The Difference Between Playing and Practicing: Pros and Cons to Both
Whether I’m teaching a lesson or speaking at a clinic, a reoccurring question I’m asked is “How many hours a day do you practice?” The assumption is either some ungodly high number or an incredibly low number to justify his or her own work ethic. I always follow that question by asking them, “How much do you think I practiced when I was your age?” After a few flattering and dead wrong guesses, I reveal that I never really “practiced” in high school.
When I think about it, over half of the playing that I did was just that: “playing.”
At the time, I was not cognizant of what would improve my playing and create healthy habits. Instead, I thrived on unproductive, unfocused and inefficient playing. I remember entering college with a slew of bad habits and weak fundamentals and I remember not being alone. Although I had a number of private instructors throughout high school that required SOME scheduled and focused practice time, it wasn’t until later in my education that I saw the benefits to a more structured regiment. Did I ruin my chances of being successful later on in my musical career because of this? Absolutely not! Here is how you can differentiate practicing vs. playing and see the pros and cons to both.
What is practicing?
First, let me give you my definition of practicing:
Practicing is a productive application of focus towards improving fundamentals and your understanding of an instrument and music.
Practicing engrains healthy habits and is achieved through a structured environment. What are the benefits to following this practice method? If you follow this definition when picking up your instrument, you are essentially the poster child for your music director. While practicing, you are taking a practical approach to learning something that yields best results. The hardest part of practicing is not the practice itself but rather the continuation of focus and productivity. People often say that it’s not how many hours you practice, it’s about the quality of those hours. This is a very true statement but why not strive for both? Some musicians (brass players especially) will have a limited amount of resources available (chops) when practicing but each of us has a limited amount of focus (mental chops). Just the same as strengthening your physical endurance, you can strengthen your mental endurance.
So what are the cons to only “Practicing?”
It can be tricky to balance diligence and that special something that got is into music in the first place. We can over-exert and frustrate ourselves through this confined format and become jaded and stale in our music making. When we perform and share our music, we can get used to the idea of right notes, correct rhythms and perfect regurgitation based on what we practiced to be the ultimate goal. This way of thinking holds music performances on a pass/fail basis. This is not what I practiced and I missed notes so overall it was bad. This leads me to why my days of just playing were still beneficial.
We got into music not because we wanted to put metal to our face but because of the joy it brings others and ourselves. I may not have “practiced” all of the hours the horn touched my face but I was loving music every second of it. I spent my days in awe by all that surrounded me in the music world. Simply “Playing” taught me to follow my passion and love for music for all the right reasons. The idea of getting lost in the moment of performing is an experience like no other. No one wants to hear a concert and not feel something or not see you enjoy yourself. It requires a balance of both in order to stay in the game and love the process. You need to eat your vegetables too. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All practice and no play makes you a dull musician.
Work hard, be smart, have fun, nerd out and enjoy!
Do you have some advice to add? Tell us by commenting!