Friday, June 10, 2005


A friend, colleague, and fellow-blogger recently posted a link to Oboeinsight, the website and blog of Patricia Mitchell, professional oboist in the San Francisco Bay area. It contains lots of great quotes about music and practicing. Among them is the following:
"Practice, which some regard as a chore, should be approached as just about the most pleasant recreation ever devised." --Babe Didrickson Zaharias (1914-56), sportswoman and golfer
This is a lovely quote, but it's exactly the kind of statement that used to make me feel guilty. It implies that we should all rush with enthusiasm to our daily practice, as though it should always be the highlight of our day. Over the years, I've developed a respect and affection for practicing. Once I've been there for a few minutes, singing through warm-ups and diving into whatever pieces I need to work on that day, I love it. Some days, I do find myself looking forward to it, planning in my mind what I am going to work on later as I'm playing for a ballet class or working out at the gym. Generally, I'm most motivated when I have a performance or big audition coming up, or when I'm in the middle of learning a new piece that really speaks to me. But, on a sunny day when I could be outside, or when I have to close a great book to go to the piano and start practicing, then the act of getting myself there and starting does seem more like a chore than a pleasant recreation.

I didn't really understand until I was in University that once I got myself there, even if I felt like I was just going through the motions, something would inevitably spark my interest and I'd always be able to get some good work done, and always be better off than when I started, and more often than not enjoy myself in the process. However, when I was growing up, practice almost always felt like a chore. Over the years, I was fortunate to have good teachers who taught me how to practice well (very different than just running through things mindlessly), and a mother who was always very involved with my music. I wouldn't say that she forced me to practice, but there were many "friendly reminders" over the years, and I can recall more than a few struggles when I hit a spot in a piece that was "too hard" and wanted to give up. (By the way, the struggles were always worth it -- the spot was never too hard after some good "spot practicing.") I loved playing the piano, and I loved making music in any form, but I definitely did not love practicing. However, on some level, and with a little help from some older, wiser people, I recognized that in order to make music at the level I wanted to, practice was a necessity, so I did it.

I have a very hard time explaining this now to the parents of my young students, some of whom practice very seldomly and make very little progress because of it, but love coming to their lessons every week and really want to be better at playing the piano. Many of the parents really want their kids to learn an instrument, but absolutely refuse to "force them to practice." Mostly, this seems to be the result of some horrible experience with piano lessons in their childhood. They seem to have this idea that their children will just sit down willingly everyday and joyfully practice their pieces without a complaint, or, if they don't do this, it's okay, as long as they're enjoying the experience. They seem to understand, in theory, that practice is 90% of the process of playing the piano (or almost any activity, for that matter), and that I can only work with them based on the work they've done the week before, and that the only way to improve consistently is to practice on a daily basis. However, theory and practice (no pun intended) prove to be two different things. Having said that, I also have some students who seem to have discovered that lessons are so much more fun, and they can feel themselves getting better, when they practice everyday, and have worked it in to their daily routine. This is very gratifying.

Today is one of those days when I'm itching to begin practicing, mostly because I have an audition for one of my dream roles in a couple weeks and I need to dust off an aria for it. I'll let you know how it goes!

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