I have been facing a challenge lately and in the spirit of speaking candidly and with accountability, I am writing about it here. For a while...a long while...I've been challenged by practicing. I always want to work to be a better player and I have had time in my days when I could practice, but I just couldn't make myself put my sticks in my hands, no matter what I tried. Not only was I not practicing, but I was anxious about the fact I could do nothing to nudge myself in the right direction. Has this ever happened to you?
I asked a terrific drumming friend, Joey, for his thoughts on what might help me focus. He told me about an online practice tracking system designed specifically for drummers. I tried it and liked it and it helped for a few weeks. I started setting aside a specific time in the evening, a time of day that is usually my most productive and I created a relaxed mood with dim lighting and my favorite incense to foster a welcoming space and that, too, helped…for a little while.
It wasn’t too long before MONTHS had passed without me picking up a pair of sticks (and yet EVERY thought was about the fact I wasn’t picking them up). I’d try, but couldn’t focus enough to get past a minute or two and, eventually, I stopped trying.
I was growing in many other ways, but like a table with one short leg, there was no stability in my musical world. It was wobbly, off-balance, and I felt out of place in everything I did. My poor relationship with practicing could no longer sustain itself. In order to grow musically, I HAD to find my path.
I took a “deep dive” into the past, thinking about the times in my life when it felt good—really good—to practice. I fondly recalled playing the snare drum while my first drum teacher was accompanying me on bass drum. That felt good. I also thought about my relentless pursuit in performing a transcription of a Gary Burton vibes piece. It was the most difficult piece I’ve ever learned and I had to learn it without a support system. (I asked my band teacher to help me count the rhythms, but he refused.) I did it myself. It was beyond challenging and I wore the grooves out on the record, but I stuck with it and in a few months, I performed it as well as a self-taught high school mallet player could. That was hard, but it too felt good.
So I “fast forward” to consider the experiences I had practicing in college. The sad truth was that for more than half of my college years, my practice consisted of learning pieces for percussion faculty who (1) had lesson plans that didn’t reflect my performance goals or (2) who didn’t show up to my lessons. I did the work because I needed the grade, but there was no joy in either scenario. I was worn down and a part of me was still living that ancient history every day.
I sought out reading materials I thought might help me shift the focus away from those disappointments while giving me new direction in how to approach practicing. To my surprise, there are several books on the topic of practicing. The one that felt right for me in the moment—in MY moment, yours may be different—was “The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music from the Heart” by Madeline Bruser. Much of this book is dedicated to the physical aspects of practicing, which wasn’t my main concern, but her opening chapter entitled “Meeting Yourself” was helpful in realizing where I had been and where I am.
Bruser writes, “…the knowledge that you belong in the world of music is deep and indestructible. It is part of your basic nature, as much as the color of your eyes or the sound of your voice.” And that rang true for me. I’ve known since I was 3-1/2 years old that I wanted to be a musician. I’ve wondered for years how a kid that young could know with THAT MUCH CONVICTION what they want to do. Then I recalled something my mom told me that spoke to a more deeply-rooted foundation in music.
When I was born, someone had given my parents a plush teddy bear with a wind-up music box inside. Each time my mother lay me down to sleep, she would wind the key on the teddy bear’s back and let the music box play. The song was simple: “This Old Man.” When I was six weeks old, the spring in the music box broke, but I liked the teddy bear, so mom continued to place it in my crib.
As parents do, my mom walked in my room to check on me and she heard something. From a distance it sounded like grunting, but it was definitely rhythmic, she said. As she came closer, she realized I had learned the melody and rhythm of the song. Apparently if my teddy bear wasn’t going to perform it, I would in his place. She said it wasn’t a beautiful rendition, but definitely recognizable. The imprint of music and its intersection in my life was set before I was two months old.
With Bruser’s affirmation of the undeniable reality that music is and always has been a part of my life, I was able to evaluate what I really wanted as a result of practicing and, comparing my desired outcomes to my current actions (or, in my case, inaction), I was able to determine where my practice plan was falling short.
My practice, which consisted of only long-term goals (gradually transitioning to a new technique), is now balanced with several short-term goals (studying musical forms, learning repertoire, learning styles, preparing for unknown circumstances, and opening my ears to new sounds). My practice is not about being a technician behind a drum set. It’s about being a whole musician.
With a focused mind in place, it has been easier to not only get (and keep) sticks in my hands, but to enjoy the moment. I intentionally smile while I’m practicing and lock that smile in while thinking about a time when I was 4 years old and I was singing harmonies to the Beatles just for fun…a time when it wasn’t work. Somewhere along the way, it became work. It’s easy to forget the verb we use when we refer to music. We say we PLAY music and, truthfully, “playing” could have been a part of this adventure the whole time, but I forgot about it.
For the moment, I set aside some of my definitions of what having a “good practice session” means, because I am practicing having joy first. I am allowing myself to get into a habit of the right length of time first, easing into the habit of more focused time second, and will aim for very deliberate practice after that. What I’m really practicing right now is how to have sticks in my hands while having a light heart. My goal was to sit down for 10 happy minutes of practice, but it usually results in 40 minutes or an hour. That’s already an improvement.
It’s easy to say “find your happy place,” but it’s hard to reach. I had to realize the truths about my UNhappy places and compare them to the places I wanted to go before I knew how to foster the right outcome. It’s a road I’m still traveling and you may be, too. Once you know the path, keep your eye on the road conditions and go full speed ahead. And check your map every so often to make sure you’re still headed to the right destination.