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Do Not Practice

The work of a musician never ends. We apply our attention to skill building, technique, repertoire, and knowledge. But if all we ever do is practice towards goals with benchmarks in mind, we can easily miss out on an important aspect of musicianship.

How much are we connecting to our instruments, our path, and the experience of creative sound? How much of ourselves are we allowing to be present in the music that we make? How much joy do we find in exploring and experimenting with music in ways that link us to deeper human experience?

It is true that steady discipline is a key to success. Fundamental skills must always be tended, and learning to “love the work” is important for musical growth. That being said, I challenge my students and friends to set some dedicated time aside this year for not just “practicing.” Not working. Not trying. Not wrestling with goals. Set time aside in your routine for simply being in the space and time of music-making, in whatever way that might make sense to you. Do not look at sheet music or force a product to be involved. There is plenty of time for that, and temporarily unplugging ourselves from constant project-oriented systems can be very healthy and effective. 

One example of intentional mindfulness exercise for instrumentalists could be allowing your hands to move naturally across the playing area (or any area) of your instrument, and noticing the sounds that you create in the process. Don't think too much about it, just experience it. Don't judge whether it sounds “good” or “bad.” What you might find while doing this is something that you haven't thought of before, or something that inspires you in another more structured context. Follow the sounds that feel interesting to you. Try different rhythms and harmonies. Think about the relationship between yourself and your instrument, and feel for opportunities to lessen any separation that exists there.

Improvisation can also be wonderful for creating more-play & less-work attitudes. We find magical things when we are outside of our planned comfort zone, and we can carry those things forward into everything we do. Play along with a favorite song, but use your ear instead of a chart. Have a friend play basic chords while you “noodle” around them, or play any of a zillion backtracks available on the web. Don’t worry about what it sounds like, just make some noise and be present with it. Observe and reflect, but resist large analysis or judgment. Be brave and try different things. Make up your own mind about how it all sounds and feels. 

Musical expression is elevated through both fluency and authenticity. Skill achieved through dedicated work is a very important aspect of this, yes... so I take it back: DO practice, and practice often. We can also notice that traditional “practice” is not the only good method to enhance musicality, and it can be balanced in beneficial ways. It should always be colored with awareness and curiosity, and ultimately with the truth of what you feel. Be playful when you play. Understand that music is about you being You. Whether you are a beginner or an accomplished pro, taking time to just be with your music-making can be a highly positive and healthy habit. 

Christopher Eck teaches Guitar, Ukulele, Mandolin, and Banjo at Dynamic Music Studios in Coralville, IA.

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