How often do you practice at your instrument?
This is a dreaded question among musicians at all levels, conjuring as it does visions of stern authority figures standing over sweating adolescents while they struggle with scales, arpeggios and formal studies written decades ago by “good” composers. For those about to rock, nothing could be further from the punk DIY ideals that got you picking up an instrument in the first place, but there’s still a big difference between being an untamed rock n’ roll rebel bringing filth and fury and just being a shit musician. Whatever it is you’re trying to do, you owe it to your art to do whatever it takes to make it as awesome as possible, and the only way to get good at anything is to do it a lot.
I believe it is a mistake to think of practice only in terms of dry technical exercises (although they have a place), so instead I would like to submit a four-part framework for personal practice incorporating all the holistic elements of developing as a musician. This is an open-ended philosophy that can be applied to any instrument, style, tradition or musical ambition and is designed to be tailored to the individual, because in learning in general and especially in anything artistic one size does definitely not fit all. Also this approach goes far beyond the practice room, with relevant activities that can be carried out while listening to music, during quiet moments or even while performing routine daily tasks. For those of a creative persuasion, art is 24/7.
I call this system MoPToP, based on the initials for the four aspects of Mental, Physical, Technical and Performative (the two o’s are there only to make the dry acronym into an easily memorable word):
Mental Practice – the process of figuring out who you are as a musician, what you are trying to accomplish and how you need to go about it. Having and organising creative ideas are also a part of mental practice.
Physical Practice – maintaining the physical fitness you need to keep making music, whatever that means for your particular instrument.
Technical Practice – technical drills and repertoire to develop skills you can bring to your main creative work.
Performative Practice – perfecting your act and preparing to actually present your music to strangers.
I’ll be breaking down the four aspects of MoPToP in the coming articles in this series, but for now I want to start with the most common obstacle (excuse) that musicians’ come up against when it comes to practice:
There’s Never Enough Time!
There will always be things competing for your time. Most obvious is the need to make a living – if you are not making a full time income from your music you will need to do something to keep the lights on and even if you are making music full time, real life demands compromise and the music you make to put food on the table might not be the art you want to be concentrating on. By the way, never let anyone call you an asshole for keeping the day job and don’t listen to gurus who try to make you feel like a loser amateur to shame you into buying their courses – only you know the true reason you became a musician, if yours is to pursue financial success good luck to you, but this is not and never was a normal job and only frustration will result from pretending otherwise.
So whether you’re scoring soundtracks, playing hotel lobbies or flipping burgers, you still need to find time somehow to work on your skills. Add in family commitments, promotion and admin, physical exercise, sleep and everything else demanding of your time and it can seem impossible to set aside time to practice music. But only if you look at it like that.
Put bluntly, if something is your passion you find a way. Olympic athletes (actual amateurs as opposed to the big name pros that get parachuted in these days) work full time day jobs while training hard whenever they are able, all in pursuit of an opportunity that comes once every four years and even then is not guaranteed. They do this because they are passionate about what they do, and if they were not they would never have reached that level. It is the same with musicians – everyone has been in a student band or had a go at karaoke, but to work through the night perfecting a track, making a three hundred mile round trip to play a small venue out in the sticks in the hopes of selling merchandise, sending endless e-mails trying to build contacts and opportunities – these are things you only do if you really mean business.
If you do find yourself in the position of being able to devote all your time to music, beware – this is when your personal discipline will really be tested, don’t be like a band I once knew who told me when I saw them after about a year that they’d “done a lot more drugs than music”. In the 1950s, C. Northcote Parkinson coined Parkinson’s Law, which dictates that “work expands to fill the time available” – you might well spend eight months in your creative retreat mucking about waiting for inspiration, only to find out that your friends with office jobs have long since finished, released and toured their album in their evenings and weekends, because they had to.
Here then is each of the four aspects of Mental, Physical, Technical and Performative practice described in detail. These articles are intended to be read in order, but hey, I’m not the boss of you.