I play a handful of formal classical guitar concerts each year. These are recital-type affairs.
- I rent a hall.
- I promote the show.
- People come.
- They sit down.
- I walk out and perform a prepared program of solo guitar music.
- They clap.
- We all go home (not together).
These concerts, or recitals, are usually spaced out throughout the year. So I know I have one coming up in a couple of months. (I play several times per month in private recitals, and for hire. But I feel less pressure with these.)
Paved With Good Intentions
Now, here’s where the struggle comes in.
I have plenty of repertoire. I could just play a show of material that I have already worked up and polished. But, as a challenge to myself, I always try to put new material on each program. That way I am constantly learning new material. Of course, I also include music from my existing repertoire.
But even the music from my existing repertoire needs to be constantly moving forward. (As I may have mentioned in other posts, music is either getting better or it’s getting worse. There is really no such thing as “maintaining” a piece of music at a certain level.)
The Voluntary Workload
So the bottom line of all this is: I need to be practicing. A lot.
There is tons of work to do to prepare for these concerts. I schedule the concerts SO THAT I have a reason to do the work. The public deadline is meant to be motivating. I book concerts to light a fire under myself and to create a challenge for myself.
At times I wish I could be more cavalier about it. But for some reason, this is something I feel compelled to take seriously.
However, knowing all this, and loving to play guitar, and loving music, and knowing that this is what I have chosen to do with my time, there are still times when I look at my guitar and I simply do not want to practice.
That Sinking Feeling
Guitar is my thing, and I enjoy it. But some days, I get to my office, I look at my guitar, and my heart just sinks. For some reason, some days I don’t feel like practicing at all. In fact, I am repulsed by the idea.
“I feel like a two-year-old, ready to kick and scream and thrash about on the floor.”
I know I should practice. I want to want to practice. But, for some reason, I just don’t want to. I feel like a two-year-old, ready to kick and scream and thrash about on the floor, as if playing my guitar was on par with eating bugs, or swimming with snakes, or bee-keeping in the nude.
I guess this is true with any relationship, that there are ups and downs. There are times of more interest and times of less interest. And learning a musical instrument is definitely a relationship. Is a relationship with the instrument, music, and ourselves.
It is very intimate, and plays by all the same rules as every other intimate relationship, for better or for worse. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s not. The question is whether not we can make it through the downtimes. Because they will most certainly arise.
“How soon ‘not now’ becomes “never”.” ~Martin Luther King Jr.
On a Quest of Discovery
So I set out to discover some ways to constructively not practice.
I wanted some activities that don’t feel like practice, but can at least keep me moving in the right direction. Things I could do that would allow me to tell myself that I sort-of practiced, without actually practicing. Gratification without eating bugs.
What I found was that if I can simply show up, and be present in the practice space, then I feel some sense of accomplishment. If I can put in the time, even if it is not as constructive as it could be, at least I can maintain my “streak” of practice and hope that tomorrow I will feel more like practicing in earnest.
“Who knows: maybe tomorrow things will be brighter.”
I am going to share with you some of the ways I have discovered to “constructively procrastinate”. With luck, they will also help you in your darkest hour, when scales are unappealing, and when your music all seems lifeless and pale. Who knows: maybe tomorrow things will be brighter.
Of Lights and Tunnels
Here they are, in no particular order:
1. Give your guitar a fluff and buff.
You can change your strings. Pull out your soft little shammy and shine it up. Get all the dust out of all the little crevices. Use a credit card to scrape all the finger funk from between the frets. Get some polish and shine it to military standards.
Clean out your guitar case. Organize the little compartment. Treat your guitar like a vintage car, as if you live only to keep it spotless. This needs to happen once in a while anyway, and next time you go to pick it up, it’ll be that much more enticing.
2. Tidy up and reorganize your practice notebook and music.
If you’re anything like me, you may have random pieces all jumbled together, crammed into the latest three ring binder. If you have a practice notebook, it may benefit from a tidying up as well.
If you really want to go the extra mile, get a new, shiny, colorful three ring binder or folder! How exciting!
3. Go through your practice notebook and remind yourself of your accomplishments.
If you maintain a practice notebook, and I highly recommend it, it can be very inspiring to go back and see just how far you’ve come. You may find it truly motivating to reminisce about the challenges you faced six months or year ago.
Knowing that your steady work is paying off can help you feel good about your practice overall.
4. Make a journal entry in your practice notebook
It also may be beneficial for your future self if you write a sort of journal entry about the way that you feel right now. That way later, when you’re doing this again, you can have the benefit of knowing that you made it through last time.
5. Clean and tidy your practice space.
Get out your feather duster and go to town. Do a deep cleaning on every inch of your practice space. Sweep and vacuum and scrub and polish!
Open a window and let some fresh air in. In extreme cases, you can even apply a fresh coat of paint. Life-changing!
6. Rearrange your practice space.
Move things around. Make things new. Give yourself a different view and perspective.
7. Listen to new music.
Grab your headphones and your favorite lounging spot and have a deep listening session. I love this. You may listen to completely new music, or old favorites.Side note: I find it especially useful and beneficial as a guitarist to listen to the great masters of solo piano. Although I could expound on why this is for several thousand words, suffice it to say that the likes of Horowitz, Rubinstein, Giesiking, Rachmaninov, Hoffman, and others were light-years ahead, musically speaking, than any guitarist I can name. It’s an entirely different universe, and as guitarists, there is much we can learn from other soloists (especially those instruments that overcome similar obstacles to the guitar, such as balancing multiple voices and lines.)
8. Review technique videos and methods.
Go back and revisit your fundamentals. Chances are, you let something slide and could use a check in.
9. Watch new videos.
Hop onto YouTube or another video site and check out some new tutorial or performance videos. Notice what it is that draws you to some over others. Ask yourself critically what you like and don’t like about the performers.
10. Record or video yourself playing.
If you feel like playing, but not actually practicing. Put on the recorder or video camera and go to town. You can watch them now or later. You are guaranteed to learn something useful about your playing by doing this.
This is a regular part of my practice, and I find it incredibly useful.
Do you have ways you appease your inner two-year-old? Please share what works for you in the comments. Do you know any other practicing musicians that may “hit the wall” occasionally? Forward this to them!