, so get into a pattern of checking it regularly. If it's an electronic one you can usually set it to remind you of things too, so if you're likely to forget to check it, you can get it to beep at you and tell you to go to rehearsal in two hours' time. The time it takes to set all this up is worth the time - and hassle - it saves later.
The second thing is not over-committing yourself. Musicians (especially when they're training/ at university etc) are often told that they need to say 'yes' to everything - don't turn down an opportunity. You might never get the chance again! Or they get swept away with enthusiasm and want to do EVERYTHING. The trouble with that is that you can end up too busy, things start to clash with each other, and you get so worn out that you can't manage to do any of them well. It is tricky to get the right balance for and work out what to prioritise, and I fear that perhaps you do have to reach the point of doing too much before you realise that you need to let some things go. If you start to find yourself feeling over-stretched and letting people down because you've got too much happening, then you probably need to scale (musical pun not intended, but since it's there I'll leave it in) it back a bit.
However, people do and will understand, and generally respect other people's decisions to prioritise one thing over another, whether that's a one-off or in the long term. They might be disappointed if you don't choose or stop coming to their 'thing' but if they get huffy/ rude about it, I'd suggest that maybe you don't want to work with them anyway. They don't need to know all the details and it's fine to turn down an offer with a simple "I've got a prior commitment that day, but would be interested if you need someone again in future". If you can recommend someone else who might be able to do it instead, that's even better and often much appreciated.
Yes, sometimes the decisions are difficult. You might not get the chance to do exactly the same thing again, but actually, I'm not sure that many 'opportunities' are so life-changing that it'll drastically damage your musical career (whatever that means to you) by not taking them. On the other hand, being known as a person who reliably turns up is definitely a good thing.
One of the best analogies I've ever read for how music lessons should be is in 'The Perfect Wrong Note' by William Westney - which compares the process to the student working on trying to get a machine working. They've tried all sorts and had some success, but when it comes to their lesson, they bundle up all the loose bits and bring them along to show their teacher - "I've managed to get this part fitted in here and working, but I can't figure out how these go together or how to make them turn round". Lessons are the place to get help with the things that you can't do or aren't sure about. I'm also always happy for students to text or email me between lessons if they have any questions - it might be something that's easily fixed with a quick answer or I can give you some ideas to try out in your practice. You can text me a picture of something in your music, asking "what's this again?!" or if you're really struggling to find a recording, I might have something I can bring along to your next lesson, or I might be able to record a quick mp3 of a few bars to help you out.
But music teachers can't be available 24/7 and there are other things you can do between lessons to help you figure out the bits you're not sure about. I still have occasional lessons, but part of learning music is also 'learning how to learn' and finding out where to go if you're puzzling over a problem. When you're used to looking these things up on a regular basis, it becomes habit, but if you're not and you're in the middle of a practice session thinking "help! I have no idea what to do!" then it can be difficult to know where to start.
So I thought it would be useful to put together a page of resources in one place, to help students if they're stuck with something between lessons. There's a bit of a flute focus, but most of it will be handy for players of any instrument.
(Side note: a lot of these are online resources, and a few people have mentioned to me that they get distracted if they have their phone/ computer nearby whilst practising. If that's the case, then maybe 'allow' yourself to have your phone/ computer/ technology item of choice only for the first or last, say, ten minutes of your practice session, when you're dealing with the specific issue that you need to look up. You might want to stop notifications from popping up for that time, if they're likely to lead you astray. Then you can either put it away for the rest of your practice session, or if you use it at the end you can finish, pack up your instrument and go and check all your social media if that's what you want to do!).
How does this piece go again?
As much as the sheet music tells us 'how a piece goes', there are times where we all get stuck with how something is supposed to sound. Some books come with CDs or downloads of the tracks which can help with this, but if they don't then YouTube is usually my first stop. As with any online resource, you need to exercise some care - professional performances are more likely to be accurate, but that's not to say there aren't lots of brilliant home recordings out there too. But do be aware that what you hear might not be exactly what's on the page, whether that's through error or intentional interpretations of the piece. Other online music resources like Apple Music and Spotify are great too, and it can be helpful to listen to different versions of the same piece to get ideas about how to play it. If you can't find the exact piece, then even looking up something in the same style can give you ideas about how to play it, for example looking up Minuets or Waltzes to give you a feel for those sort of pieces.
How do I do that?
YouTube also has some great instructional videos. If you're struggling with how to do something in particular on your instrument, it's worth a search to see if anyone's put up a video about it. Now, you will possibly find varying and even completely conflicting views on aspects of technique, but I always encourage students to experiment - so try a few out and see what gives you the results you're looking for, remembering that there is no such thing as "one size fits all" when it comes to playing an instrument.
You'll also find lots of web sites written by flute players and teachers, with advice about technique and about particular pieces. Jennifer Cluff's site has a wealth of ideas and answers to questions sent in by players. Paul Edmund-Davies' Simply Flute has some great exercises accompanied by videos showing how to work on them. If you're exploring how to play alto or bass flute, have a look at these blog posts by Carla Rees on different aspects of the low flutes. If you're looking at some of the different techniques on the flute besides 'normal' notes, I think the short video tutorials at Flute Colors are brilliant - whether you've come across one of these 'extended techniques' in a piece, or you just want to try out making a different sound!
You can also try asking on online forums or Facebook groups - there are plenty out there for general music and for specific instruments, which also have the benefit of acting as a community where you can chat to and compare notes with other people learning. Again, you'll probably get differing views on the same issue, so it pays to be open-minded to trying different possible solutions.
I love arriving at a lesson to a student telling me they've been reading different ideas about how to do something - we can then play around with these in their lesson and see what works!
How do I play that note?
If you're stuck on how to play a particular note, fingering charts are what you need. You can often find these in the back/ middle of tutor books, or more detailed books (including alternative fingerings and trills) are available. You can also buy fingering charts that are small enough to carry around in your bag or flute case. If you prefer to go online, I like the charts at WFG and FingerCharts (which also has a really handy app for Apple and Android).
What does that word mean? What is that squiggly sign on the music?
If you're not sure or can't remember what an instruction on your sheet music means, whether it's a foreign musical term or a sign for an ornament, there are a few places you can look these up. If it's a word, just Googling can work (although it's often worth adding 'music' to your search term as the usage in music might be slightly different to the everyday translation). Likewise if you look up 'musical ornaments' you'll find lots of pages explaining what the symbols mean, such as the BBC GCSE Music resources. For generally improving your music theory knowledge, MyMusicTheory is a brilliant site with clear explanations and exercises to work through. If you prefer to have a reference book to hand, the classic is the ABRSM 'Pink Book' (and it's second volume, the blue one).
Ask! Ask your teacher, ask a friend who plays an instrument, ask the other people in your band or orchestra. Lessons are just part of the picture of learning music, and you can learn as much from other people (which is one of the reasons why playing in a group is so good for your progress, as well as being enjoyable and social!). People learn in different ways, with different methods and pick up skills in different orders, so they might know something you haven't learnt yet, or have tried a different technique for whatever it is you're trying to do. And the same applies to you too - you might be able to answer someone else's question or suggest a solution to something that's been puzzling them. Or maybe you'll be able to work it out between you!
Do you have any resources that you turn to when you're stuck? More suggestions are always welcome!
It's a well-known fact that music teachers have the ability to tell exactly how much practice you've done between your last lesson and the current one. You can't fool us. You don't need to make the guilty admissions that you "haven't done much practice" because we already know. Even on those days when you know you've done loads of practice and it feels like it's not showing when you play in front of your teacher, we can tell.
Well, OK, we can't tell precisely how many minutes of practice you've done, but generally, teachers can tell if there's been some work since last week. We can tell because we have done and still do go through the process of practising ourselves. We're familiar with the satisfaction that comes when that structured, gradual work pays off, and the frustration that you feel when you know you've put the work in but the desired result hasn't materialised yet.
At this time of year lots of people have been making resolutions to practise more, take up a new instrument or return to a neglected one. And we seem to be bombarded with quotes intended to inspire and motivate us. The two above have popped up in my view just this week. Some words can be helpful in spurring us on, but I'm not sure about these ones.
Both of these give the impression that what we're aiming for in music is 'perfection'. That you can never be a professional unless you can do things without any mistakes. Yes, it's a good thing to aim to keep improving your playing, and if you want to perform a piece, you want it to feel as secure as possible, but these quotes suggest that you're not 'good enough' if you're not perfect, and that can be quite demotivating. I think this sort of pressure can lead to unhealthy stress - feeling like you can never 'get anywhere' with music if you're still making mistakes. Of course professionals still get it wrong! And how would you even begin to agree on a definition of perfection?
A more useful piece of advice I read recently appeared in this blog post by The Self-Inspired Flutist: "realise that practising is the point". In other words, as a musician, you're going to spend more time practising than any other activity, so if you can learn to love it, that will go a long way to enjoying making music. That doesn't mean that it will always be fun and sound lovely - the point of practising is to deal with the bits you find difficult, to make the mistakes and find out how to fix them. It can be frustrating and downright annoying at times, no matter how many years you've been doing it for. But if you can find satisfaction in that process, I think that can make a big difference.
I'm playing in a concert at the beginning of February, and I reckon on the day I'll be actually physically playing the flute for about fifteen minutes. I haven't kept track of how long I've practised the pieces for (especially as I've played a couple of them before, so the initial practice was a while ago and I'm now revisiting them), but I can tell you that it has definitely been hours. Then there's the general ongoing practice of improving tone, technique, breath control etc which will contribute to playing these pieces. Seeing the outcome of all these things in a performance is of course fulfilling, but getting absorbed in the process is also a wonderful thing. Finding out what your mind and body can do can be quite amazing - from the beginner who starts to train those tiny muscles around their lips to make a sound on the flute, to the advanced player who discovers a small tweak to their hand position which improves their technique.
Things you do other than actually playing your instrument can help your music-making too. Lots of musicians turn to meditation to help with nerves and concentration, and to exercise for fitness and stress-relief. I've recently re-started going to the gym, and the fact that I know it helps my playing is always a big motivation. Some achy muscles led me to reading about recovering from workouts, and everything I saw emphasised the importance of rest. One article I read said that fitness doesn't happen in the gym, it happens in the times between, when your muscles are recovering and rebuilding - and practising an instrument needs those times in-between too. You are using both muscles and mental energy, and those need to be rested. So this is why I won't tell you to practise every day, but most days, and to do enough but don't overdo it. Take rests, have a cup of tea, have a day off, go and listen to your pieces rather than playing them, go and listen to something completely different, lie on the grass and stare at the sky for a bit (though maybe not at this time of year). Of course you won't always do all of this, and sometimes you'll give yourself a hard time for not being perfect, for playing the wrong notes, or for not practising enough or for doing too much (and sometimes I need to be reminded to follow my own advice). And that's OK.
It's difficult to sum that up in a snappy quote though.
A phrase (or concept) that comes up in various forms when talking to and about adult learners is that "life gets in the way". Looking at discourses around family in the data for my MA research highlighted a recurring theme around family and work responsibilities restricting how much learners could play, practise or participate in musical activities. Almost half of the teachers I surveyed also mentioned that adult learners' other commitments had an impact on their learning - whether it was time to practise, having to cancel/ reschedule lessons, or just having the 'head space' to concentrate on learning.
According to one study, the ideal teacher has “an understanding of the… responsibilities handled by adults, along with a steady insistence that students be challenged” (Roulston et al., 2015) This is definitely a challenge for teachers - judging how much to 'push' when there are other things going on in people's lives. It doesn't only apply to adult learners either. With children we're also balancing it up against other activities, school work, family circumstances, sometimes ongoing medical conditions. There's also working out how much of a priority music is for that individual person - the bigger a role it plays in their life, the more 'challenge' they're willing to take on to develop their skills.
But the level of challenge can be both under- and over-estimated, and another of our jobs as teachers is to help students be realistic about that. Existing research highlights adult learners’ high levels of intrinsic motivation (Lamont, 2011, Taylor, 2011) - learning because they want to - but also finds that many struggle with 'unrealistic expectations' and subsequent frustration with their progress. We need to find ways of showing that it is possible to make progress as an adult, but it's not always going to be easy. And there isn't a set 'path' - some people spend weeks trying to get a reasonably clear sound on a flute; others quickly find a nice tone, but take longer to find the right hand position for them to balance the instrument well. Some people easily settle into a pattern of practising every day (one of my adult students works from home and has quick 'flute breaks' throughout the day), whilst others find it harder to fit another activity into their lives. (This has got me wondering about how music learners - both adults and children - manage increasing practice time and what impact that has on their progress, but I think I'll leave that for a future post). So part of the challenge is finding time, and again, how much of a priority music is has an impact on that.
Now, I'm not being disparaging about those people for whom music isn't such a priority, or about different reasons for making it a priority - whether that's because they want to 'take it seriously', or because they really enjoy it, or because it's their 'me time' or their ten minutes of fun - I'm not going to judge the validity of anyone's reasons for playing music. My own journey of learning the clarinet - which has given me great insights into what it's like to be a beginner again - has brought up the issue of priorities for me too. I had set myself a challenge to do 100 sessions of clarinet practice in the last twenty weeks. It started well, I had a lovely chart where I coloured in boxes each time I practised, and for the first month or so I was on track. But then I got more students (always lovely - but slightly mystified by a sudden rush of enquiries in October!), I had some concerts to play in, I had the small matter of putting together a PhD proposal. The clarinet practice declined. And then I got a cold, and playing the clarinet with a cold is disgusting. I can cope with playing the flute with a cold, a cough, blocked ears - it's not fun but it's manageable (and I kind of have to sometimes, it's my job!). I don't have to play the clarinet though, so I didn't. I salute you reed players who manage to carry on when your head is all stuffed up. So I got out of the habit a bit. I've got back into it over the last few weeks, but there have been Christmas gigs and other festivities going on too. So I haven't done 100 practices - I can't actually tell you how many I have done as I have to admit I abandoned the chart (it was so colourful too!).
The thing is, when I picked it up again, I realised I do enjoy playing the clarinet. It's a different sound, feeling and range to the flute - ahh, lovely low notes - and it's a different challenge as I'm still learning the basics and building up stamina (which I lost rather a lot of and am having to gradually get back). I'm enjoying finding out about the similarities and the differences to flute playing. But it isn't top priority - musically, the flute will always be that for me. And when life gets busy, the things that aren't top priority will drop off for a while. I don't always do as much flute practice as I'd really like - there are only so many hours in the day after teaching, admin, research, writing etc - so I have to prioritise what needs to be done, such as pieces for upcoming concerts (and sometimes that's very concentrated practice on the 'tricky bits' in short bursts). So I understand where students are coming from if I get to their lesson and they tell me they've not done much practice this week - I really do. But I will suggest ways of making practice more effective, and remind them that really, five minutes a day IS better than nothing, and five minutes a day is also better than an hour once a week. Life does get in the way, sometimes completely, and that's - well, that's life! But if you enjoy playing your instrument (even if the idea of practising is sometimes... urgh), then it's absolutely fine, in fact it's very good for you, to prioritise those bits of time doing something you enjoy. I need to remind myself of that sometimes too!
Lamont, A. (2011). The beat goes on: music education, identity and lifelong learning. Music Education Research, 13(4), 369-388.
Roulston, K., Jutras, P., & Kim, S.J. (2015). Adult perspectives of learning musical instruments. International Journal of Music Education, 33(3), 325-335.
Taylor, A. (2011). Older amateur keyboard players learning for self-fulfilment. Psychology of Music, 39(3), 345-363.
It seems a bit rude starting a blog post with 'shut up'. Don't worry though, this isn't me telling you to do any such thing... unless you want to!
In the midst of my Masters, I discovered 'Shut Up and Write Tuesdays' - an online writing group, aimed at academics, which has the simple premise that, for one hour on a Tuesday, you sit down and get on with a piece of writing that you're working on. There are different hours depending on where in the world you are (and if you're feeling particularly in need of writing time you can join in with more than one) and wonderful support from dedicated Twitter accounts which tell you when it's time to 'shut up' and generally cheer on the participants. I found this incredibly helpful when writing my dissertation, especially when it seemed overwhelming. I didn't initially think I could get much done in an hour, but these sessions really helped me to understand the value of short blocks of time. I've also used them to write blog posts!
A comment on my previous post (thanks Katherine!) mentioned the same idea around training for sports and practising instruments - often people feel there is no point in going for a short run or squeezing in a short practice, but these small blocks can be surprisingly productive. Something generally is better than nothing, and often a short block can feel a lot less intimidating than thinking you must spend hours on a task. I've found it often works as a kick-start to more work - I think "I'll just do this hour of writing" and find it fires my enthusiasm so much I'm still going several hours later (with appropriate breaks of course, SUWT is a big supporter of cups of tea!). Or it helps me 'break the back' of something I've been putting off because it feels like a huge task, so I feel happier to come back to it later - whether that's a first play through of a new piece of music, or like today, where I got the basics of my first conference poster in place. Having never put together a poster before, I had a definite sense of not knowing where to start, but sitting down for that hour thinking "I'll just do something to get it started" has made it feel much more manageable (rather than it just sitting on my to-do list, glaring at me). Short blocks are also working well for my clarinet practising challenge - just ten minutes regularly (often during breaks from admin and writing - I keep my clarinet near my desk) are definitely making a difference. That might not exactly count as 'shutting up', especially if you heard some of my higher notes...
It's very easy to put off writing, or running, or practising, or all sorts of other tasks, because you think they're going to be monstrous, and it's also very easy to come up with reasons (some might say 'excuses') not to do them. But sometimes, you do need to tell yourself to 'shut up' - actually getting on with it is amazingly effective at silencing all those thoughts about how terrible it's going to be!
Talking of monsters - the posters I'm preparing are based on the section of my dissertation which examines discourses around adult learners and their teachers - featuring the lovely quote from one learner that their teacher is "not an ogre". I'm looking forward to presenting it at the Manchester Forum in Linguistics and the SEMPRE Study day on Music Psychology and Education later this year.
Is there a task you could do with 'shutting up' and getting on with?
Image from https://openclipart.org/detail/219746/keep-quiet-sign
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