“I think I’ll just play through these Bach Cello Suites for fun . . . ” was the thought that drifted through my ears as I was trying to figure out what to practice next. (My next thought was, who AM I?!) I’ve always been a Deadline Practicer. My routine, for years, was a 3 hour total daily practice session that included an hour of warm-up, scales, technical exercises and etudes, followed by two hours of work on repertoire for upcoming performances. In deciding which work to practice first, I would simply open my calendar, look at the first date, pull up the first piece on that rehearsal or in that folder, and work on it. I break my practice routines into 20 minute sessions with small breaks, and I never work on any one piece (or movement of a larger work) for more than 15 minutes per day if I can help it. After roughly 10 – 15 minutes, I move on to the next thing in the folder or on my agenda.
This worked beautifully when I was a busy free-lance musician on the west coast. I always had plenty of performances to prepare for, and if I ran out of work, I would either return to the beginning of the pile and work a bit more on pieces that needed it, or read pieces and choose repertoire for upcoming recitals. There was always something.
And then we moved east for my husband’s military band job (which he won on the same day I was unofficially offered a full-time college teaching position on the west coast) and we had kids. And I confess it. My practice routine and free-lance career has suffered ever since.
Before my son was born, I was still naive enough to think that our lives would continue much the same as before. My husband and I would do all the same things we did before – whatever that was – and we would simply take this very compliant, happy, gurgling baby along for the ride. (Every now and then John looks at me and asks, “What DID we do before kids?!”) We were the first of our group of friends to have a kid, and I clearly remember (as clearly as any parent of a colicky new born can) a friend calling up and inviting us to meet them in a new brew pub for the evening. “Just bring the baby!” Right. This was Virginia in 2001, when you could still smoke in trendy brew pubs, so right, we were totally about this – bringing our newborn into this smoke-riddled pub. Also, we were just exhausted.
The moment I realized my practicing life had changed was when our son was two weeks old. He was content for the moment, sitting there in his cute little carrier, and I thought, “Ok, I will practice. I will at least do warm-ups.” I sat him across the room from me, took a breath, played one note, and he SQUALLED. I tried this a few more times, before I realized that practicing would have to be done during his nap times.
As any parent will tell you, this might look fabulous on paper, but it is simply not practical. I was very fortunate that Kevin slept through practice sessions. I would put him to bed in his crib on one end of our fortunately very LONG apartment layout, and I would practice at the other. For the entire nap time. Hah. This was my plan, anyway. Nap time, for parents of young children, is when the very tired parent does one or more of the following: naps themselves, cleans up stuff that they couldn’t clean because they were walking the floor with said colicky infant in hopes the colicky infant would take this nap, does laundry (possibly falling asleep in a pile of whites), attempts to socialize with other adults via phone, Skype, text, social media, and maybe even carrier pigeon, and, if the parent happens to be a professional musician who has moved across the country with her spouse and hopes to ever work again, she practices.
For like, maybe 20 minutes. She might practice again, later, if her spouse is home and willing to distract the baby or take him out for a stroll.
So much of my practice in the days my children were young was mental practice. While I was rocking my daughter to sleep, pieces I knew well would play in my in-head Pandora, and I would mentally slow them down and really think about the phrasing and the harmonic structure. I would even think about the way I’d played something in the past, and rethink it while nursing my daughter and think, “Wow, If I ever play this again, I want to do it THIS way . . . ” If I ever play this again. . .
I was fortunate enough, when my son was very young, to get a call from an old friend, Dr. Jena Root, who happened to be the Theory Division Coordinator at Shenandoah Conservatory, which was five minutes from my house. (We’d moved from the enlongated apartment.) Jena asked if I wanted to come in and teach some theory classes. I said I’d look into child care for my son, and she said they’d work around my schedule. After calling a few preschools and finding they were full, and, truth here, crying in frustration because I thought I’d have to turn this down and I was DYING to do something in my field, I called a preschool recommended by another parent in my son’s Early Childhood Music class, and they had an opening. My son went there three mornings a week, and I sneaked over to Shenandoah and taught ONE theory class for them.
I also began working in the Instrumental Division as needed – teaching applied flute and coaching ensembles. I can’t tell you how wonderfully flexible my colleagues were. When I had to sit on flute juries when my daughter was 6 weeks old, flute juries were scheduled with “nursing breaks”!
Teaching at a school of music also gave me performance opportunities – I sometimes filled in with the faculty quintet and collaborated with my colleagues in soul-satisfying chamber and orchestral performances.
A few years ago though, I left academia, due to health reasons and also due to the fact that my private flute studio was booming – and while I enjoy teaching theory and music literature, my heart is in teaching private flute. The downside of this otherwise good decision is that my performance opportunities dwindled. Aside from having the conservatory here, our town is no cultural mecca, and performance opportunities are few and far-between, unless you make them.
I have never been good at CREATING my own performance opportunities. I love to perform, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t like the coordinating, marketing, and financial side of setting up a performance.
And now that my children are older, this leaves me staring at the wall when I practice and thinking, “What next?” So, I decided to spend some time boning up on my technique and tone, which have been sorely neglected during this past decade. I hope to begin performing more again, but it will take time to move into that new phase of life. In the meantime, I find myself intrigued by the Bach Cello Suites, by old etudes and new ones, and by exercises you’d think I’d be tired of in the Taffanel and Gaubert Scale book.
I used to approach technique practice as simply something to get through – just play the dang scales and etudes and move on! I’d much rather play repertoire. Who wouldn’t? But when you take something as amazing as a Bach Cello Suite and make THAT your etude, or discover the beautiful line in an Anderson etude, this becomes something more than dry, rote STUFF you must get through in order to move on to playing your repertoire. There is MUSIC in these etudes. There is art in taking 5 minutes at the mirror to double-check that thing you sometimes do with your right hand third finger and making sure it’s properly placed. It’s a PRACTICE.
A practice is a life-long journey. In yoga, instructors speak of “your practice”. “If this is part of your practice . . . ” Practice is simply what you DO. It’s not a time to check out, or think about homework due, or what you’re going to make for dinner. (Oops, I need to put on a soup for tonight.) It’s a time to focus on only you, your flute, and the music.
Try treating your scales and etudes as that – a practice. A fulfilling practice. Discover the divine in a phrase, or the beauty of a particular color on an expected note. Perhaps you’ll look forward to practicing more. Perhaps, like me, you’ll miss it like you’re missing a part of yourself when you can’t. Perhaps this time will become so valuable to you that you will make it happen – even when tired, with a house full of domestic chores waiting on your attention, with emails awaiting your reply.
Take solace and nourishment from your practice, and you will benefit more than your technique. Namaste.