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 practicing
For 9 years, I felt guilty about not practicing enough. Then I graduated from Julliard (a.k.a. no more mandatory classical repertoire) and had an epiphany – I don’t need to practice! Sometimes I’ll pull out my violin to improvise and compose, but gone are the days of daily practice. 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 practice
I’ve come to believe that practice is the enemy of thought. During our formative years, of course we need to practice – 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 practice, I can identify his/her weaknesses by what’s NOT being practiced. 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 practice.
On practicing (and what to do instead)
Practice, used minimally, can be helpful. It’s good to keep in mind that the more you practice, the dumber it gets. Practice should be the last (and very brief) step in a series of activities that include some-to-all of the following:
BONUS: Some fringe benefits of not practicing