How much practicing is enough?
Every instrument requires practice in order to connect what you feel and want to express inside, with what comes out the instrument in terms of sound and emotion. Every instrument has it’s own unique challenges in terms of technique, and every musician has her unique strengths and weaknesses, with regards to their development. The question then becomes, if I want to gain masteryH through my instrument, how much practicing is enough? I will answer this with regards to my own experience and continued thinking about my guitar practice.
Practice as Meditation
The first thought that comes to mind is our intention for practicing. Are we trying to become the best in the world at our craft? Are we trying to get more gigs, beat out the competition or gain recognition that we are somebody special? To me, these motivations are distractions. If you pursue ego concerns, you will lose the joy that the true artists embrace. It’s fine to want to improve and be very good at your craft, yet intention is very important. My personal practice is more of a spiritual practice, where the focus is inward rather than based on external gains. The time spent embracing the guitar and the endless joy and challenges it presents, keeps me in the here and now, and saves my mind from spinning outward. Time with the guitar is like meditation. One sinks into each session with an open mind for learning, expression and development. In the process, the practitioner becomes one with her instrument and forgets about the “self”. The ego takes a back seat to something much more rewarding and beautiful. This reminds me of my favorite quote by the great Sufi Master, Hazart Inayat Khan : “Music, besides power, is intoxication. When it intoxicates those who hear it, how much more must it intoxicate those who play or sing it themselves! And how much more must it intoxicate those who have touched the perfection of music, and those who have contemplated upon it for years and years! It gives them an even greater joy and exaltation than a king sitting on his throne.”
Thinking versus Reality
A friend of mine and I had an interesting conversation about practicing. He was explaining to me that John Coltrane, the legendary Jazz saxophonist, used to practice 12-14 hours per day. In Spain, the average professional flamenco guitarist practicing 5-6 hours per day, plus plays two sets a night. While I am in no way disregarding the accomplishments of the masters, I want to bring up an important teaching from the zen tradition. It’s very simple: there is the idea of something and there is the reality of living that idea. In other words, it sounds like a great idea to practice 12 hours a day and become the next great master. For a few, very few of us, that might be the road you need to take. What I have found is that “great idea” is just your thinking, not good/not bad. The actuality of that thinking; the waking up and spending 12 hours a day might be terrible for you. Not only can you become mentally exhausted, but you will risk injury as well. What might have worked for Paco De Lucia, the great flamenco guitar master, might ruin your body and possibly end your career. Of course, each of us needs to find the balance between hard work, play and rest. Just beware that a “good” idea might just be a romantic and unrealistic goal that could have many bad consequences for the artist. Every year I have traveled to Spain for intense study, at least five dancers or guitarists over practice and end up becoming injured. This brings us to the next topic.
Often, especially when attending music school, working as a professional musician or traveling to a country for intense training, there is an unspoken demand to practice more and more. I have heard of artists telling other artists to play more aggressively on stage. In response to this, I would recommend reading “The Biomechanics of Guitar”, by Dr. Joaquin Farias. Dr. Farias is a world renowned doctor who treats many artists who injury themselves by poor posture, over practice or simply the repetitive nature and demands of pursuing one’s craft vigorously. In his book, Dr. Farias explains in detail all of the injuries one can get if one pushes too hard. In my own experience, I played too hard on a new guitar for many hours and developed tendentious that lasted 6 months. For 6 months I could not play at all. I learned a big lesson during that time and adjusted accordingly. Currently, I use many healing modalities to prevent injury. l study proper technique with a few more advanced guitar teachers. I correct my posture by practicing The Alexander Technique. Yoga and Meditation and going to a massage therapist once a week help immensely as well. All of these modalities work together to release the build up a daily guitar practice creates. I would suggest looking into these preventative modalities.
My personal routine
I am 45 years old and have been playing the guitar for 33 or those years. When I was younger, I often played all day into the night. Where I am today,taking into account my energy levels and physical concerns, I try to pursue my art daily without overdoing it. I try to practice 3 hours a day, taking a break after each hour. I divide my sessions into 3 categories: Technique, New Material and Old Material. This includes time for improvisation and composition. During my breaks, I stretch, go for a walk, read, play with my cat, etc. The trick here is to practice 3 hours every day, versus practicing a ton for a month, then falling off and beginning new. Also, it is important to state that one builds up slowly to one’s full practice. If you play 1 hour one day, then 5 the next, you might be risking an injury. In addition to my 3 hours, I teach, rehearse and play gigs regularly. As mentioned before, I exercise daily, practice meditation and reserve time for the things that allow me to keep my practice going.
I hope these ideas help you create a practice that supports your spirit, respects your body and allows you to play well during your time on the planet. May your practicing be joyful and life supporting.