I’ve been getting into lots of conversations with my saxophone students and musician friends lately about the daily ins-and-outs of being a practicing musician. We’ve been examining common pitfalls and hurdles that we find ourselves up against.
One common theme that tends to come up in these conversations, especially in saxophone lessons, is the loss of motivation to practice.
This is something with which I’m intimately familiar. While it hasn’t been an issue for many years, there was a time during my journey where the mere thought of practicing was a nonstarter. The whole journey so far has gone kind of like this:
Relationship to Saxophone Practice, An ongoing journey in three parts:
- Motivated to practice, but by external stimuli. (teachers, peers, auditions, etc.)
- Practice? How about -I dunno- anything else?
- Practice? I thought you’d never ask!
I suspect that at least a portion of this is relatable. What follows is a closer look at one of the things that makes this inner struggle tick.
Let’s start with a (lengthy, but so worth it) favorite quote that strikes at the heart of the matter.
Path: a strip of ground over which one walks. A highway differs from a path not only because it is solely intended for vehicles, but also because it is merely a line that connects one point with another. A highway has no meaning in itself; its meaning derives entirely from the two points that it connects. A path is a tribute to space. Every stretch of path has meaning in itself and invites us to stop. A highway is the triumphant devaluation of space, which thanks to it has been reduced to a mere obstacle to human movement and a waste of time.
Before paths disappeared from the landscape, they had disappeared from the human soul: man stopped wanting to walk, to walk on his own feet and to enjoy it. What’s more, he no longer saw his own life as a path, but as a highway: a line that led from one point to another, from the rank of captain to the rank of general, from the role of wife to the role of widow. Time became a mere obstacle to life, an obstacle that had to be overcome by ever greater speed.
Path and highway; these are also two different conceptions of beauty. When Paul says that at a particular place the landscape is beautiful, that means: if you stopped the car at that place, you might see a beautiful fifteenth-century castle surrounded by a park; or a lake reaching far into the distance, with swans floating on its brilliant surface. In the world of highways, a beautiful landscape means: an island of beauty connected by a long line with other islands of beauty. In the world of paths, beauty is continuous and constantly changing: it tells us at every step: “Stop!”
-Milan Kundera, Immortality
When you assemble your instrument for a practice session, do you consciously choose to be on the path or instead jump on the highway of judging your output against an external ideal?
Are you merely attempting to transport yourself from point A to point B, or are you living your way there?
Essentially, what we’re talking about here is perspective. Approach. Attitude.
When you practice your saxophone, there is much a more integral piece to the equation than just the ingredients that are usually discussed.
Sure – Tone, Technique, Time, Repertoire, Theory etcetera are essential areas of practice, and having goals within each gives us direction. However, none of these are sustainable pursuits if the time spent on them is viewed merely as a highway to greater ability.
With this approach, we place all of the value on a goal that in the end is a moving target. Improvement is a continuous pursuit. But, what happens when you don’t make an arrival at the place where you’ve sequestered all (or most) of your value of practice?
Often, I see this misplacement of value as the cause of great frustration in my students. Usually, it exacerbates the ineffectiveness of their practice time.
Having goals isn’t the problem. Goals are indispensable. They give us direction, helping us to choose what to work on to move us forward.
When too much value is placed on the destination it is, by consequence, removed from your current experience.
Have you been devaluing your own practice time? Can you remember a time when you did?
By returning to practice only to devalue your time, you will soon begin to feel that the whole pursuit lacks worth.
Simply change your perspective on the time you are spending -from the highway to increased ability, to a journey on the path to deeper relationship with the material at hand- and you may just find yourself improving and moving your target.
The end result is the same, but this option is easier to stomach and therefore a more inviting process to which you’ll more likely return because you’ve placed value in the time spent on your relationship to music.
I’m going to stop part one here to allow time for reflection. Take a day or two before returning for part two. Notice how this discussion relates to your relationship with the time you spend practicing between now and then. When you come back, I’ll have some suggested strategies for shifting your perspective ready and waiting.