The Purpose of Practice: 8 Lessons from Music

I’ve started playing the piano again, mostly because I realized I needed to find more ways to, well, “play” and this one seemed like a no brainer. While I took lessons for about eight years, I quickly realized it would be easier to distinguish myself on the clarinet where there wasn’t quite as much competition. And I do enjoy some healthy competition. Yet the clarinet on its own isn’t very interesting, whereas the piano can be the whole deal. So I dust off the keyboard from time to time and play.  Each time reminds me of how long it has been since I have played but also how much I enjoy the experience. This last time also reminded me of how playing the piano is an awful lot about one’s journey through life, so I thought I’d share some observations.

We all start out as beginners.  And being a beginner stinks. Our efforts are clumsy. We don’t know the techniques. Yes, there are some early wins like learning the six notes required to play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star with one hand, but even that follows days or weeks of learning to find just six notes on the keyboard and learn how to play them with a mix of fingers. It’s not exactly exciting to listen or watch beginners and it is frustrating when you are that beginner. But we get better if we don’t give up.

Consistency yields rewards. Part of getting better is simply showing up and putting in the work, woodshedding scales, arpeggios and other basics that form the foundation for growth. Read the story of professional musicians or athletes and you’ll hear about the amount of practice that took them to get to certain levels, but they’re STILL practicing because that’s how they advance to the next level of peak performance. It’s no different in life. You’ve got to show up and do the hard work, do it consistently and give it your all. Even though yields may not seem large, over time they grow and the aggregation can be quite astounding.

Practice becomes our practice. What starts as practice becomes our “practice” of making music. The consistent practice noted above creates habits that support us over time. They also create muscle memory so that your brain and body immediately recognize pieces of the scales and arpeggios you know like the back of your hand so they can go on autopilot for that while they consider what’s up ahead. Habits in life are the same. When they become ingrained in us, they become more or less unconscious reactions rather than something we must focus on, which frees up our mental bandwidth for new application and growth.

A lot of things vie for our attention. There is a LOT going on in a piece of music – tempo, time signature, key signature, volume, rests and accents, for starters. And this can vary from bar to bar (no, not THAT kind of bar). At the same time, your eyes are reading all of this and your brain is processing it, your brain is also telling your body what it needs to do in response (fun fact: music performance requires both hemispheres of the brain). It can get complicated, a bit overwhelming and mistakes will usually be made when playing a piece for the first time. Being overwhelmed by all of it doesn’t help, just as in life. Rather, it’s necessary to focus on one thing at a time. Perhaps play one hand at a time, slowly, until the notes are right, then do it with the other hand, then add them together and then speed up until you’re playing at tempo, then changing volume based on the dynamic markings. Avoiding overwhelm in life also requires being able to break down intimidating projects or circumstances into more bite-size pieces that can be addressed and accomplished.

Sometimes you need to take a break. Rests are literally built into music. While it usually is a way to add separation and emphasize rhythm, in an ensemble setting, you may have rests that can lasts for minutes on end when others are the focus. In life, we think we have to always be doing something, when time off will actually refresh us mentally and physically. It also gives others the opportunity to step up and support us.

Don’t let mistakes stop you; move on. Each beat in music, like each moment in life, comes only once. You either hit the right note or you make a mistake. But that beat is over. There is no sense in pausing and trying to correct as that will only draw more attention to the mistake as well as cause you to be farther behind. This is especially true in an ensemble setting where everyone else will truly move on. We all make mistakes. We can listen to the recording, so to speak, later on and figure out how we can do better next time, but there’s no sense dwelling on the past and hoping for a redo. The moment is past and it’s time to move forward.

If it seems wrong, it probably is. Mistakes in music tend to stick out. We know immediately when something doesn’t sound quite right. We double-check the notes written and the key signature and can usually determine what the problem is. But sometimes there are errors in the music, so you may need to reach out to, for example, ask the conductor what the score for everyone says. Similarly, we generally know in life when something doesn’t feel in alignment with who we are or want to be or how we want to spend our limited time. Asking someone for some input is often a good idea if we want to double-check our gut feeling.

Sharing is the reward. The point of all the practice is to perform. To share what we’re doing and learning with others so that they can appreciate the music as well. Or even to perform for the audience of your own ears. Music is meant to be shared and, other than some nervousness or stage fright, I don’t know of a single musician who doesn’t find joy and excitement in performing. No matter what stage of life we are on, everyone feels better when sharing happens and sometimes giving feels even better than receiving. And that’s what makes you want to practice and create even more so you can share again.

Where is your practice taking you?

2 thoughts on “The Purpose of Practice: 8 Lessons from Music”

  1. I loved this post and the parallels between life and music. It was a pleasure to read!

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