What Playing Music Really Is: 3 Surprising Truths I Learned From My Teachers

Music is a necessity of life for me. I’m guessing it may be for you too. Music runs through my head every waking moment, and probably when I’m sleeping. Making music and teaching music, particularly helping others enjoy their own music studies, are the activities that claim most of my time and energy.

Of course, my musical journey has been far from smooth. I have had disappointments and frustrations. Certainly there are many things I would do differently given the ability to wind back the clock. Overall, though, I have been blessed with opportunities and friendships that never would have come my way had I given up and pursued another path.

My accomplishments and harp happiness isn’t due solely to my own grit or determination, naturally. Without the support of caring and gifted teachers, I might have stayed mired in the swamps of despair or disillusionment.  The lessons I want to share with you today are ones that enabled me to persevere through the hard times. They are touchstones for me as I live and teach about harp happiness. 

I present them here in the way they became clear to me, as “aha” moments, ideas that corrected my misconceptions and revealed sustaining truths. I hope you too find them powerful.

Lesson 3: The goal of practice isn’t to “fix” things: it is to figure out how to make them closer to the way you want them more of the time.

I know that sounds vague, but allow me to make the distinction a little clearer. It is necessary to remember that every note of music is a unique occurrence; it will never happen in that same place and time and in that exact way again. If exact replication is a myth outside of a recording studio, then consistency within reason is the best we can hope to attain.

When you accept that as true, then you can let go of the frustration of trying to “get it right” every time. In fact, “fixing” something once and forever is actually impossible. There will always be a mistake that you have never made before, even if it is a comparatively small flaw.

What you are trying to discover in your practice is the combination of things - fingerings, timings, dynamics, etc. - that provide the highest likelihood of consistency and then to give yourself as many opportunities in practice and performance to strengthen and test them. Consistency develops over time. 

This concept is key to avoiding frustration in your practice. Just because you worked hard on a passage yesterday doesn’t guarantee that it will be perfect today and every day in the future. But look on the bright side: if practice were as simple as “once and done,” it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

Lesson 2: Your performance on any given day isn't a measure of your abilities; it is a measure of your preparation. 

There is nothing as demoralizing as a performance that goes more poorly than you had hoped. Unfortunately, those performances happen to all of us. 

Each performance, whether it’s one we are proud of or one we wish we could erase, is simply a snapshot taken at a particular moment. It is a product of that particular situation, our mental and physical state at that moment and the degree of familiarity we have with a piece. There are too many variables in that equation to waste any energy in self-doubt or guilt. 

In fact, after an unsatisfactory performance, you have only two choices: to quit performing or to learn from it so you can prepare better for the next one. Experienced performers know the value of previewing a new program several times before presenting it in public. Those practice performances reveal any weaknesses and give the player the chance to address them. 

It's important to remember that mistakes or memory lapses don’t mean that you haven’t practiced enough. They simply show up the spots you missed, as sunlight shows up the streaks after you’ve cleaned the window. It’s not a lack of talent or lack of hard work; it’s just something that needs a little more attention.

Lesson 1: The level of your success isn’t limited by your talent as much as it is determined by your ability to be more invested in your progress than in your feelings.

That famous quip about the way to Carnegie Hall being to “practice, practice, practice,” is only half the story. 

Whether you want to get to Carnegie Hall or play nowhere other than your living room, practice is indeed where you start. But in your practice, in your lessons and in your performances, you will screw up. You will try and often you will fail, whether you’re struggling with a tricky passage or simply making mistakes. All those mistakes are simply part of the path to progress, the whole process of growth. If you aren’t experiencing them, you aren’t growing.

I knew someone long ago who told me he had gotten so frustrated with his golf game one day that he wrapped his club around a tree. Understandable perhaps, if short sighted. And definitely not conducive to improving his golf game.

A better method for approaching your mistakes is not to take them personally. Being objective about what happened rather than critical about what you did is key to being able to work to effect the change you want. Being critical of yourself for making mistakes is damaging both to your progress and your self-confidence. Being alert to your mistakes and figuring out how to prevent them (see Lesson 3 above) is the only way to rise above them. 

I’d love to know if any of these lessons were “aha” moments for now. If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments below.


50% Complete

Two Step

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.