Last night I attended a concert of the Victor Provost Quartet, with guest artist Paquito D’Rivera. These are some of the world’s finest jazz musicians (google them for info). I was awed, as I always am by Victor, because his music is so amazing that I can greatly enjoy it even though I have little familiarity with his style of jazz. Truly, there is a level of musicianship there that goes far beyond anything many of us can imagine, and it’s clear where it came from: not just their obvious exceptional talent, but from a passion for practice. As they played this unbelievably complex music (I looked at one of the scores and it made my brain hurt), they were grinning and glowing, obviously enjoying themselves tremendously, and playing expressively. What a contrast to the way so many musicians just try to get through a piece without messing up.
The amount of practice it takes to accomplish this may seem unimaginable. But if it were, they could not have done it. The fact that these guys can do what they do proves that it’s possible. That we CAN practice enough to be that good. That we CAN have the passion and WANT to practice that much. Practice isn’t just about getting something to the point where you can play the notes right, but where you can play them easily and expressively and happily.
Obviously, these people had teachers from an early age who made music fun, and made practice not feel like drudgery. Teachers who showed them what is possible, what they could accomplish, instead of just telling them to practice without knowing what they were working for. Who let them hear examples, and gave them experiences that rewarded their efforts. Maybe took them to concerts to witness what studying music is for. Maybe had them play in ensembles. Maybe praised them when they did well. More than anything, it’s obvious that these teachers did not approach their students in the belief that they could only accomplish up to a certain limited level. They didn’t say, “They’re just kids, so don’t expect too much.” They nurtured exceptional accomplishment.
More than anything, it’s clear that these teachers made sure their students’ parents were invested in their children’s musical success. I can’t think of anything more important than this. But parents need to be instructed in what constitutes encouragement. Lots of praise, taking kids to great performances, and participating with them throughout their young lives is essential. Just telling children to “go practice” is not a positive reinforcement.
Balance is important. Not allowing a child to have any other life is not helpful. I know a fellow who as an adult wanted very much to learn to play an instrument well, but could not make himself practice. After some self-examination, he reflected, “My parents required me to practice every afternoon after school instead of letting me go out and play with my friends. So I’ve come to associate playing music with sacrificing fun and friendship.” I know many adults who are resentful of being forced to practice instead of being encouraged in positive ways. As adults, they have a very hard time learning.
BUT… let’s not let our pasts determine our futures. If you were not encouraged positively, if practice was drudgery for you as a kid, if your parents were not invested in your musicianship, if your teachers did not expect greatness from you, you can choose to change how that plays out for you now. It is not too late at any age to excel. Don’t limit yourself.
Go to great concerts. Listen to good music at home. Set high goals and work for them by practicing. And then practicing some more. Allow yourself the time. If you must take the time away from something else in our life, let that something be one of the things you enjoy less. Pay no attention to the voice in your mind that says, “But you should be doing this or that before you practice.” You have a responsibility to your dreams: they are what your life is for. Life is short. Do it now.