When I was in high school, I was working overtime preparing for conservatory auditions. Like many successful high school musicians, in addition to all of the practicing and honor ensembles, I was also an academic over-achiever (I was enrolled in 5 AP classes my Junior year) and was a leader in a number of after-school programs. Add to that the immense pressure that teenagers feel to be popular (or at least fit-in) coupled with all the physical awkwardness of adolescence – and needless to say it was a very stressful time in my life (as is the case for many of our high school students).
My senior year I was fortunate enough to attend an arts conservatory, which at least took a small amount of academic pressure off and allowed me to really focus on the flute. But despite spending an inordinate amount of time in a practice room, my teacher was just not seeing an improvement in my playing proportional to the number of hours that I was putting in. Seeking answers, he asked (what in retrospect should have been an easy answer), “What do you think about while you are playing these warm-ups? These scales? These pieces?”
I gave myself what felt like an eternity of self-reflection (although I am sure I answered in seconds) and responded with what I felt was an eloquent and profound response along the lines of, “Playing the flute is almost like meditation. Especially the technical scale warmups. They are repetitive, and I can just get lost in the simplicity of the patterns. Sometimes I take this time to think up to do lists for later practice, or college applications, or school work. Sometimes I think about a disagreement I had with my friends and how to solve it. Sometimes I think about things going on at home. I guess practicing is a way for me to escape.” I felt very satisfied with this answer. I was sure my teacher was going to suddenly see what a profound necessity music was in my life, beyond the competition of auditions, competitions, and ensemble seating. Maybe there would be an understanding hand placed on my shoulder and an assuring nod. He would tell me that my passion for music would take me places – just keep practicing. But my naivety was short-lived.
“Well THAT’S the problem!!!” This was then followed by a long lecture about how I needed to be mentally engaged in the exercises or music that I was working on while in the practice room. Practice cannot be passive. One should actively think about the quality of every note, the transition between the notes, the shape of the note, the shape of the line, the vibrato, the pitch, etc. There should be a purpose to every exercise and a specific goal for every practice session. If you let yourself go into auto-pilot, you will never improve.
He was not wrong. This lesson was pivotal in changing my mindset in the practice room. It is a lesson I frequently teach to my own students, especially when they begin to practice more seriously. I compare auto-pilot playing to when you are reading a book, and after reading an entire page, you realize that you have no idea what it said. Your eyes went over the words, but you didn’t actually comprehend what they said. Your mind was on something else. The same thing can happen in music, especially during extended practice sessions.
When you have something specific that you are trying to accomplish, auto-pilot practicing should be avoided at all costs. But what about when you do not have anything to practice for? With recent world events cancelling performances, competitions, and nearly every professional playing opportunity, I found myself thinking back to when I practiced as an indulgence and allowed my mind to wander to whatever else seemed to be taking precedent in my life.
For many musicians this time has been stressful in many ways. And it is not always necessary to add the pressure of perfecting your scales, excerpts, or solos to the everyday problems that you are facing. However, music should stay an important part of your everyday life. During this time, there may be times when it is too much to practice intensely. On these days, play what you enjoy. Play something you have always wanted to play but never got around to because it was not on a repertoire list. Don’t stress about wrong notes and rhythms too much. Don’t micro-analyze every note. Allow your mind to wander a bit while you are playing and think about what you need the next time you venture out to the grocery store or make a to-do-list in your head for household chores. Permit yourself to use your practice session as a meditation to be alone with your flute, your music, and your thoughts.
This mindset should extend beyond the immediate international trauma of COVID-19. If you ever find yourself emotionally or mentally drained, you don’t have to put your full mental energy into your most productive practice session. Take the time to play for the sake of playing and use music as a release for yourself, and an escape from your problems.