After 15 years of making music I’ve finally worked out how to practice effectively. I warm up well, I play lots of scales, I improvise, I play fun pieces of music and I work on serious repertoire. These are all things I used to do throughout highschool and uni, but with one huge difference. My practice regime no longer contains shame.
Shame and negative self talk have pretty much always been part of my practice. I remember when it first started, towards the end of my time with my first teacher. She would get frustrated if I didn’t show exponential improvement lesson to lesson, and after several terms of her inappropriate attitude I was ready to quit.
My second teacher did a brilliant job at catching me up, and rebuilding my confidence, however, because I was relentlessly throwing myself at AMEB exams we never really “caught up” to where I was “supposed” to be. I was always flying by the seat of my pants, and because I practiced I was able to improve just enough to get the marks I desired.
This pattern continued all through highschool, into uni and after uni. There were some practice sessions at uni where I’d lock myself in the practice room and cry. I would cry because I had so much repertoire, and so many assignments. I would cry because I didn’t think any of my work was fully up to scratch and I would feel so ashamed about my lack of knowledge. I was a musician, studying my favourite instrument with one of the best tertiary teachers, and I still seemingly couldn’t play the way I wanted to.
The negative self talk became worse as I exited uni and started on my path to learn the language of jazz. My scales have never been great, and to play jazz well, they need to be really really REALLY good. The pattern of frustration, shame and tears during practice I’d found in the university practice rooms followed me home. I would sit in my room, practice, beat myself up over the fact I was struggling, which in tern would make me play worse and not absorb information, which in tern would make me beat myself up.
After months and months of this cycle I stopped practicing. I was still playing, and teaching, so my level never deteriorated, but I stopped playing at home and actively trying to improve my craft. I did this for over a year until I picked up ukulele and relearned how slow, healthy musical progress feels.
The biggest secret to practising effectively is to first accept where you are musically, then proceed to give yourself the space and the time to slowly work on the issues you’re trying to fix. With scales (aka my problem area), I broke down the process until it was ludicrously easy. I only practiced 1 octave across all 12 keys until I felt comfortable. If I was getting frustrated I would take a break. Most importantly if I didn’t feel like practising I wouldn’t.
I let myself have the space to be bad at something I “should” have been good at.
There’s a reason why we call it “playing” music. It’s supposed to be fun. Practice is not fun or fulfilling when its filled with shame.
Speaking of mental health things! I was recently interviewed for cut common’s mental health series! You can read that interview here