Practice is about two things: musical improvement and skills maintenance.
Which is more important? For me, the former! “Good enough” is not good enough. I want better. (Very unBuddhist of me to admit that. But alas, sometimes Soul Mama, Sybil of the Spirit, must ignore the voices of her inner Buddhist and embrace her more goal-oriented Proddy. Young bucks, you will have to Google Sybil; I can’t help you.)
Why must we always aim for bigger, better? Because, from what I can tell, most musicians think they suck. Or that they suck more than they used to. But, based on empirical evidence: most everyone who thinks they suck doesn’t actually suck. (I learned in college not to use that word. I suck at following the rules, though.)
I had a conversation today with a friend who said that he knows no one with as many hang-ups about music as he. He said that those hang-ups get in the way of actually doing what he loves most: music. With two music degrees from one of the most prestigious conservatories on the East Coast, this friend doesn’t like to play his music when anyone’s listening, and he doesn’t like to share his compositions with anyone. (He recently shared his entire catalog with a fellow musician, and likened this to sharing images from a colonoscopy. He doesn’t suck, by the way.)
I commented that part of playing music is about staring into the vast prarie of “You-Suck-edness.” In other words, musicians frequently bash themselves to bits psychologically, one of the greatest problems being fear or criticism, and the other: comparison… comparing ourselves to others who are “more skilled” players. Have you ever said this: “Oh sure, that was a fine solo I just did, but not as good as X would play it!”
I once chatted about this with my colleague BrassDoc (who also doesn’t suck). I loved his answer. “It’s not about being as good as X, Y, or Z. It’s about being as good as Sue Gedutis.”
But therein lies the problem. Sue Gedutis is always just a wee bit better than I am.
I’m helping someone write a book right now. Today, she sent me her latest chapter, on the importance of competence, and I loved this quote:
“Maybe purpose’s purpose is to remind us that as long as we believe in something bigger than ourselves, we’ll always be optimistic and positive in our thinking.”
Hm. So assuming that musical improvement is the thing that is “bigger than ourselves,” let’s put a positive spin on this. Here’s why we practice:
If we practice, we will suck less.