The Zen Of Practicing – Quality vs. Quantity
Posted by Ivan Olarte on June 22, 2010
Here is the complete essay that I wrote for Dan Starr’s 5 minute piano lesson website. Unfortunately this blog is no longer available and so I’m re-posting the original essay for those that have inquired about it.
I hope you enjoy reading it and that it helps you in a small way to improve the quality of your practice.
By the way since I wrote this I also found an excellent book by Philip Johnston titled “Practice Revolution” which is a great read and has many many tips and tricks for maximizing the quality and results of practicing. While this book is geared for music teachers and how to help young students to practice effectively I found it very useful for my own practice at my “tender age” of 49 ;-) I cannot recommend this book enough as it is full of great ideas and if you apply even one or two of them then it’s well worth the price. It’s available at Amazon and I hope you check it out! You can find out more about Mr. Johnston’s work on practicing at his site http://www.practicespot.com/
The Zen of Practicing – Quality vs. Quantity.
Hi my name is Ivan Olarte. I’m 48 years old and have returned to classical music almost 3 years ago, after a 30 year absence. I have been an avid fan of Dan Starr’s blog, as I find Dan’s essays very informative and downright inspirational. So I was very flattered and happy when Dan invited me to write a short article and share with you some of my thoughts about the act of practicing music.
I play classical guitar, but I think that what I have to say applies to any instrument that you play. In fact I think that it applies to any activity that you pursue, be it for pleasure such as hobbies, sports, other arts etc, or for daily chores that we hate doing because we see them as tasks.
I walked away from music 33 years ago when I was 15 because being raised in a “musical family” playing and practicing eventually became a chore and a task instead of the pleasurable activity of self expression that it should have been all along. And in hindsight I think it was a good decision, because I would have ended up hating music had I continued. I continued to enjoy all types of music but thought I was not talented, did not have the discipline to “work hard” at it etc. My only mistake was taking such a long break, but in any case I now have embraced the act of practicing and playing and have made tremendous progress thanks to the initial foundation and legacy of music that my family gifted to me as a child, and to a great teacher that I have Mr. Eric Christensen who has a Master’s Degree in Classical Guitar from Yale University and teaches at two local colleges here in Rhode Island.
In the fall of 2007, I was inspired to return to music by the self titled CD from two great and unique contemporary guitar artists Rodrigo Y Gabriela ( http://www.rodgab.com/ ). Their music was so energetic and full of passion that I finally realized what a mistake it was for me not to try to play any music at all. And so I purchased a hybrid Flamenco\classical\amplified Cordoba guitar with no clear direction of what type of music I would play. Shortly after that, I narrowed it down to classical guitar as that had been my favorite type of instrument and music when I was 15, and found a good qualified teacher in my area.
With hindsight, and the life experience of a 48 year old I approached music with a different view than the one I had as a child and teen. And as I developed my routine for learning, playing and practicing I tried various strategies from keeping a journal, having a set of exercises that I thought needed to be done very day, to devoting an hour or more daily to solid “practice” regardless of how I was feeling that day etc.
In a short time, while I enjoyed music very much it started being something I HAD to do again, as I pursued certain goals such as playing particular pieces, mastering specific techniques, or going for the all mighty “speed”.
Well luckily, through the internet I found some great resources such as Dan’s great blog, and a great community which is dedicated to classical guitar at http://delcamp.us . Through sources such as these I explored other points of view, different ways to approach the mastery of my instrument and specific ways to approach something as “mundane” as the act of practicing. I quickly realized that I was falling into the same trap of music becoming a task and a chore. So I decided to revisit my approach to music and to my daily and very rigid practice routine.
Learning to embrace the process:
Aside from these great sources, a friend recommended a great book titled “Mastery: The Keys To Success and Long-Term Fulfillment” by George Leonard. While this book is bit “dry” and a quick read at 169 pages. I found that afterwards it changed my way of thinking not just for music but for any activity that I engage in from music to cooking, or doing daily chores.
Based on Zen philosophy, this book discusses 5 major keys to mastering pretty much anything. At it’s core is the concept of enjoying the journey to the final goal and embracing this journey instead of simply setting your target on the final goal. With this in mind I have learned to embrace just about every task that I do from doing dishes, to practicing the mechanics, scales, and what were in the past mundane tasks of learning the technique of my beloved instrument.
Quality Vs. Quantity.
Having learned to focus on, and enjoy the act of practicing itself (the Journey), instead of setting my eye on the number of pieces I can learn, achieving speed and other long term goals, my daily practice became the daily goal itself and a truly enjoyable experience.
In the past If I could not carve an hour or more to practice then systematically go through my routine, I would simply not practice that day, and wait for the next day. In the end this resulted in sporadic practice sessions throughout any given week.
I still have a rough outline of particular activities I want to cover on a regular basis, but I’m no longer so rigid that it’s either all or nothing. Now I get to practice most days and depending on the amount of time available to me, I alternate among the various activities that I need to cover on a regular basis. With this approach I can take as little as a 20 minute to an hour or more for a practice session, which will yield much more progress in the long term, but it is also no longer a task, but rather a very enjoyable experience that I look forward to every day.
General Practice Outline:
Within the time allotted, I still break it down into 3 or 4 small time periods where I can cover the following:
- Start with Some warm up and mechanics,
- On to Scales and dexterity exercises,
- Followed by New pieces that I’m currently working on,
- Ending up with one or two pieces from my established repertoire
For some quirky reason I got into the habit of finishing with a quick rendition of “Suicide Is Painless” the theme from M*A*S*H. Don’t ask me why, but it just became my tradition, and a way to let everyone in my house know that I’m done and they can come into the room or what not…
It’s amazing that in as little as 20 minutes these various facets of practice can be covered. Obviously if the practice session is that short I will only do 10 minutes or so of each portion. If I have an hour or more I may focus more time on particular activities (You may notice that I no longer like to use the word TASK) on any given day.
But the key to all this is that whether it’s 10 minutes of just scales, or a 20 minute portion dedicated to learning the fingerings of a new piece. I can focus on each of these activities without worrying or thinking of the final goals that it will lead to. By doing this I can invest 100% of my attention and effort into the present moment and enjoy every minute of it to boot.
Who knew that scales could be so wonderful? We all dread playing scales. However if we can manage to appreciate the beauty of making each note ring clean and true, of making it sound with good volume and a nice regular beat etc. We can learn to enjoy it for what it is, a musical piece on its own, and a beautiful building block that if we master will lead us to play complex pieces with more ease.
Sure a scale or mechanical exercise is not something you would perform for others, but why not “perform” it for yourself in the privacy of your practice room? Why not focus and enjoy the satisfaction that comes with the ability to play such a nice simple cadence without any other goal than just the fact that you can?
In the end it’s this quality of practice that will ultimately yield better results and just as important allow you to embrace each moment that you sit down to practice with your beloved instrument.
After all, when one plays a piece for others, as much as they appreciate the performance, most will not realize the countless hours that we spend toiling away perfecting each and every minute detail of our technique so we can play something that will be experienced by others in a very short time and quickly fade into a memory? But if we learn to embrace the process that leads us to that fleeting time of performance then we will be able to enjoy each step of our journey and beyond.
You will find that by changing your views on how you approach the act of practicing (not just music but any other “task” that you want or have to do in your life), you will look forward to it and end up doing it on a regular basis instead of always struggling to “find the time” and to avoid the many other excuses that we use to avoid the work that is needed to master anything at hand. You will end up working harder, and putting more effort because you will now look forward to the activity instead of dreading it and looking forward to it’s end. The clock will no longer be your master, but rather your ally as you look forward to the next occasion when you can resume your journey.
You will also find that with this change of heart, your approach will be much more sincere and honest, and so when you do end up having to miss a practice session it will be for a valid reason, not one made up in your mind and that you will no longer be too hard on yourself, or feel guilty. Because you will know that you are truly looking forward to that next step of the beautiful journey that is the act of making music.
I hope that you give this some thought and try to look at that old mundane “TASK” of practicing and approach in a different way, the great opportunity that it is to enjoy your ability to see the music that is to be made all along the way.
And so I leave you with a saying that has become my signature, and a central core to how I choose to lead my life:
“Instead of anticipating the goal, learn to enjoy the Journey for this is where we spend 99.9% of our time. The Journey is the reward…”
With warm regards,
Ivan M. Olarte