Musical Practice: Onion, or Parfait?

ImageAs musicians, we’ve heard it like a mantra. Go practice! Practice, practice, PRACTICE! There is even guilt associated with it, as in: “I haven’t practiced enough,” or “you violinists need to go practice this passage!” There is even a famous joke about a man who approaches Heifetz (or some other famous musician) and asks:

“How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

Answer: “Practice, practice, practice!”

What is the purpose of all this repetition? Are we really training ourselves to be like sideshow monkeys, or is there more we should be aware of in our practice, perhaps a more meaningful way towards results?

“Repetitiveness and dullness are intimately connected. Stuck in repetitive patterns, you lose your intelligence” – Sadhguru

We can easily become slaves to repetition. The dull, ceaseless continuance becomes our song of servitude, rather than a transformative mantra. Without awareness, change, and a sense of fun, our training might doom us to the ultimate crime: Music as Drudgery.

Sadly, this can become a life sentence. I’ve seen it in students as well as professional players. The joy of music disappears into a virtual tar pit of rehearsals, performances, practice and drone-like behavior. The sense of accomplishment and joy transforms to guilt, which then mutates to mindless repetition. One can easily forget why we got into this in the first place.

Certainly, there is a proven method behind musical practice. A certain amount of repetition is necessary, especially when learning a new piece. The body needs training before things become instinctual. We are goal oriented: one skill leads to another. (i.e. learn to shift so that you can play higher notes) But we often fail to remember the WHY of all this repetition.

Music has deep layers of discovery and meaning for everyone, from listener to musical master. Practice is the surface exploration for the musician that gradually leads to deeper understanding. Throughout our practice, we should be attuned to what is being revealed. This can be intellectual, such as noticing intervallic relationships, or spiritually deep, such as: “Oh look, the meaning of life!” This exploration and discovery is the WHY of practice. And continual revelations are magical.

The next time you practice, notice these things.

  • Physical: The logical place to start. What is going on? How are the body parts required for sound production engaged? What is working? What is blocked? Work with your body-mind to discover solutions. Sometimes this requires thinking; other times relaxing into the experience. Be creative with solutions and have fun in the attempt. Practice is where we are allowed to fail, over and over again. We also are permitted to laugh as we fall down!
  • Mental: Analyze the music as you practice. Discover the patterns: sequences, rhythms, intervals, motives and the like. Use whatever grasp you have of music theory to analyze. And if you lack understanding, be curious. This is the catalyst to learn more about music! Open a book, take a class, or ask a colleague or teacher.
  • Imaginative/Emotional: As you practice a specific technical passage or issue, use your imagination to discover how this one element ties with others to give meaning to the music. How does it fit into the phrase? How might it effect or change the interpretation? How does it relate to the emotion or story of the music? Don’t be afraid to adjust your understanding as the “play” unfolds.

Transformative realization occurs as we become aware of all aspects of a piece of music. Yes, practice is complicated, but it also allows us to see deeper while having fun doing so. To paraphrase a scene from the movie, Shrek:

Teacher: For your information, there’s a lot more to practice than people think. Practice is like onions!

Student: It stinks?

Teacher: Yes… No!

Student: Oh, it makes you cry?

Teacher: No! (Well, sometimes) No! Layers. Onions have layers. Practice has layers. Both have layers.

Student: Oh. You know, I don’t like onions. What about cake? Everybody loves cake! You know what ELSE everybody likes? Parfaits! Parfaits are delicious!

Teacher: NO! (Focus, please). Don’t be a dense beast of burden! Practice is like onions! End of story!

Student: Parfait’s gotta be the most delicious thing on the whole planet!

Teacher: Bye-bye! See ya later. Go practice

(Later, teacher realizes: Oh! Practice is sometimes exactly like parfait!)


Copyright 2014. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Image of Donkey from the Shrek franchise. The copyright belongs to Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Animation. Source: