We've all heard it...How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Recently I was playing at an orchestra concert where the audience sat in with us and watched what was going on. Afterwards, they had the opportunity to ask us questions. I was asked if I practice everyday. YES, the answer is most of us do for some amount of time everyday. People seemed surprised since we were "so good." It's our job to be good. That requires daily practice. It is part of our job to practice. Another shocker, I still take lessons. Although when you are a professional they are referred to as coachings. This luxury isn't a regular occurrence, maybe 2-4 times per year. It depends on the year and the need. It's so great to get some input from a set of ears that are listening for different things than I am.
What I think people outside of music seem to not realize is that playing a musical instrument at a consistent, high level requires a daily routine of some kind like a professional athlete. We are using muscles in our face, lips, core, arms and legs. And because most of us are never satisfied, there is always something to learn and improve on. There is also a mental component that needs to be addressed like a meditation or other mindfulness practice. My practice routine gives me a time out of my day to focus on one thing, be in the present moment, figure out how to solve problems creativity and achieve goals. After that time, I feel more focused (most of the time) and happy that I achieved some goals that day.
Every musician has a number depending on their physical and mental needs of playing. My average number is 2 hours over the course of the day. Sometimes less, sometimes more depending on what's coming up to prepare for . There were years where it was more like 4-6 hours per day. Every musician I know has had a time period like that in their lives. Percussionists more like 8-10 hours. String players 6-8 hours. There is a great book that talks about the 10,000 hours of practice to be a master at anything, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. He discusses many examples of masters like Bill Gates and the Beatles.
Over my practice time, I do a warm-up routine, technical studies, and music I am working on for work, an audition or my own project. First, I keep a practice log and I write down where I left off the day before and what I want to get done today. I like to focus in short spurts of time. I'm a big fan of Chris Smith of the San Diego Symphony's approach of 8 minutes on and 4 minutes off. He has a great blog post about that. I set a timer and know exactly what I want to get done in my 8 minutes. For me this is a very easy way to be efficient with my time and get a lot done. Setting a timer helps me not get fixated on one thing and move on to the next. This ratio may not work for everyone but it's a good place to start if you are looking for more efficiency with anything. When you practice everyday, you have to practice every aspect of your playing regularly so all aspects of your playing get better, not just one aspect. You aren't a well rounded player if you only practice one thing all the time.
I do end up recording myself everyday. I need to know what I sound like in front of me. My ears are behind the trumpet bell so the perspective is different. But the biggest reason for recording is "you can't be a critic and a performer at the same time." Your focus is divided and you won't perform well. That was a popular saying from Vincent Penzarella, retired from the NY Philharmonic. The recorder doesn't lie and you can make adjustments faster when you can hear them on the recorder. Another step further, slow down what you record with the app Tonal Energy to hear even clearer. Chris Still of the LA Philharmonic recommends that. The Rod Rec app also slows down recordings. That's a recommendation from Mark Inouye of the San Francisco Symphony.
When you start recording yourself regularly, you learn your tendencies and you take ownership of making your own adjustments in your playing. It's nice to go for lessons or ask friends their opinion and vice, but ultimately you have to be the one to get what you want out of your playing. That's the beauty of what we do.
To close out this practice post, here's a quote I keep from an article in the New Yorker written by Jeremy Denk 4/2013, who wrote about the passing of his piano teacher and his life in lessons:
"There's a labyrinth of voices inside your head, a counterpoint of self-awareness and the remembered sayings of your guides and mentors, who don't always agree. Sometimes you wish you could go back and ask your teachers again to guide you; but up there onstage, exactly where they always wanted you to be, you must simply find your way. They have given all the help they can; the only person who can solve the labyrinth of yourself is you."