Quarantine is a good time to rethink our obsession with hours of practice

Quarantine is a good time to rethink our obsession with hours of practice

I’m under time pressure in quarantine. I have to use this new found space to prove just how much music means to me and to see how quickly I can achieve God-tier work status. How effectively am I using my day to prove that I want to succeed?

This pressure has reminded me of the person I was in secondary school. I remember feeling the need to ‘flaunt’ my passion to prove that it existed. Any creative writing piece in English had to be about the cello, if we had the choice to paint something I’d usually paint a cello and chose to research composers for history projects. I felt pressure to upload pictures of me with my cello to Facebook to prove to everyone that I had this great identity. Although (thank goodness!) it’s toned down a smidge, I think we are pushed to be undeniably obsessive in music college and I must admit that I’m done with the idea that there is a ‘race to the finish’ in my musical life.

Increasingly, it appears absurd to me to applaud a student that spends 6 + hours a day practising their instrument, but who is increasingly  and unproductive. They might easily burn out in a matter of months or years and can be scared to listen to the warning signs. This is so often what we see in this competitive world. I am told they are the ‘winners’ over a student that might practise 2, 3 or 4 hours each day (or even over someone who doesn’t count) but used the remainder of the time to paint, sing, talk, read, bake, mess about, be a human being and maybe even enjoy not taking life that seriously. There are those who can sustain great swathes of practice hours and face little adversity because of it, but what about those of us for who this has a detrimental effect on our health?

Mental and physical wellbeing are being frequently overlooked, replaced with what is essentially an ego-driven collection of numbers. The longevity of our passions, excitement for art and connection with others is too easily forgotten. I am of the belief that music transcends all this achievement and comparison and I wish learning an instrument could focus more on finding a balance between hard work and joy. If we allowed this balance to seep into the way we choose to practise, we might be pushed to create for the right reasons. I understand that we need a level of structure to achieve our goals, both short and long term, but we have abused this structure. It isn’t a helpful aid to realising these goals anymore, but a competitive and soulless means of control that can dominate.

Many of us choose or have chosen to appease well meant ‘wisdom’ through intense practice because we are so frightened of letting go, fearing that ‘freedom’ may quickly be followed by ‘failure’. This can lead us to devising a schedule that engenders huge amounts of dread, and a mindset so wrapped around success that we struggle to take creative risks. The focus is rarely on experimenting with practice and finding spaces and methods that work for you now, but that time is scarce and your career depends on it. What about revelling in the miracle of great music? Practice obsession is a mysteriously rigid and numerical element to the freedom and joy in classical music.

If we are lucky, playing an instrument will carry us far into the future. Our appreciation and awareness of music will only increase. We will discover wonderful pieces and ways of playing over time, and I think this rush to ‘complete’ something that is essential ongoing is counterproductive. Let the focus be on what we have to offer now- we deserve to develop as people first and musicians second.

I want my appreciation of music to be lifelong and don’t want to risk burning out or injuring myself, just so that I can attach myself to a number of hours. I’m aware more than ever of my mortality at the moment and that can’t be a bad thing.

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