Some of my regular readers will be more familiar with my blog as medium to find out about my recent musical activities. This time I'm taking a break from that format with the hope to open up a discussion on an important topic for musicians- practice.
I started playing drums when I was eight years old, now I'm twenty three practice has taken on many different guises for me. As I am fast approaching my fifteenth anniversary of picking up the sticks it seems an appropriate time to take stock of the situation.
When I was very young practice was something my teacher would nag me to do. I had no method of how to go about it, let alone an instrument on which to do it, and would just sit down and try tapping through the stuff we had done in the last lesson on my practice pad. When I started secondary school it changed from being a solitary pursuit to one which involved wind bands, choirs and later on jazz and rock bands. The practice of music became very much my social life at this period, with many rehearsals at lunchtimes or after school. Despite being heavily involved in music I still lacked any kind of discipline on my own. I would occasionally practise things which my teacher had showed me at school but I was yet to develop the critical capacity and the patience to sit there and thoroughly practise anything. At that time I was playing and practising with so many groups that I thought it didn't matter.
It wasn't really until I was sixteen that I began to get an inkling of what practice was about. I entered for my grade seven drum kit exam which was one of the first real challenges for me. I found that without more regular practice I would be unable to play everything that was required for my exam. I think this was when I first began practising for up to an hour by myself on a daily basis and I immediately noticed the benefits. Instead of just getting by I was able to play things well. This level of practice continued through Sixth Form college and increased to upto two hours daily when I began preparing for music college auditions. I improved rapidly during that time learning challenging styles like Latin and Jazz. It was an exciting period of musical discovery for me and was the beginings of learning how to really practice.
When I first started at Birmingham Conservatoire I had to really review the way in which I practised and develop some kind of routine to make sure that I covered all the new material I was given. Drum lessons became less regular but for a longer period of time. Teachers would give me large amounts of stuff to work on in one go and then I wouldn't see them for a month. This demanded that I developed more discipline and a routine to make sure I got through it all. For my first two years there I regularly practised for five to seven hours a day and would try to roughly spend an hour on each area. I also developed the ability to look at my own playing in a critical manner in order to address what I really needed to work on. I spent a lot of time working with a metronome, correcting bad technique and playing at low dynamics. The results of this were that when ever I sat down to play with others I felt highly connected with my instrument, it was like we knew each other inside out. However the downsides were that I was overly critical of my playing and my confidence took a big dive. For the first time I understood actually how 'good' I was at the drums and how much work I needed to put in. Thankfully as I improved through practice my confidence did a little as well.
By my third year of music college I was playing in so many bands that practice took a back seat again, a little like my time at secondary school. I spent all my time in rehearsals with other musicians my age and it was exciting but highly stressful. I learnt a lot about how to play in a band context and performing to an audience: I was even running my own band. The downside to this period was that I wasn't looking after myself properly and lost focus on my own practice; I nearly flunked my third year technical exam through lack of time to prepare. By the end of that year I was burnt out and questioning whether I ever wanted to play jazz again.
The final year at the Conservatoire was more about getting through and trying not to take on too much. I was allowed time to develop my interest in Latin Percussion through my Major Project which was fantastic and kept me going through my period of disillusionment. Practice changed from an obsession to a short daily routine of an hour or two to keep my hand in. I also had to greatly cut down on the number of gigs I attended, for the past three years I had been at a gig almost every night. I could no longer keep up the routine of going to bed at two and getting up at six. At the time cutting back was the best thing for me and enabled me to get my degree (BMus Hons 2:1) but I was plagued with guilt about not practising hard enough.
Now one year on and I am a professional musician and practice takes a completely different role in my life again. I live in a terraced house where any practice I do must be as quiet as possible and not for too long a period. I teach for two and a half days a week which also restricts my practice time. If I'm lucky I get the opportunity to practise when my students don't turn up to their lessons, which is brilliant! (Not that they don't come but that I can practise) Practice has become more of a joy again as I get less opportunity to do it nowadays. I also find that I practise things in a more concise way. I look at what I need to work on for the music that I am playing and focus a lot on technique. I am much better now at creating a work/life ballance and really enjoy jazz again. I am also conscious of areas of my playing where I have lost the control that I would have had a couple of years ago, which is upsetting. I am gigging more than ever and probably need to develop some methods of practising whilst waiting around at venues.
It seems to be that practice has moved in cycles during my life and I'm ever conscious to avoid 'burn out' at all costs. Any thoughts from fellow musicians or practitioners of other disciplines would be greatly received.