As musicians we’re all constant works-in-progress. Picture your favorite musical moments from even the most gifted of musicians/artists alike and I guarantee you at some point one of them will admit that during one of those times, they felt they were not performing to the best of their capabilities. It’s an inevitable facet of the human existence, and a necessary hurdle to jump early on in your artistic career. Plain and simple. We can’t be “on” everyday. On the flipside, there are things we CAN do to eliminate this truth from ever obstructing our creative improvement ever again.
It’s similar to the adage of “doing the best you can,” and in the unavoidable events where things still go awry, it means cultivating a resilience that comes from being experienced enough that your “mistakes” are good ones- or not noticeably mistakes at all.
Yes, it’s a relative subject depending on personal taste and area of expertise. (ie: singing vs playing guitar) There will always be someone that thinks a band is garbage, but a strong stance is usually an indicator that a band has something of value in the area of talent to offer someone else. The point is, we will always make mistakes. See a mistake as a defined area for you to focus more attention on in your practice, and therefore not really a mistake at all. Not to mention, the argument exists that your inexperienced approach toward areas of less familiarity in your craft offers congruent opportunities for innovation in your craft. (Yes I’m an optimist!)
Now understand that when it comes to practice it’s not a battle of quality vs quantity.. but a healthy balance of each that form a solid foundation upon which you can build your dream creative yield.
An all too familiar example (and reminder that we all need to step up our live performance game) is discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” in reference to the Beatles’ playing 1200 shows before achieving their success. It’s an obvious example of the benefits of frequency of practice and we can all assume that this quantity of work was a major factor in the Beatles’ success in becoming major.
On the other hand, Paul McCartney himself somewhat argued that although true, Gladwell’s research for success’ recipe alone isn’t necessarily a guarantee by stating, “there were an awful lot of bands that were out in Hamburg who put in 10,000 hours and didn’t make it, so it’s not a cast iron theory. I think, however, when you look at a group who has been successful… I think you always will find that amount of work in the background. But I don’t think it’s a rule that if you do that amount of work, you’re going to be as successful as the Beatles.”
Through McCartney’s first-hand account of the subject of Gladwell’s actual case study, we learn that rote action practice is not enough to achieve best results.
A common misconception among “lazy” practicers is to “practice” things at which you are already accomplishing successfully. For example, playing the same riffs and fills that we’ve already mastered. It’s incredibly rewarding to hear the vocalizations, and notes that you can execute well and are comfortable with-but what about the ugly ones? The underlying gold along our road to success in practice is in the ugly bits-our mistakes.
Taking things a step further, maybe the Beatles’ formula for practice led to success by virtue of getting a lot of their “practice” time in during live shows due to their rigorous gigging schedule. Maybe in addition to the frequency of playing, they were able to detach from worrying about making mistakes during shows, and able to let it all hang out.
It’s an important idea to grasp, since from that example, so many musicians have automatically mined that 10,000+ hours is the key to the career of their dreams. While not entirely false, more fleshing out is needed in order to get close. Here are a few tips to help you figure out how to proceed in foggier areas of your practice routine, and generate optimum results.
1. Practice the ugly bits. - You know that part where your stomach turns when you attempt it? That’s it!
2. Get an audience. - Invite a colleague in music to join you in your practice routine, create a mastermind or meetup group in an area you want to improve or in or that you’re most uncomfortable with.
3. Improv a song at your next show. Do something musically that is unplanned, unrehearsed or freestyle. Mistakes may come, hopefully only you will know (and the know it all musicians in your audience), but the rewards in confidence, and freedom will be most profitable overall.
4. Analyze your next practice session and notice what tasks/actions you are drawn to and what you are less thrilled about doing and why. Then change areas of focus to insure proper attention is given to areas according to level of mastery greatest to smallest.
5. Devise a plan for your practice. Don’t just wander through your practice time. Construct a plan, focusing on repetitive tasks/actions first with a set amount of time for each. Perform your more creative open ended, improvisational tasks that may take longer to complete (songwriting, finding song melodies/topics,etc) thereafter.
Cecili is a singer/songwriter based out of Atlanta, GA. Her blog is http://intentionalmusician.com - Her official site is http://www.cecilimusic.com