Should I practice this some more? Or I can just play it already?
This kind of question comes up a lot when playing an instrument as challenging as classical guitar. Notice I said "playing" classical guitar. That's how we refer in public to what we do. If someone asks 'What instrument you "play?,
you reply with "I play classical guitar."
No-one ever asks you what instrument you practice. But to be truthful, if you're serious about "playing" most of your time with the guitar is actually supposed
to be spent "practicing." Or so they say. Practice and Play are two sides of an internal battle in our lives as guitarists. On one extreme is the widely-held idea that you need to spend tedious practice time "getting the notes" before you're ever allowed to have any fun playing. You're supposed to do this so you don't "practice in any mistakes." On the other extreme is the desire to just play through your pieces, over and over and over again, hoping they'll magically get better, even if you're blithely ignoring mistake after mistake. Let's imagine a battle: The battle between practicing and playing. Let's line up the battle forces. Practice, Practice, Practice
On this side of the divide are the neverending champions of perfection, the note police.
They are the "get the notes right" enforcers,
always watching over you with a red pencil of shame. Sometimes we associate the note police
with our teacher, feeling self-conscious about mistakes when we play for him or her. Their mission: eradicate all wrong notes, all technical ineptness, all playing outside the lines, each and every squeak, every scrap of fingernail noise... plus anything and everything else you are doing wrong, wrong , wrong. You enable them when you police yourself relentlessly, commanding and interrogating your notes, your music, your technique, your hands and fingers and nails, every time you practice, until you become so stiff and fearful that you couldn't express yourself if offered a million bucks as a reward. Play, Play, Play!
On the other side are the "sloppiness is my form of self-expressionists",
for short, fighting for their right to party. They form an army of sloppy, music-drunk archers, defending their need to express themselves fully. twanging notes out in the general direction of the staff, hitting it often enough call it music if you don't listen too closely. Every time you take the espress-yourself-lane through the music, running roughshod over the technical details, you are giving the expressionistas
an inch which they will stretch into a mile. If you ever notice how sloppy you've gotten, it can be ever-so-hard to call the note police
to rescue you. They will not go easy on your indiscretions, and you can lose heart quickly in the harsh light of their perfectionism. The true magnitude of their war on mistakes is staggering and endless. Rarely do these two sides ever cooperate with each other. Sometimes the cruel and self-deflating "note-police-force"
wins out. Sometimes the ecstatic and self-convincing expressionistas
win out. What side do you tend to fall on in this imaginary battle?
When you sit down to practice, do you actually spend more time "playing?"
At its worst this means just rushing through one piece after another, temporarily "fixing" (but not really) a few blaring errors before moving on to something more fun. Or do you spend more time "practicing,"
At its worst this means stopping in the middle of nearly every bar to give yourself a traffic ticket, waiting for the ok from note police headquarters
before daring to move on. Will this really never end? Do the note-police-force
and the expressionistas
always need to be egging each other on in your brain, denigrating each other, taking cheap shots at each other, blasting each other in and out of your consciousness? Will they ever get along? Ok. Take a deep breath. Release it loudly and expressively. Just describing this sorry battle is making me feel way too tense. Let's look at how it can be turned into something more constructive.
Do practicing and playing have to be so polarized? First off, I want to help you redefine your notion of the term "polarized." When we say two things are polarized, we are talking about an extreme, battle-ready polarity. But a polarity doesn't have to imply a battle, like good versus evil, dark versus light, stupid versus smart. Defining practice and play (or anything, for that matter) as such an extreme polarity is rarely healthy or productive. A polarity is best seen as a useful concept, like yin and yang. We can use the concept of polarity to gain insight into how two seemingly separate things are really related, and actually part of a larger whole. Breathing, for instance, is a polarity. You breath in, you breath out. Yes, they are opposite. And they feed each other. One needs the other. If you stopped breathing oxygen in you'd die. If you stopped breathing CO2 out you'd also die. Your inbreath and your outbreath are dependent on each other like you are dependent them...for life.
Can we say the same thing about Practice and Play? Yes, we can. Practice and play need each other. They can work together, and in fact they do work together, all the time, naturally. They feed and nourish each other, just like your inbreath and your outbreath. Put simply, you practice so you can play. When you play, you find out what you need to practice more. Without one you wouldn’t have the other.
If this rings true to you, what does it mean for you when you sit down to play? Stay tuned for part 2. I'll cover more practical and possible ideas on this topic in my upcoming ebook Conquering Technical Hurdles: The Art of Mastering Classical Guitar Technique