This week, a very good young trumpet student told me that she doesn’t really know how to practice. At first I thought, how self-aware of her, that’s a great observation. Later that evening, I thought more about how absurd that statement is. She is already an expert at practicing. We all are. We can speak. We can walk. We can feed ourselves. How are we able to do any of that we do that without the right kind of practice? How do today’s young people, who are very much a generation of ultra-complicated video games, become so proficient at these games and end up spending hours and hours playing them? Yep, you guessed it… practice.
What my student meant when she told me she didn’t know how to practice is this, “I’m not quite able to understand how to practice the trumpet.” Let’s examine why we might have such a difficult time “practicing” an instrument if we are already experts at the learning process and practicing things. My guess, it’s the way we look at said activity. Let’s take the video game example. Why are people able to spend countless hours playing these games and seemingly get so much enjoyment from them? I’d venture a guess that most people find these games fun. They are thought of as a play activity. Conversely, how do most of us view practicing an instrument? I’d say a vast majority view it as “work,” a sort of drudgery that must be endured because our teachers or our parents are “making us practice.”
The learning process is quite similar, regardless of the activity we are trying to learn. I believe the difference is in the way we frame the activity in our mind. We have no problem learning or practicing what we perceive as “fun” or “play.” Why then should we have so much difficulty learning or practicing an instrument or (insert any other “work” activity)? Again, I’ll venture an observation that “work” activities involve a lot of decision making which might cause a lot of stress, physical exertion, and possibly fatigue. I’ll also argue that we are able to endure that same stress, physical activity, and fatigue as we learn and practice our favorite sport or another activity that we perceive as fun. If that’s the case, shouldn’t we also be able to endure those same stresses and fatigue as we practice our instruments? It’s the way we are framing these activities in our mind that provides the difference. It’s all in the mind-set, and we are in control of that mind-set. We can choose to perceive any activity as “fun” or as “work.” If something is important to you, if you’d truly like to make improvement in a particular discipline, change your mind-set and you’ll change your practice results.
Another reason we have so much difficulty learning or practicing an instrument or other “work” tasks is the way we view failure. When we learned to walk, to speak, and to eat, we were very young. Young enough that most of us (okay all of us) don’t remember any part of those learning processes, however, we all went through the same processes. We tried. We failed. We tried again. We failed again. Over and over and over again. The cycle continued. The same cycle is present in the learning and practicing of an instrument. So what’s the difference? Why can we expertly walk, speak, and eat (most of the time!) but we have a hard time becoming proficient at playing our instrument? The main one I’ve found is the way we interpret those necessary failures.
When we were younger, before our giant egos got in the way of everything, we didn’t interpret falling down as we learned to walk as a “failure.” We likely viewed it more as a learning opportunity. An opportunity to do something different. An opportunity to try something that would be more efficient, more successful. Even as an opportunity to fail again. There was no judgement involved. Our ego didn’t get in the way of things. There was no embarrassment. As we get older, our ego and need for acceptance cause these issues to keep us from wanting to go through the necessary process of failure. We don’t want to be perceived as “bad” at something. We don’t want to suffer the embarrassment of not being able to do something at the level to which we expect. We have to learn to “get over ourselves” and think more like the child just learning to walk. Make an attempt. Fail. Adjust thinking. Adjust process. Attempt again. Fail again. Repeat.
As we practice and learn, we need to be more attentive to the process of practicing and getting better, not the outcome. If the process is solid, the outcome will take care of itself. We shouldn’t put so much internal pressure on ourselves or set our expectations on a certain outcome. Stay in the present moment. That’s the only place where we are fully aware of what is actually happening and where the magic occurs. If we allow future concerns (outcomes) to distract our process, we lack awareness of that process and we also add lots of unnecessary stress and judgement.
As we prepare for another year of practicing, teaching, performing, learning, living, let’s remember to choose to perceive our practice time as something fun, some sort of “play” activity rather than some sort of “work” chore. Let’s also remember to keep our egos in check and that failure is not a bad thing as we practice, in fact, it’s a very necessary part of the learning process. And finally, let’s keep our awareness on the process of practicing, in the present moment, rather than attaching that awareness to some kind of future outcome.