How to Win the Practice Fights

Yusef Lateef and the unbroken ribbon of concentration.
My Dad used to love to tell the story about how much of a struggle it was to get me to practice when I was a kid. After dinner was practice time. He said that every time I was reminded to play my saxophone, I would resist. I had good excuses. "My hand hurts." "It's not good to play right after eating." "I have too much other homework." But he saw through them all, and insisted I go up to my room. "Just play for five minutes," he would say. He said I would huff like only a teenage girl can, stomp up the stairs, then slam my door shut. Eventually, the notes started. The first ones were super loud and super horrible—you know, ear-splitting squawks and horrible offensive sounds, just to prove that I was really mad.

Then, more notes. Some long loud ones. Some fast ones. Fast again, because I heard something in there that sounded cool, and I wanted to try it again. And again. And again. A half hour later, an hour later, maybe two hours later, the playing would continue. I probably came back downstairs and announced that that was horrible. And that I DID. NOT. ENJOY. THAT. AT. ALL. (Also can I have a snack?)

Fast forward; in college, sitting next to my saxophone professor, the great virtuoso Lynn Klock. I was working so hard, then stopped for a minute and winced. Am I serious enough about this music thing, I wanted to know. "I mean, sometimes I just don't want to practice at all." He took a breath and put down his saxophone. I will never forget his response. "None of us do. Do you think I wake up every morning and can't wait to just jump out of my bed and into my pants to play?" Clear memory. Polyester doubleknit pants so crisp they may have stood up on their own at night. (Now you, too, cannot unsee those grey doubleknits. You're welcome.) I got his point. He is a gifted teacher and player, with Carnegie Hall listed in his credits—and even he doesn't want to practice sometimes. 

Fast forward again. Sharing stories at Kiskadee Coffee with the fabulous Pat Drain, who runs the Middle Street School of Music with Paul Kinnear. She know it's hard to practice every day, too. She tells her families that some days, it's just enough to take the instrument out of the case and look at it. 

What we are looking for is continuity and slow steady progress. Another college professor of mine, the great jazz pioneer Yusef Lateef, called this the "unbroken ribbon of concentration." That is, a daily awareness of musicmaking, both inside of us and outside of us. Just keep doing it. Some days a lot, some days a little. It's how you get good at it and reach the joy that musicmaking brings.

It's like exercise. Do we want to exercise every day? Do professional athletes necessarily want to work out every single day? Does your kid want to go to football, hockey, gymnastics, softball practice every time? Probably not. But music, like athletics, is a physical activity and so it requires daily practice, and usually once we get started, we feel better. Sometimes a LOT better. 

No one I know wants to practice every single time. But sometimes you just have to start. 


PgM3 said…
Wait a second, Sue. You're telling me you studied with Yusef Lateef?!?! No wonder you're better at this music shtuff than I am. (I guess Coltrane, and for that matter Bach, were too soon for you.)
Soul Mama said…
It's true. He is the person who truly taught me how to improvise, and MUCH more important, how to BE in music. Guess what? You just gave me my idea for today's blog. THank you!
Soul Mama said…
Oh and by the way, I am NOT better at it than you. Neener neener.