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Practicing As a Way of Life

Samuel Baron | February 2016

    We are initiated into the activity of practicing as soon as we start studying the flute. We maintain this activity for as long as we live, or for as long as we continue to play the flute (whichever expires first, I suppose). The meaning of practice changes as we grow older. For the young student practicing is often a form of drudgery connected with constraints and threats such as, “If you don’t practice until five o’clock there’s no TV tonight.” For the advanced student in a conservatory, practicing very often turns into an intense cramming session because he hasn’t prepared his lesson, or perhaps has an important concert coming up. For the seasoned professional, and I know I have often said this myself, the situation is more, “I’m so busy I can’t get to practice. I wish I had a quiet half hour so that I could practice.”
    Because we are so involved with practicing through the various stages of our lives, it is quite appropriate to say that practicing is our way of life. We share this situation with athletes and dancers, and people in many performing fields.
    What does this fact imply for the teacher? Should he spend time in the lesson teaching how to practice? Yes, but not so much on how to practice as on discussing the topic and presenting it as an element in the student’s life. Practice may be more important than the lesson itself. The student will pick up ideas from the teacher, but if he doesn’t put them into his own work he’s not going to make much progress.

What is Practicing?
    Practicing is essentially repetition – you repeat things over and over. There is a goal in this activity. Through repetition you achieve something that might be called a groove in the brain or a habit. This thought brings us to the first rule of practicing. Don’t practice mistakes and don’t practice bad playing. If you practice mistakes you’re learning them just as you would learn the correct way of playing. These mistakes become ground in and that’s awful. (I think we’ve all had the experience of coming back to a piece after many years and realizing we learned it incorrectly.)
    What are the benefits of practice? This is the topic I love because these benefits are so good, so important and meaningful they last a lifetime. First of all through practice we achieve a oneness with the instrument and the music. When we go to a concert of a great musician, we don’t hear a person on stage manipulating a machine. We hear a person singing through the instrument. This oneness is achieved by spending a lot of time playing the flute.
    Let’s imagine the time you spend with your flute as talking to it. You will soon realize that you have talked to the flute more than you have talked with your spouse or children, your mother or your father, your best friend or your sweetheart. That flute is your best friend, and the time you spend with it is bonding. That’s what we’re after as flutists and musicians.
    Secondly, practice affords growth and improvement – the bread and butter of practicing. We go through this cycle very often. Something is impossible, we can’t play it. We tackle it and pretty soon we’ve improved. We’re past the impossible stage, now we’re at the terribly difficult stage. That’s progress. Now we keep working and it’s not terribly difficult anymore, it’s very difficult. Pretty soon, we don’t even think of that passage, and we’re learning new ones.
    All of this improvement and growth and expression through the instrument happens through the cycle of practice.     

Samuel Baron

    Flutist, conductor, and teacher, Samuel Baron was a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music studying flute with Georges Barrère, Edgar Schenkman and Arthur Lora. After graduation he returned to study conducting. He founded the New York Brass Ensemble (as the conductor) and the New York Woodwind Quintet. With the NY Woodwind Quintet he recorded extensively and played the premiers of Samuel Barber’s Summer Music and works by William Bergsma, Ezra Laderman, Wallingford Riegger, and Gunther Schuller. He also performed with the American Chamber Orchestra, the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, New York City Opera Orchestra and for one season was the principal flutist of the Minneapolis Symphony. In 1965, he joined the Bach Aria Group becoming director in 1980. During his career he taught at SUNY: Stony Brook, the Juilliard School, Yale, and Mannes College of Music.