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
Flute player and teacher blogging about playing, learning, teaching and researching music.