I have been really interested in exploring the balance of intentionality in practicing. Not enough intention, and we don’t make progress. Too much intention, and we lose the artistry and the love of the music. There has to be some middle ground so that we can retain the beauty and keep moving toward our goal.
I’ve found that aiming for comfort, while still challenging myself, has been the most promising way to make progress. If it feels physically and mentally comfortable when we’re playing our instrument, it often sounds fluid, controlled, and convincing.
In our search for balanced practice, there is a disconnect that can come from being stuck in either our comfort zone, or in what I’ll call, outer space. I find that a lot of musicians have a default, depending on their first experiences with learning music and their learning style. Both styles have benefits and drawbacks.
What does being stuck in outer space look like?
Outer space practice could be playing without intention, aimlessly playing through a piece without a goal. That might mean playing way too fast out of impatience or too much at once. It also could look like experimenting and exploring new concepts without fear of the outcome, like improvising or playing from memory. Explorative playing is extremely important, but solely aimless practice won’t lead us anywhere by itself.
Why do we hang out in outer space?
We exist in outer space for some conflicting reasons. I often think of young or inexperienced musicians falling into this category as their main way of practicing - going from beginning to end several times without a focus or playing way too fast out of impatience or naivety. Eventually they improve, but sometimes they lock in mistakes from bulldozing over them so many times, which makes it even harder to make meaningful progress.
Experienced musicians practice in outer space too. Sometimes, I’m so excited about my music that I play through it without a focused goal because I love the sound of it. Sometimes I’m tempted to play fast because I know that’s what the ending tempo should be, so I impatiently stumble through. Even though I know slow, intentional practice is effective, sometimes I don’t have the bandwidth for that kind of focus.
What does being stuck in our comfort zone look like?
On the other hand, sometimes musicians get caught in the feedback loop, and are afraid of failing. That could look like not willing to try new pieces of music that might be “too hard,” avoiding extreme ranges (like high notes on flute), avoiding fast tempos (or slow tempos…), or even refusing to change hand position or posture out of fear of the transition period feeling uncomfortable or sounding less than stellar. It could also look like focusing so intently on playing the right notes and rhythms that it doesn’t let the music breathe. It could also look like focusing intently on solid tone and clean fingers.
Why do we stay in our comfort zone?
Often, we stay in our comfort zone out of fear. Fear of failure, fear of sounding “bad,” fear of unfamiliarity. We feel like we have more control when we keep things the way we’re used to. Perfectionism tendencies lead us to worry about others’ perceptions of us, and a desire to look or sound great to prove our worth or talent.
What’s the balance between the two?
If we only ever exist aimlessly in outer space, it won’t translate to focused and controlled music. We also don’t want to be so fixated on doing things “correctly” that we’re stuck in our comfort zone without a way to release our fears, walk into the unknown, and make expressive music.
The way we can create a balanced and effective practice is by STARTING from the center of comfort, and then pushing the boundaries of our abilities in regards to tone, tempo, music difficulty, range, and expression.
Here’s an example of what each could look like when learning a new piece of music.
Outer space practice:
playing from beginning to end aimlessly over and over, not stopping to fix uncomfortable passages
playing so fast that you hesitate every measure
repeating a tricky measure the same exact way over and over, expecting a different result
Comfort zone practice:
playing so slowly that the piece doesn’t sound fluid
only learning the first line and giving up
defaulting to practicing the way that you’re used to, and avoiding new practice techniques
avoiding dynamics, trills, grace notes, accents, and other ornaments or expressive markings
Balanced, intentional practice:
Play through the whole piece to get a feel for it, noticing what parts feel immediately easy and which parts feel immediately difficult. Find the trickiest section of the piece, pick a tempo that’s slow enough that you can play it comfortably, accurately, and without hesitations. Play the section until it feels completely comfortable, then bump up the tempo. Experiment with different practice techniques to keep practice interesting and effective. Try playing certain sections forwards, backwards, memorized, always searching for your best, most comfortable sound.
We can come at exploration of new music and concepts from a place of comfort and control. We grow by INTENTIONALLY pushing our limits, reaching for outer space without getting stuck there.
Do you have a default practice style?