Play Harder: I Don’t Practise (and Neither Should You) – Entry 7

Play Harder: I Don’t Practise (and Neither Should You) – Entry 7

Posted 1 March 2016 by Maria Millar

Read the previous post in Maria Millar's Play Harder series: 

Throughout my 6 years at Juilliard, I made 1 trip to Counseling Services. My problem?  I couldn’t make myself practise. “What’s wrong with me?” I burst with desperation. When our session ended with zero practise hacks and a “you need to come back – we need to talk about your childhood,” I was out!

Looking back on it, the counselor had a point. My lifelong inability to practise regularly or “enough” stems from battles with my mother that began at age 4, when I took up the violin. Piano, theory, ballet, French day school and Japanese night school soon followed, further cementing the divide between work and play that made the former so detestable and the latter, unattainable.

This story has a happy ending, though! I’m so grateful for the skills my mother willed unto me. She was born in Japan right after WWII and had no access to lessons or extracurricular studies; I got to live in opportunity because she vowed to give me the opposite. And much to her chagrin, my mother inculcated an unquenchable thirst for play that makes me incapable of choosing a career (or partner) that feels like anything but. I work hard at having fun. Which brings me back to my subject… 

When I stopped practising

For 9 years, I felt guilty about not practising enough. Then I graduated from Juilliard (a.k.a. no more mandatory classical repertoire) and had an epiphany – I don’t need to practise! Sometimes I’ll pull out my violin to improvise and compose, but gone are the days of daily practise. The violin comes out on a must-use basis – even group rehearsals are kept to a bare minimum – which means that several months a year, between concerts, I don’t touch my violin. Every time I do make contact, it feels like a joyous reunion with an old, trusted love – in other words, fun! And since graduating, my technique, productivity, creativity, and most of all, ability to think have improved.

The dark side of practise

I’ve come to believe that practise is the enemy of thought. During our formative years, of course we need to practise – we can’t think our way into learning the violin. But years of repetition build almost impenetrable blinders. Within a minute of hearing a person practise, I can identify his/her weaknesses by what’s NOT being practised. Take me, for example. I obsess over bowing and articulation, so you might hear me cranking out some groovy lines peppered by less-than-in-tune notes, further deepening an imbalance between my bow arm and intonation. This is why it takes a good deal of awareness (and other activities) to counter the detrimental effects of practise.

On practising (and what to do instead)

Practise, used minimally, can be helpful.  It’s good to keep in mind that the more you practise, the dumber it gets.  Practise should be the last (and very brief) step in a series of activities that include some-to-all of the following:

  • Perform – get out there and play already!  If you sound better in the practise room than on-stage, you’re not performing enough.  Anything you pull off on-stage becomes an automatic notch in your belt, so take risks, try new things, reach too far… the more adversity you face, the better you become!
  • Record yourself – preferably in performance.  It’s easy to feel good after the applause of a concert; less so the next day when you listen back!  It’s a pain, but I lug my equipment, set it up before shows and record myself with unflattering mics… any bad habits quickly drive me crazy as I hear them repeated over and over again.  Improvement is inevitable!
  • Film yourself – your movement and stage presence are as important as your sound, often influencing audiences even more than what they hear!  So analyze how you move and speak: does it carry to the last row of the top balcony?  Also keep in mind – how you move is how you phrase.
  • Dance – my violin technique markedly improved when I started incorporating dance into my performing; you’re forced to use your larger muscle groups (try bowing while spinning), and you learn to release tension from any body part on command.  It also makes you happy and keeps you fit!
  • Imitate or transcribe – listen to/watch artists in other genres and try copying them (or writing out what you hear).  You’re only as good as your ear; this sharpens your ear.  If they move well, copy that as well.
  • Improvise – I play all my concerts by memory and, ever since I learned to improvise, I’ve never feared a memory slip.  I just noodle out of them.  I am happiest when I’m improvising, and when I add movement, I’m downright ecstatic.  By the way, if you must sneak in some practising, improvisation is the best way to do it – make up a wacky scale or embed a tricky passage into an improvised etude.  And don’t turn it into a daily routine!
  • Compose – to be the best interpreter you can be, you need to create.  I really don’t see a way around this.  I liken it to speaking your truth rather than spending your life reading scripts.  Plus, in today’s music business, you are much more empowered if you can compose, improvise AND perform.
  • Do yoga – yoga is the closest I come to daily practise.  It heals, strengthens, prevents injury, improves stage presence, and best of all, you can develop all the blind spots in the world and it won’t stifle your craft!
  • Ask yourself – why am I practising? Why am I entering this competition? Why should people come see me live? Challenging your assumptions may lead to the occasional existential crisis, but it’s the perfect antidote for knee-jerk practising that – while instantly gratifying – gets you nowhere, fast.  And while you’re at it…
  • Write – whether it’s a grant proposal, application, mission statement or your website, writing clarifies your intention and keeps your eye on the prize.

BONUS: Some fringe benefits of not practising

  • You have more time
  • You don’t get injured (but you should do yoga, properly, to really not get injured)!
  • You don’t annoy your neighbours
  • You forget bad habits
  • You handle unpredictability (a.k.a. live performance) with ease
  • You keep your craft fresh



Maria Millar. Photo : Josh Cutillo

About the Author: Maria Millar

Play Harder is a regular series by Maria Kaneko Millar chronicling the creation of Four Seasons Rising, a project funded by Canada Council for the Arts that involves going to four corners of Canada and the US – Nova Scotia, Florida, Nunavut and California – to research, shoot footage and compose a symphonic work for Sonic Escape with orchestra. Maria is the violinist & composer of Sonic Escape, a duo of Juilliard graduates whose blend of hyper-instrumentals, stories, dance moves and original works is "wonderfully imaginative... with a wide-ranging, anything-goes sense of fun.” (The Washington Post@sonicescape

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