Updated: May 7
The goal of music practice is not to be good at it.
This needs repeating: The goal of music practice is not to be good at it.
Instead, the goal is simply to discover and feel a sense of freedom through music making; to enjoy your playing, singing or composing.
Everything that might be considered ‘good’ will follow this, not the other way around.
What is it that makes us anxious about playing or singing in front of other people? Why do people experience feelings of dread before a music exam? What lies at the root of the nervousness that arises during a music lesson with a teacher, even?
There are a whole host of reasons, but I’m going to name just one: the idea that we have to be a particular standard in our music making in any given moment; that we have to be ‘good’ at it. What does it mean to be ‘good’ at music? What qualities do we find in a ‘good musician’? Perhaps these super-beings are technically adept or accurate? Maybe highly expressive or creative?
The truth is, everyone’s going to have their opinion on that, and ‘good’ isn’t the only or most-fitting word for all situations or people. I’m just using it as an example.
And it’s really by-the-by. What’s actually much more beneficial for our music making, I feel, is to turn attention to our experience of ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘average’ or ‘excellent’ and so on, as we practice and perform. As we do, we can notice any thoughts that arise about how ‘good’ we’re doing and observe their impact on us. Sometimes these thoughts can be fleeting, quiet or half-formed. So this noticing takes practice in itself. But over time, it’s possible observe the flicker of self-assessment, self-judgement against some perceived standard, which itself may be vague, fluctuating or contextual.
What I’ve found is that the very self-assessment process itself can stop our musicality from flourishing to its fullest extent. Our mental standards or frameworks of ‘good, bad, ugly’ create a mental and physical cage that keeps our creativity locked in. Our minds can narrow so that all we can think about is whether we are meeting ‘the standard’ or not. We can become obsessive about particulars. We lose sight of the bigger picture. It can be mentally quite stressful.
This stress is mirrored in the body with physical tension. I’ve observed in myself many times a certain - often subtle - rigidity or stiffness in my frame that accompanies the self-assessment aspect of traditional music practice. This tightness is heightened when I believe I’m ‘not doing well enough’, or ‘good enough’. And in my tight body, I cannot sing. The notes do not sound fully. My tongue gets tied. On the piano, my hands are tense and inflexible. I can’t play the notes with the sensitivity that I need to make a full range of sounds.
Most of my students know that I like to use what I call ‘keywords’ to identify our experience during music-making and provide insight about it. Often this insight comes from delving into the etymology of the word - its internal structure, as well as the range of meanings and associations assigned to it over the centuries and in different places.
Sometimes a keyword may highlight a problem that arises during practice: an obstacle, a hindrance. Other times, it may suggest a solution to those problems: a way of unblocking, undoing, or releasing us from the hindrance we face. Actually, even the identifying of a problem will help to release it. These keywords are like tools in a toolkit: which one fits depends on the unique situation in the moment. Often I’ll wait and allow a word to pop into my mind during a lesson. They somehow have a life of their own: little insightful creatures that float up and shed light on the situation.
For me, some of the keywords that come up as I’ve been writing this post include ‘correct’, ‘right’, and ‘checking’. I’m reminded how we want to be ‘correct’ when we play. We want to be ‘right’. We end up constantly ‘checking’ our selves during our practice to see if we’ve got there yet. This is my experience at any rate.
If you look into the original meaning of these or similar words, there’s an associated sense of tension or rigidity embedded in each one. In fact, connecting them all, for me, is the word ‘inhibition’.
Literally, a ‘holding in’ or ‘inner holding’.
That holding, this tension, is both mental and physical.
The word ‘correct’, for instance, implies a kind of ’straightness’ that requires a kind of holding in place or position. Reflecting on my music practice, I realise that often when I’m trying to be ‘correct’, my back over-straightens, like I’m under military instruction. With this insight, I might experiment with consciously relaxing my body as I play or sing, particularly my spine. I might test out whether this has a positive impact on my mental state as well as my musicianship. Often it really does. The word ‘Right’ also has a sense of ‘straightness’ inherent in it, from a root meaning of ‘moving in a straight line’. ('Correct' and 'right' are in fact etymologically linked). When my thinking is about playing or singing ‘right’, there’s a subtle tension in my body and mind. That cage again. A feeling of tunnelling forward with blinkers on. Sensing that within me - i.e. thinking to myself, “Oh! I’m trying to be ‘right’!” - might prompt me to explore gesturing within the whole sphere around me as I make music (what has been called our ‘kinesphere’), rather than in one narrow part of it. I’m being as brief as I can, here, but again I find this to be beneficial for my mental state and subsequent musical expression.
‘Checking’ is an interesting word. It actually derives from the game of chess, with a figurative sense of ’stopping, halting, or blockading’, as in ‘check mate’ against the King. I notice when I’m mentally ‘checking’ my playing, singing or composing, there’s a kind of stopping in my body. My mind also turns inwards towards my body, and my sense of vision narrows. How can I be outwardly expressive and communicative if I’m in this mode of being? Noticing if I’m in ‘checking mode’ may encourage me to try physically relaxing and keep a fluid movement as I play or sing. This in turn seems to inhibit the checking process in itself, and my music-making becomes more fluid. I may even enter a state of mental flow.
It can be really useful to notice the kinds of patterns I’ve described when we 'try to be good', and experiment with ways to undo them.
The other thing we can do is learn what it is to be free and practice that.
It took me a long time to work out that it’s any kind of thinking that I need to be ‘correct’, to be ‘right’ - 'good' - that was inhibiting me in my technical ability and intrinsic creativity. It also took me a while to recognise that behind all of these was (is!) my internally conceived standards as to what it is to be ‘good’, or whichever word you’d like to use.
Take away the standard, and what do you have?
You have freedom.
You have freedom in your mind and body.
You can experiment. You can go where your imagination takes you.
You can move at your own pace, in your own time, and in your own way.
You can let go of unnecessary tension in your body. You can relax.
You can really ‘play’, in the true sense of the word. You can really ‘sing’. You can really ‘ring out’ your innate musicality.
That is what freedom in music is.
This, for me, is the key to the musical greatness to which we aspire: we need to transcend our thoughts of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ whenever we make music.
When we do, we discover a feeling of freedom within us that is so wonderful that it makes us want to play more, sing more, compose more, just so we can have that feeling again. Over time, we are much more likely to find the elements of music that really lift us and excite us as individuals. We can uncover our unique musicality and creativity, and do that more and more.
By doing more and more, we indeed get more accurate or adept or exceptionally expressive (if that’s our thing).
This is when we become ‘brilliant’ at what we do. This is when - to go to the original meaning of that word - we shine.
And this is when we understand that we all, as human beings, are designed to shine musically and creativity.
It is in-built. We just have to cultivate it and release it.
I wish you a happy practice, and leave you with the words from a poem Mary Oliver, which can be a mantra for all who make music:
“You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”