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  • Writer's pictureQueen Reed

Why are you practicing?

One of my friends says she has a relationship with practicing that is “Never, Sometimes, Always” – she Never wants to practice, she Sometimes does anyway, and then she Always feels better after. Why does thinking about practicing fill us with dread? Are you already thinking of all the things you simply MUST do before you can sit down to practice? (answer emails, make a dentist appointment, brush the couch, search for the goodest-doggos on Pinterest, reorganize the spoons).

Practicing is a means to an end. But what is that end? Is it an emotional state – you feel good if you did it and guilty it you didn’t? Is it a completed solo, etude, number of minutes on the clock? A better sound, a higher high note? A louder loud, faster fingers? These are commodities which we compile toward the big prize: Perfection! That amazing combination of sound, technique, interpretation, and feeling we have idealized in our mind’s ear. That day when our teachers and inner critics will both agree that we Have Finally Made It, we are a Real Clarinetist.

But what if the end result isn’t any of that? Or what if it’s more than that?

If we focus on Understanding as an end-product, we access the logic of knowing that to get anywhere we haven’t been, we must do something different than what we are already doing. If I want to learn the cha-cha, I must do something other than what I am doing right now, which is in fact, not learning the cha-cha. I must decide what steps I’d like to take, and I must take those steps. In a basic sense, Understanding is about recognizing what thing it is that we want, and making a thoughtful decision about how to move toward that thing. If we focus on Understanding the difference between what we currently can do on the clarinet and what we hope to be able to do, we can make goals, and make a plan for achieving those goals on any scale from mini to mega.

What if Enjoyment was a goal of practicing by itself? Making music can be sweet, it can be exciting, it can be mournful or terrifying. And all of those things, in their own way, can be joyful to experience. When we are making music, we create sounds and we go through physical processes to create those sounds – and that is satisfying. Aren’t trills kooky and fun? Doesn’t it feel great to hit that high note? Do you remember the delight when you realized there was an alternate throat Bb? Do you secretly love the sheer power of sound when your clarinet lets rip a lightning-bolt squeak? Pretending you’re underwater, holding your breath, aged 10 when you are doing long tones is magnificent. Trust your sense of fun. And if you can’t remember the last time you had fun with your clarinet, this is an urgent message you need to hear: stop doing clarinet the way you are doing it and try it differently. Find a happier group to play with, find new music, find a new teacher, maybe cross-train on the sax/flute/ukulele/whatever for a while. Give yourself time and space to unwind the un-enjoyment and start again when you are ready. Set your sails for that soul-satisfying synergy with the muse of clarinety-ness. Dive in to that feel-good lake and keep swimming there.

By focusing on Growth, we can rid ourselves of the paralyzing notion that we have to be at a certain level of greatness before we show ourselves to the world or even to ourselves. You are one tiny human among billions of organisms plopped on this one tiny planet in all of SPACE in this one tiny lifetime of years in the huge vastness that is all TIME. And you have made the most excellent choice to create music, and to attempt to master an instrument of music – the clarinet, or as I like to call it, the “barky stick.” Mastery is a bit of a strong word here – no one ever can truly Master another object. But, we can get really darn excellent at predicting how it will behave given the forces we exert on it (air, lips, fingers). Let yourself Grow as you spend time playing, and marvel in the growth as it happens. When you see your niece/cousin/aunt after 10 years, you don’t compare her to all of the people you know who are her same age. You marvel at how much she has changed since the last time you saw her. You marvel in HER growth from that time 10 years ago to now. Marvel in your own growth, and not in how you stack up to others. They are on their own path, you are on yours, keep off of their path.

This brings me to my last point. So practicing doesn’t have to be about Perfection, or preventing a self-imposed guilt-trip, or about producing a commodity like a completed solo. It can be about Growing, Enjoying, Understanding, and also, an opportunity. When you play your instrument, and you make playing a normal part of your life, you have one of the best opportunities known to wo/mankind: you get to be the lead scientist in a most wonderful and long-lasting Grand Experiment. You are both the researcher and the subject and you get to decide which questions you want answered and you get to decide which experiments you will undertake to answer those questions. You get to make detailed lab notes with doodles around the edges about what works and doesn’t work, what makes a better sound, what is easier, what is fun, what set of compromises works best. And you get to burn those notes if they no longer make sense and start again. You get to hunt for the secrets of rhythm, melody, harmony and revel in the pretty patterns and startling anomalies you’ll find there. You’ll buy lots of lab equipment in the process, and you’ll get to talk to a ton of other clarinetists out there who are also just trying to play fast and sound pretty. And they will tell you how their own Grand Experiment is going. Along the way, you will create your own Understanding, Growth, and Enjoyment. And the best part is there is no final exam, there is no due date on your research. You have all the time allotted to you on this Earth to play.

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