Instrumental Practice – Have we lost the point?

Being a relatively late starter to the violin, I was always extremely grateful for the teacher who, at the ripe old age of 17, opened my eyes to the necessity of practising. A little late to the party perhaps, but I have always credited this borderline brain washing with my subsequent degree from the Royal Academy of Music and freelance career.

Until now that is.

What if, in actual fact, this utter obsession with solo practice and achieving the golden ‘6- hours- a- day’ target, every day (birthdays/christmas), was in actual fact in part to blame for my increasing anxiety. Anxiety in many situations but, most noticeably and debilitatingly, in performance. Anxiety that resulted in me turning down multiple performance opportunities and a reticence in social situations that were potentially opportunities for collaboration and network building.

My gradual discovery of the Classical repertoire throughout my teens brought me nothing other than unadulterated pleasure. I finally had an outlet for my unutterable teenage angst. At last someone, or something, actually knew how I felt, even if I couldn’t quite explain it. Listening on repeat to Rachmaninov’s Piano concerti, desperately recording ‘Eroica’ from a film on the TV so I could listen to it again and again and working through the orchestral repertoire in my youth orchestra was what I lived for. But when I finally achieved my goal of studying music as a professional vocation at one of the world’s most prestigious conservatoires, the end of such innocent joy was nigh.

Locking myself up in a small room for the majority of my life in a quest to achieve technical perfection only bred insecurities and made playing in front of others (the end goal surely?) a more and more daunting prospect.

Biranda Ford, in her PhD ‘What Are Conservatoires For? – Discourses of Purpose in the Contemporary Conservatoire’ discovered that the focus of students was so much on achieving technical competency that it was to the detriment of music. Music was, as a result, side-lined.

Whereas the comparatively small amount of practice I did before my ‘enlightenment’ with my teacher at 17 was less focussed on technicalities – it had one clear focus – to be able to get around that piece of music to perform it. That was it. There wasn’t a negative commentary going through my head, being self critical. It was just “I love this and I want to be able to play it”. Of course a degree of self criticism is a necessity in the quest for achieving excellence in any area. But when it becomes to the detriment of the end goal perhaps things needs to be rethought?

Performance psychologist and musician Dr Noa Kageyama points out that studies have shown that anything over four hours practice a day can actually become detrimental and it’s more about the type of practice and how you use your time. He cites the moving from mindless ‘right brain’ practice habits we often develop, to the performance situations where we are flooded with ‘left brain’ thoughts and emotions as one of the biggest challenges. Kageyama suggests that harnessing what sports psychologists call ‘centering’, as a method of utilising these feelings of anxiety to use them to our advantage would be most beneficial.

So in conclusion, perhaps more isn’t always better when it comes to practising. Maybe a mindful and focussed shorter practice session, followed by some unpressurised group music making would be more beneficial to the music student and help them maintain that raw passion that led them to follow their desires to play music in the first place.