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Musicians spend countless hours practicing their instrument. It is an activity which also attracts extended discussion, relentless admonition from teachers and competitive comment from colleagues. It can become a battleground for individual consciousness and create at times ambivalent results. Not everyone who practices gets better. Some fight a heroic battle with frustration. Others pay a high cost automatising their performance in search of certainty and security. Some disable their imagination on the way. To be sure, many get better over time and all agree that without adequate and effective practice no musician will improve. Experienced musicians know that there is a reason for effectiveness and success of practice: the kind of attention that is brought to the task and our ability to work with this attention in the confines of our own perception and imagination.

Some time ago, a young musician wrote to me her observations, which I cite here with her permission: “I was just in the practice room, and found myself playing but not really doing anything - what many call "mindless" practice. So I thought to myself, this is a waste of time. Why am I practicing? How exactly do I want to sound? Presently I remembered my pianist's advice to try singing a phrase before playing it in order to sort out my thoughts and create something tangible to aim for (I later remembered hearing the same advice, in slightly different words and contexts, from half a dozen other teachers, including Donald Weilerstein). As soon as I started singing, it came to me: the importance of having an objective. After all, what is the point in doing anything if you don't know why you're doing it? Sure, you may be able to force yourself to practice for hours on end if you have perennial discipline (which I do not believe I have), but even then, if you do not have any idea as to what it is that you want to get from it, doesn't it make it all pointless? I realized that "singing" before playing, as well as "silent practice" or "practicing without the instrument" is all meant to serve that cause: figuring out your own idea of "perfect" so you can aim towards it and try to get as close as you possibly can to that ideal. That is why no two true musicians play the same - because everyone has a different "perfect." And that is why we all practise (or should) - not to eliminate mistakes, but to set a goal and with every inch of effort that is put into it, try to get closer and closer to that goal. The whole concept of practising, then, became more of a quest than a task (which is how I had looked at it until that moment). I could go on forever trying to quote all the things that I've heard along the road which all started to make sense once I made this discovery, but then I would never finish this already endless email. But not only did this new way of seeing everything affect me inside the practice room; it also changed the way I perform, and even teach. When performing, instead of thinking of what could go wrong, what to remember to do, or what not to miss, one should just envision a "perfect" performance, and, if it has been practiced the right way, it should happen without too much of a problem. Incidentally, this sort of thinking also maximizes concentration and minimizes nervousness, I find. If you're really concentrating hard enough on thinking (or "singing in your head"), there shouldn't really be any effort or time left to worry about what the audience or jury is thinking.”

This report is a real gift. It articulates wonderfully clearly what is at stake when musicians practice. I would like to focus on some pathways in these reflections:

Sing before you play - here and now we have the focus of attention and intention in our important musical activity. In effective practice we use our singing brain to determine the impulses that lead to the corresponding physical activities. Rather than conceiving playing and performance as reactive where we listen and fix our playing after hearing what has happened, practicing-well (eupraxia) challenges and exercises the creative, singing imagination at all times. The performing musician is so truly creative- creating the performance or musical event seemingly from nowhere and entirely through the powers of her imagination. This does not only give purpose to music making, it actually establishes the thinking which can genuinely sustain and transform doing. Practising-well implies that we imaginatively and intentionally conceive the entirety of the temporal idea that is our performance. Even where we practice technical issues, practice is never merely addressing mistakes or solving problems. It constitutes performance or “doing“ and by constituting such doing it creates being and character.

A second pathway of this special communication points to a perennial concern for artists: perfection is a self sufficient, autonomous idea. We are not pursuing mistakes, be it in their absence. This is a most significant message. Corrected mistakes and solved problems may still be mistakes and problems – working with them may leave us essentially reactive to the phenomena perceived. The philosopher Nietzsche recognised this so clearly in his idea of “overcoming” which requires a complete transformation of being and a thorough commitment to affirmative ideas.
Practice cannot progress on the basis of incomplete or rejected realities. It must rather affirm imagination and confirm the translation of our ideas in reality. Perception of a mistake, or the psychological correlates of dissatisfaction and dissonance between imagined and perceived outcome cannot successfully guide the musical performance where it becomes the main driver of playing. The reason is simple: focussing on a problem transforms the mode of thinking from a creative to a reactive consciousness. (Psychology knows this as “ironic process theory”. Try not to imagine a pink elephant for one minute and you know what I mean!)

While mistakes may be starting points for the creative imagination, the artist focuses on affirmative intentionality. He seeks what must be, rather than what is not. Accordingly, the artistic musician leaves behind what is no longer relevant to the actual artistic aim. The musical idea of perfection sheds the otherness of non-being- philosophically this follows Parmenidean principles. The pre-Socratic philosopher’s famous vision of justice and truth divides experience and true conviction in accordance with Being and Non-Being:

“Come now, I will tell thee - and do thou hearken to my saying and carry it away - the only two ways of search that can be thought of. The first, namely, that It is, and that it is impossible for anything not to be, is the way of conviction, for truth is its companion.. The other, namely, that It is not, and that something must needs not be, - that, I tell thee, is a wholly untrustworthy path. For you cannot know what is not - that is impossible - nor utter it; For it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be”. (Parmenides, Proem- The way of truth)

Parmenides establishes the ontological basis of consciousness (or thought - noeisis) itself. We can- and must not think that what is not, is or we leave the path of truth. Philosophers (and others) commonly attribute the label „idealism“ to this approach, however such a classification tacitly imports dualistic principles of world and subject into our thought. A musician knows that dualism is theoretical and conflicted. More importantly, it remains unsuccessful where it matters, notably in performance. For the artist, it is clear that there is one path and one path only: the affirmation and utterance of truthful imagination which unifies itself in an encompassing conception of being… that which is and must be.

Here, however, we encounter a challenge: Under certain conditions our thought and imagination are unable to exercise their powers. In situations of physical and mental stress, we are inclined to become increasingly reactive. Our awareness narrows and our energy rises towards executing fight or flight responses for one. If such conditions are encouraged in the practice room through frequent frustration or carelessness, our attention will not keep up and our imagination (and with it any authentic intentions) will be progressively sidelined. At this point, simply stopping is the best we can do. Once the reactive energy subsides, the imagination can re-engage and determine what must be the case. We need to maintain the activity of our consciousness in its creative dynamic. Naturally, this process can only really work if it is thoughtfully pursued with every step of repetition. Many believe that the key to musical practice lies in the mere accumulation of repetition. However, in this thinking repetition is not desirable unless it is guided by clear anticipation and presented by the imagination in the first instance. This extends to both musical and physical facts. Even supposed “physical training” receives its effectiveness from anticipating actions clearly in the imagination. Simply doing something again and again does not make it better.

Finally, the important message of this communication is that practicing is a quest, not a task – being a musician is indeed a way of life. Seeing practice as a quest allows us to conceive of music making as an important search for wisdom. This includes interpretative activity on a comprehensive level including embodied knowledge and knowledge of self. And indeed: the activity of musical practice is validated most clearly when it develops insight and wisdom that leads behaviour, skills, attitudes and performance abilities, as it must.

In the end, performance requires a capacity to clearly anticipate reality. In practice, musicians develop this imagination in all its complex, perfect detail. More or less random execution pursuing a vague passion for music or automatic reaction as answers to a yearning for security offer limited options with few creative possibilities and little musical application. Driven performances energised by frustration no matter how dazzlingly lively leave us exhausted or –worse- musically assaulted. The reality for anyone who has drilled music making to automatic levels rapidly diminishes. The results of largely repetitive practice are diminished attention, reduced listening and arid imagination. Performers of this kind are grateful for the lifeline provided by clichés and fashions making their playing as predictable as factory ware. While it might appear stylish, polished and even somewhat impressive it reaches the manicured level of a soap opera. Followers of fashion mostly sense the silence of their imagination, but they also find it difficult to address. In fact, their paradigm of practice does not allow this to be otherwise. We must remember: like a nocturnal animal, the imagination may retreat in conditions of business, urgency and noise. In the silence of the practice room a musician creates conditions of leisure in which the imagination can flourish consistently and authentically. Committing to such an aim changes our approach, our methods and ultimately our being. It enables the musician to find her true voice and become who she is.