The way I practice

My style of practicing is similar to the way I discuss things with Mark.  He’s a good listener and I appreciate his feedback, so I like to bounce ideas off him, things big and small, issues I have with students, parents, colleagues, teaching challenges, logistics.  Usually, I start out with a more or less vague idea of the issue, and as I talk and then listen to his feedback, and talk some more (lots …) and listen some more, things tend to become clearer, more focused.  Mark knows that I don’t want him to solve my problems.  But he understands that it helps me clarify things when I talk about them. 

For instance:  last week, I judged the KMTA Music Progressions in Kansas City.  Over the course of five hours, I saw nine students who each had 30 minutes to show me what they knew:  two contrasting pieces (one memorized), music understanding and vocabulary, scales, chords, chord progressions, arpeggios, rhythm clapping, sight-playing; and, for the lower levels, more applied theory such as playing intervals and “sharped and flatted notes”, they also did their listening test with me.  As we were going down the list of things to do, I wrote comments on the pre-printed form of several pages, I checked off items on the list, giving appropriate points for each.  When a student didn’t do well on one of the items, I tried to write a little comment on why I only gave, say, 8 points out of 10 points possible, etc.  The event was well-organized, most students were well-prepared, some were not, one was a complete disaster.  A normal audition/judging situation.

When I finished, around 7:30 p.m., I was exhausted.  Not just tired.  Exhausted.  Wiped out.  Mark and I had planned to attend a concert (same location) after my judging duties were done – I had really been looking forward to that.  Now all I wanted to do was go home and crawl into bed.  I shared this with Mark, and my confusion about it:  I didn’t understand why I was so exhausted.  When I had 25 to 30 students in Manhattan, it wasn’t uncommon to be teaching for five hours, with only a short break here and there.  Yet at the end of a long teaching day, I was invigorated as much as I was tired.  So, why would judging feel so different?  We looked at a couple of different reasons:  the fact that the audition students are strangers, the time constraints, the having to assign points for accomplishments, the knowing that my written feedback on their performance pieces would carry a certain weight and that therefore I had to choose my words even more carefully than I normally do in a lesson (where I get the chance, if necessary, to clarify any remark or comment at the next lesson), etc and so on and so forth.  What made the biggest difference, though, in how I looked at the audition, was this:  Mark has experience in both teaching and judging martial arts.  As I was complaining about how exhausted I was, he suggested that the energy that the to-be-evaluated students bring into the room is different from the energy they bring to a lesson.  That different energy tends to sap yours.  This insight didn’t take the exhaustion away, but it felt good to be able to put these feelings into words, to be listened to and heard.

Sometimes when we talk about things, we don’t get anywhere.  Sometimes his feedback results in a new insight.  Sometimes, his feedback is brilliant, sometimes it’s – not.

Practicing, for me, is similar to these conversations:  I play something, with a more or less vague idea of where I want to go with this piece; I listen – to the sound, to my body -, I take mental notes of what I’d like to improve and how, then I play some more, listen, watch, and in the end I have made progress.  To an outsider it may look like I just played the same thing over and over, which would be true of course, but every repetition yielded subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, changes.  I listen, I pay attention, I use the feedback I receive from my ear, my brain, my body, my heart, to make necessary changes.  Sometimes I stray, it’s not often a straight road, but in the end, because I listened, I have made some kind of progress.  It’s what I call mindful practicing. 

Simone Weil, French philosopher and passionate teacher, once said (something to the effect) that if you study something and it seems that despite your efforts you do not make progress, you made progress nevertheless.  Every attempt, fruitful or not, to learn something results in growth.   I try to keep this in mind when I practice.  And it occasionally proves true – when, occasionally, things seemingly suddenly fall into place, after having stalled for a while.  They were fermenting, gelling under the surface.  So, while an individual practice session may not have been as successful as I would wish, it still did its part in the bigger scheme of things.  And that, to me, is efficient and effective practice.