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Practicing Music is Putting Marbles in a Jar


A jar with the text, "Practicing music is putting marbles in a jar"

As a flute teacher, a recurring problem that comes up in flute lessons with my students is the consistent battle with progress. Sometimes they feel like progress is happening too slowly, or the harder they practice, things feel stuck, or even like they’re getting worse. Alternately, musicians get paralyzed by a piece of music that feels daunting, and they don’t know how they’ll ever be able to play it proficiently.


A helpful visual for recognizing the process of progress is imagining practicing music as putting marbles in a jar.



Putting Marbles in a Jar: what this looks like in music practice


A new piece of music you set out to learn is represented by a jar. The things you do to practice the piece are marbles, and each time you take action, you put a marble in the jar.


Sometimes the marbles represent minutes (investing your time), sometimes they represent each repetition you play, and sometimes they represent practicing slowly, or using a practice strategy like chunking or looping. In short, the marbles represent forward momentum and action steps.


The marbles are all the same size, but the jars, representing different pieces of music or exercises, are different sizes. Sometimes you know how big the jar is before you start, but sometimes you’re surprised when it takes you longer than you expected to fill up, or the jar is basically full before you know it. 


A seasoned musician has a keen awareness of the size of their jar and the size of their marbles. In their most efficient practice sessions, they stand right next to their jar and gently place the marbles in, one at a time. Sometimes, when they're in a playful experimental mode, they try a few trick shots, tossing marbles with their eyes closed, but when it's time to make solid progress, they know exactly what it takes to intentionally fill up their jar.


Until a musician reaches an intermediate level or later, they are still building their awareness of the size of their jar, their marbles, and just how mindful and persistent they have to be to fill up their jar.


It’s common for musicians to think, “I should be able to play this by now!” implying that they expected the jar to be tiny, or that the regular sized jar would be half full of marbles already, even though they just pulled it off the shelf. 


Musicians get frustrated when the jar doesn’t fill up with marbles at the rate they expect. They practice furiously with repetition after repetition, and they’re dismayed when the jar has been stuck with the same amount of marbles it’s had for weeks. The problem they can’t see clearly in the moment is that with each furious repetition, they’re taking a marble and slamming it into the jar so hard that it leaps back out. It’s so infuriating that they keep slamming it in with even more force, working harder, not smarter as the marble keeps bouncing back out of the jar. They continue hammering the same few notes on their instrument, not changing anything but expecting something different to come out. 


The musician’s emotions and expectations get in the way of being able to carefully place marbles in the jar, which stalls their progress. We need to approach the marbles, or the actions we take to practice music, neutrally, in order to avoid unnecessary marble leaps and cracks in the jar. Unregulated emotions and unrealistic expectations block progress. 


That’s a hard pill to swallow: sometimes trying too hard blocks progress.


That doesn’t mean you should stop trying and give up music altogether, but it does imply a lighter touch, physically, mentally, and metaphorically.



The truth about mindful practicing


The funny thing is, even if you stood 30 feet away from the jar and tossed as many marbles as you could at it with your eyes closed, eventually it would fill up. It would probably take 100 times as long as standing right next to the jar and carefully placing the marbles in, as a more seasoned musician does, and the jar might be cracked, and you might lose dozens of marbles, but you might still make some progress. Practice doesn’t have to be intentional and methodical at all times (there does need to be room for play)…


AND


I don’t know many people who enjoy themselves when they spend hours, days, or weeks of time and energy chucking marbles across the room while their jar fills up as slow as a snail. It’s discouraging to not hear your own progress on your instrument after working so hard.


The problems for many musicians, especially early on, is not having this awareness of what actions will help them learn a piece of music with fluency (not knowing how to fill their jar with marbles), or even not knowing that they haven’t “finished” learning a piece of music (if you know all the notes and rhythms but you can’t play the piece without stopping, the jar isn’t full!)


If you notice yourself getting frustrated in a practice session, take a step back and be mindful of how you’re treating your marbles:


  • Are you slamming the marbles with force? (Hammering away at a passage or a scale increasingly faster with bitterness?)

  • Are you taking the same marble out of the jar and putting it back in? (Restarting a scale from the first octave every time you miss the 4th note in the second octave?)

  • Are you avoiding putting marbles in? (Avoiding practicing or afraid to practice the “wrong” way)

  • Are you using someone else's marbles? (Someone else's practice strategies or advice meant for someone else?)

  • Do you have too many open jars and not enough marbles? (Are you flustered with the amount of music in front of you without enough time or energy to intentionally work through it all?)

  • Do you not have any more marbles? (Are you at capacity, overwhelmed, overworked, tired, or sick?)


Awareness is the first step.


If you send frustration into your instrument, frustration will come out the other end. If you send love into your instrument, love will come out. Make sure you fill up your jar with care and patience instead of slamming the marbles inside with anger.


If you only play and replay the part of your solo that you already know how to play (like the first few phrases or a pretty part in the middle), it’s kind of like you’re taking out a marble that was already in the jar out and putting it back in… that doesn’t mean it’s pointless (if you’re enjoying yourself, that’s a win!), but you won’t fill up the rest of the jar by doing that. 


If it feels like you keep trying and trying but your technique isn’t improving, cultivate awareness. Make sure you’re not tossing the marbles in from 5 feet away with your eyes closed (repeating the same thing over and over and over again without intention) or using someone else's marbles (strategies that work better for someone else's brain). Try different marbles (different practice strategies) or maybe even pull out a brand new jar (a new piece of music) to start with a fresh perspective.


If it feels daunting, like you’ll never be able to comfortably play your piece, just start. Marbles are time. Marbles are repetitions. Start with one marble at a time, and you will inevitably fill up the jar.


If you are sick, tired, overwhelmed, overworked, or at capacity, the jar of marbles isn’t your priority right now. Rest.



Another layer to this metaphor


When you practice scales, arpeggios, and rhythmic patterns (and can play them comfortably and accurately), there will already be a layer of marbles on the bottom of a brand new jar, representing the skills that you are already fluent in. The more skills and techniques you can play with ease, the more marbles you’ll start with at the bottom of each new jar. 


Music is made up of patterns. The more patterns you have readily available in your vocabulary, the less you’ll have to learn new music from scratch. 



Theoretically, the jar is never full. There is always more we can refine to make a piece of music even more effective, like cleaning up finger movements, more dramatic dynamics, or clearer tone, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take the artistic liberty to close the lid and share our music with the world.


Music is made up of marbles:

Marbles are tonal and rhythmic patterns.

Marbles are time invested with our instruments.

Marbles are intentional actions.

Marbles are play, exploration, and experimentation.


Use your marbles wisely, and don’t take them too seriously. But do make sure to use them.


 

This concept is one of many others that we discuss in the Mindful Practice Room. The sessions take place every Monday and Thursday on Zoom, available to all musicians. Click here to sign up for a free 30 day trial!


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