I used to love practicing as a child. I would play the piano for hours, sing in my bedroom, whistle and hum to myself regardless of where I was or what I was doing. No matter who was around, I was alone when I practiced – caught up in my own world of exploring sounds, learning new music, finding new friends in Bach, Mozart, Bartok....
As I got older, I still loved practicing – piano, voice, horn – but only when I had the house all to myself or knew that I was alone in our school's band room. Even though music was still my escape, I began to feel self-conscious about the sounds I made during my practice sessions. I became extremely aware of other people listening, and living up to their expectations (actually, what I perceived their expectations to be).
By the time I went to college, my relationship with practicing had completely changed. I learned to fear and hate the practice rooms – an entire block of closet-sized spaces complete with full-sized mirror, upright piano, and door (the dreaded door) with a window (that people could see into!). I would practice as early in the morning or late at night as possible, to ensure that only a handful of people might hear me rather than the normal mid-afternoon swarms of other music majors. I felt judged all the time; judged every time I made a mistake or had to practice a rhythm I felt I should already know.
My “practice” sessions started turning into performances. I played and sang what I already knew, focused on the things that made me sound good, spent my time on the things that built my confidence. This wasn't a conscious decision – it was just what started to happen as my self-consciousness increased.
Of course – as you can probably guess – this meant that my progress halted. Since I was no longer working on things to get better, but instead playing things that were already comfortable, I was in a holding pattern – maintaining my strengths, but causing my weaknesses to become that much weaker.
Grad school was even worse.
One day, toward the end of my first year of grad school, I listened to one of my grad school colleagues practice – REALLY practice – one measure – ONE measure – of a solo for over 10 minutes. I couldn't even hear what needed to be improved in that one measure, nor what changed in his 10 minutes of work. But what I did hear was the sound of true practice. The work he did on that measure made him feel more confident, which translated into one of the most solid performances I've ever heard about two weeks later in a studio class. I remember distinctly hearing that measure during his performance and thinking back to the practice session I overheard.
This realization completely changed my practice habits. I began practicing the things that were hard for me, regardless of who was around, who might hear me, or what people might think. I began going slower instead of faster. I began thinking as much as I played, and playing as much as I should be.
My confidence grew, my playing improved, and I started connecting with the music again – something that I thought perhaps I had lost forever. And just like not practicing had been a downward spiral, my more-effective practicing became an upward spiral – I improved in leaps and bounds.
I still feel most comfortable practicing when I'm alone, but I am more accepting of the fact that everyone has their own weaknesses, their own things to work on, their own insecurities. And the more honestly I can claim mine, the more my strengths will shine.
The next time you walk into your practice session – whether it's in the school band room, your bedroom, or the basement of your house – remind yourself that you will only improve by working on the things you don't do well. Remind yourself that your practice session is not a performance for other people – it's ALL YOURS. Just for you. Whatever you need.
And enjoy it!