Updated: May 7
Scrub out any plans you’ve made. Set aside thoughts of what you want to do. Just play. Just sing. See where it takes you. You’ll go often go further than you think.
If you’re anything like me, it can be easy for music practice to seem like another kind of ‘work’ to do, even a chore. Both as a student and in my professional life, many times I’ve found the thought of playing or singing really quite stressful or draining. This has especially been the case around important exams, performances or projects. The perceived pressure has been too much.
I remember the singer Lauryn Hill talking about something like this on one of her albums: ’How did this thing that I love so much so easily and so quickly turn into something I loathe and hate?'
It’s hard for me to say this, but I know what she means. I’ve also noticed other musicians and students experiencing something similar at various times.
It’s no one’s fault, really. Our culture has long had a fixation on producing, achieving, succeeding, overcoming challenges. There’s a ‘work hard, play hard’ undercurrent that seeps into so much of our life.
In line with this, a story I’ve often heard - of even retold myself earlier on in my teaching - about the benefits of learning to play an instrument, is that it ‘encourages self-discipline, perseverance and determination’.
Well, maybe. But haven’t we got enough of that already? Aren’t school, university and work life already heavy enough with goals, targets, more mountains to climb?
My experience is that treating music practice in this way can quickly remove its inherent joy. It can cause us to be tense in our mind, and so tense while we’re playing. It’s not a nice feeling. So as a result, we may may simply not want to play or sing as often, or we may even stop making music altogether.
Over time, I’ve learnt the benefits of letting go of the ‘to do’ mentality in my practice. I forget any aims. I turn my mind off from any perceived challenges ahead. I stop with all the mountain-climbing. I just start playing, start singing, start composing, and see where it takes me.
What I’ve found is that it usually takes me somewhere really good.
First off, I notice I’m much more relaxed in my mind and body. It feels nice to play and sing, so I want to stay there. I’m happy there. Ironically, I actually end up ‘doing’ much more than under any wagging finger approach.
The whole experience also becomes much more creative and expressive. As the cage of the to-do list lifts, I allow myself to play or sing whatever I want, any way I want. This spontaneity releases me to explore a wider range of tones, timbres, sounds and dynamics. I try things out in a care-free way, and find that I really do have something musically significant to say. We all do!
What’s nice, too, is that my technical ability often improves quite dramatically. Because I’m more relaxed in my mind, I’m much more free in my body. It just works better and I’m simply more agile and able to stretch, sustain and flex in the ways I need to.
So this is my non-work strategy:
When you ‘need to do your practice’, think of something you’d like to play or sing, and start there. Trust that it’s ok to do what you want, not what you should. You may even end up getting to the ‘should’ part, maybe without even noticing it feels like a should at all.
And continue like this. Keep playing or singing or writing, and see what you feel like doing next. When you’ve got enough out of one part, move onto another. Change it up. Dart around. See where your fancy takes you. I find I get further ahead this way, overall.
You could move straight into the bridge, the ending, the second verse, the second-to-last page…
Whichever bit feels right to play or sing now.
One of the key mindfulness ‘bits’ in this process is to notice if you’ve got expectations floating in your mind. That is, see if you’re visualising how you think your music making ought to be either right now, or soon or when you’ve finished your practice session.
That image is a cage that is keeping your musicality locked in. Can you step outside it?
Your music making doesn’t have to be anything in particular, go anywhere, or prove anything. The fact that you are playing or singing and maturing your musicality and creativity in the process… that is the exciting thing. That is the joyful thing. That is the aspect that will carry you forward and help your musicianship to grow and flourish in its own, unique way.
That is the key to musical brilliance. That and time. Give yourself time.
I wish you lots of happy practice. Just start. Just begin.