You’re laying wide awake in bed curled up in your Led Zeppelin PJ’s, and you notice the unsettling tension in the pit of your stomach. These are pangs of guilt, fostered by knowing that you did not practice your instrument today.
Deep down you question your love for music and your loyalty to practicing. I know this feeling very well. As a recent college graduate, and upon returning from a three-month residency in Oregon, a question remained unsolved. What happened to my love for rock and roll? For music in general? I used to be so energetic and pro-active in keeping music alive in the world, and now I find myself making excuses to avoid practicing.
Apparently, I find that some of my closest colleagues (the ones who aren’t afraid to admit it) have suffered bouts of the same musical depression from time to time. After taking some time out in Oregon at a town that dries up in the winter and you have nothing but the ocean and the forest to keep you company, I discovered a few probable causes for this creative drought.
How Long is Too Long?
First of all, the amount of time that we are told to practice every day will vary according to our teachers, if not ourselves. Growing up with the Suzuki method, one hour was the minimum time that I was expected to practice each day. Looking back on it, is it realistic to assume that a five-year-old, (without ADHD), can practice without distraction or need of a break for more than 25 minutes at a time? With today’s technology-obsessed culture, the now overstimulated child would probably have a hard time with even 20 minutes of private lessons.
During my college years, four hours was the minimum amount of time students should practice, and that was if you were going into music therapy or business. The minimum for students majoring in music performance was at least six hours. After balancing all the classes, homework, and time between meals, (sleep is over-rated at this point), it’s no wonder we get frustrated with ourselves when we can’t pull through a consecutive 42 hours of practicing a week.
Thankfully, the internationally-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman stresses that “five hours of practicing is the max…some people want to do more, but after that, it’s not helpful anymore.”
Changing the Routine
Throwing aside the time issue that comes with practicing. It is important to think with how we practice. It occurred to me a while after my colleagues boasted about their latest seven-hour practice session, that they could have just as well have drilled one note the whole time. Additionally, some vocalists swear that sometimes just twenty-five minutes of focused and effective practicing beats hours of mindless repetition.
I would have to agree. Violin professor, Dr. Julieta Mihai, at Western Illinois University told Suite 101 in an interview, “Over-practicing, when your mind is tired, can put you behind because you are only practicing your mistakes.”
Yet, there is always the material that we are practicing that could be the culprit for this lack of enthusiasm. Practicing scales, right-hand technique, left-hand technique, etudes, solo piece, (if you’re a string instrument), every day might not be so impressive after the first week. Perhaps taking a break from the piece your working on and trying something else could be all the difference. I have found that taking a break from classical music, and improvising solos with Jimi Hendrix records can be a refreshing change. Whatever style you play, try something different.
Regardless of what I was told growing up, I learned that practicing should come naturally. Meaning that if you don’t feel like practicing, or composing, simply don’t practice. Yes, I said it. I firmly believe that forcing creativity is more damaging than productive. Pushing for that extra hour of practice time could actually do more harm than good. Whether your a high profile rock star, or a classical maestro, it is important to consider what it is that you are practicing for instead of how long you practiced.
The important thing to remember is that practicing should be molded for the individual, not the instrument. In the end, the music we create and the feelings we evoke will matter more to the general audience than how technically advanced our left hand is.