On the practise of practice

Do you practise? How often? For how long? Be honest, now. Is discussing practising a musicians’ taboo? It’s certainly a taboo not to practise in some circles. The way you hear many musicians talking about making music, you would assume that some of them were plopped down onto this planet perfectly musically formed, and able to play Rachmaninov’s Third with their eyes closed, using their feet after six pints of strong Belgian beer.

Glenn Gould, Canadian pianist, writer and general art dogsbody (I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded me calling him that), NEVER practised. Or rather, his version of practising involved sitting on his sofa and reading the music as you or I might sit and read a paperback, visualising the sounds and nuances in his mind. Not even near a piano. Not a sound made.

How much practice is too much? Is there such a thing as too much practice? I’ve had pieces of music where the more I practised them, the worse I got at playing them. Or there have been other times, where I practised and got better until I’ve learnt the piece off by heart. Not that that ever did me much good either: after I had spent a fortnight of hard grafting at the music stand I’d proudly play it for my teacher only to find I’d misread something and learnt my mistake off by heart.

‘Perfect practice makes perfect’, my violin/viola teacher used to sagely say.

My music lessons frequently centred around practising: the amount of practice done; the practise of practice; various incentives to practise; tests and elaborate forms to complete to record my practice. It was so regimented – but why? That constant noodling/jamming that guitarists do, does that count as practice? Why are some musicians seemingly trapped in a gilded cage of disciplined rehearsing?

Every one beautiful

Grade 1 scale practice sheet: "and every one BEAUTIFUL"

It all comes down to being a string player. Unlike guitarists, us string players can’t just idly grab a guitar en route from fridge to the sofa with a beer in our hand. We have to open and unpack the case; tighten the bow; apply rosin; put on a shoulder rest; find some space (enough to play without poking someone’s eye or hitting a wall with the bow); maybe put a mute on the bridge if we’re feeling charitable towards our neighbours and housemates. Oh, yeah, and then tune up. And then warm up. Then do some scales. Then some etudes. Then, if we’ve not run out of time, maybe we can get along with what we wanted to practise playing in the first place.

Definitely not spontaneous and somewhat ritualistic, the practice of practising a stringed instrument has to be entered into with a large amount of conviction. Intent. Purpose. Resolve. Which can be very intimidating.

Perhaps this taboo around practising is linked to that other taboo of ‘what if I sound bad’ – as if that is some crime against humanity. Often, not wanting to play – or even starting to learn an instrument in the first place – is linked to some fear about ‘sounding bad’.

So let’s agree: we’ll all practise, or not practise, whatever. String players, jump out of your ivory towers of practice. And whilst we’re at it, let’s all agree to sound terrible, shall we? At least for a little while. Good. That’s settled then.

My Grade One violin practice log sheet, 1987. Note lack of entries/evidence of lack of practice (I'm sorry, Mrs Whitfield)

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