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Ending the Battle between Practice and Play, Part 2

Ending the Battle between Practice and Play, Part 2 post image

In Part One of this article, I talked about the imaginary battle between practice and play, between the note police and the expressionistas.

I tried to get them to reconcile by pointing out that they need each other.

In this post, I want to look further into the differences and the connections between practice and play, as I see them, and how you can use them to give you ideas when you sit down with your guitar.

Before I go on, I want to admit that I, personally, lean heavily “expressionista.”When I was learning classical guitar, most of what I did was play; in fact, I never thought of it as practicing, not for a very long time. I just knew it was something that I wanted to do and didn’t want to stop doing once I got started.We all have our own particular balance of practice and play. But you can tell my bias simply by looking at the pictures I drew: the expressionista looks like he’s having a lot of fun. And to tell you the truth, he doesn’t look all that sloppy.

Given that I’m biased as an expressionista, so you can take my recommendations with that in mind, I want to make the following claim:

The note police need to serve the expressionistas , not the other way around.

You practice so you can play, not the other way around. We are here to make music, not to control every little detail.

Practice is about practicality.Same word root. Really good, practical and deliberate practice leads to focused achievement. It’s about slowing down and honing in. It’s about pulling apart the components, looking for the level at which things can be made efficient,  looking for principles and shortcuts,  for the most efficient way to get things to work: your hands, the scale you are trying to play, the tone you are trying to get, the mistake-free rendition.

It’s about paying attention to what’s going on, analyzing it, figuring out what’s needed, and then doing the work.

Good practice is realistic with itself about all the requirements. If you get too focused on perfection, you get stuck. There can be some rules, but the expressionistas and the note police ultimately set them up in mutual agreement and follow them by choice, depending on what you are practicing, only because you know they will help you achieve your overall purpose.

The overall purpose is not eliminating mistakes: it’s bringing the music to life.

In an ideal world, if your note police are to serve their true purpose, they need to learn to follow the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law. They need to become noble listeners, guarding and guiding your attention. They need to give up shaming and belittling and learn to facilitate and enable. If they hear or see anything that falls outside of what you are trying to achieve, outside of whatever practice rules you have agreed on, they call that to your attention. They keep you on track about what needs to get done, about whether you are actually doing it yet or not. When you’re finished practicing well you and your allies, the note police/noble listeners come back to those goals and check to see if they have been met yet.

What happens if you let the expressionistas call the shots?

Well, for one, if they know the note police aren’t hunting them down with evil intent, chances are they won’t be so desperate, dispirited or defiant. Self-expression can be more natural when it’s valued rather than denigrated. The noble listeners/note police can still hold a goal of perfection and control, secretly in their heart of hearts. But they know too that getting things perfect is a limited goal: technique serves a larger purpose. And the the expressionistas hold the more important key to this larger purpose.

Perfection is not ambitious enough a goal. If you want to really achieve something with your practicing, you need Play.

Play is not about practicality.

Play is about possibility.

It’s not about sticking to the straight and narrow path.

Play is about finding and forging your own path.

That is why it is more ambitious, hands down, then merely practicing. When you play you really go for it. While the practice police want to have a clearly etched path that they can keep you on, as a fully engaged expressionista you play with no expectations other than that the path will form in front of you!

When you play you sense the opportunities available in each moment. You allow yourself to imagine what could happen even if it seems unreasonable or way beyond your ability. You explore, go on adventures, engage in your curiosity, try all kinds of different things. And you either hit the mark or you don’t. The path appears and you keep moving, or it doesn’t, and you stumble, fall, and get up again.

And if you get stuck, then you know what you have to practice, right?

Remember the symbol yin and the yang. There needs to be some yin in your yang and there needs to be some yang in your yin.

There needs to be some play in your practice, and there needs to be some practice in your play.

While you are playing part of you is inevitably aware of what and where you could have gotten closer to that ideal sound in your mind and heart. That’s the practice in your play. That’s the note police keeping tabs on you, as public servants, not as despotic practice-hounds.

In fact, by now I am really getting tired of calling them the note police. I nominate the term perfectionistas.  The perfectionistas  are busy all the time, but try not to let them get away with belittling you, and just let them get to work coming up with all kinds of great ideas for things like formulating practice plans, creating contextual practice rules, inventing brilliant technical exercises that serve the music as directly and practically as possible.

And while you are practicing part of you needs to be open and playful. Part of you needs to be flexible and sensitive to any and all information that comes your way. Part of you needs to be ready to light out on an adventure. Don’t worry, your expressionista won’t get punished for any spontaneous musical impulses, even if they break the rules of the moment. Unpredictability is built into music. And your expressionista intuition might (and probably will) be just the information that you need to solve the practical problems that the perfectionistas are so diligently concerned with solving.

To recap:

You practice so you can play. When you play, you find out what you need to practice more. Practice and play need each other. They are two sides of the same impulse.

Really good practice leads to focused achievement.

It’s about efficiency, analysis, practicality.

Practice Deliberately. Practice full-heartedly, knowing that you are fulfilling a meaningful purpose.

Play is more ambitious than practice. It’s about bringing music to life.

Let your practice serve your play.

Play is about possibility, and possibilities are endless. It’s open to what wants to happen. It takes chances. It gives you ideas—ideas you need to feed into your practice.

Play ambitiously. Play full out. Trust your fingers to find the notes that your heart wants to hear.

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



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