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Play More, Practice Less, Find Happiness

Thursday, September 08, 2011
When I was a kid, I practiced just enough to get by. No more, if at all possible. Oboe was my instrument, and even without a lot of effort, I progressed quickly. I sure liked that easy achievement—it gave me time to do many important things, like hanging around with my friends and imagining playing in big concert halls.

Even with all that free time, I got really, really good, really, really fast. Too fast for my own good. There was little in the way of challenge. No struggle to get better. It just came to me. Senior year in high school I was looking at a fat envelope from my first choice school. Along with a scholarship to the music conservatory of my dreams, I also received positive reinforcement of my practice methods. I didn’t see the brick wall that was just up ahead. Let’s just say the transition from high school to college was not an easy one.

In the big leagues, no effort equals no results. 

If you knew me in those early college years, you’d know to look for me in the school practice rooms. As it turns out, I wasn’t a prodigy. It might have been a lot easier that way. Instead, I was scared. I had bitten off a lot, and I was choking on it—I could feel the dream of playing in a major orchestra slipping away before I even got a chance to show up for an audition.

At that turning point, I made a decision that has influenced my entire life. I wanted so desperately to succeed and I needed to prove to myself, one way or another, what I was capable of. So … I practiced.

And I practiced and practiced and practiced. Days went by. I progressed just a little at first. Not fast enough to keep up, but enough to keep me going. Weeks went by and hard-to-play musical passages seemed easier—I was progressing. Continued and accelerated practice led to new sounds and abilities coming under my control. After months of practice, I could play in tune, with nice tone, for much longer. My teacher was happy with the results. I was happy that my teacher was happy.

music notesThen, something unexpected and wonderful happened. My continued hours of concentration and repetition started feeling less like practicing and more like playing—less like work and more like fun. 

There was a subtle wink when the shift from practice to play occurred. It’s hidden somewhere in my memory and I can’t recall the point exactly, as much as I try. When I was right in the middle of it, right where I belonged, it passed by on little cat feet, and the moments shifted to the next and the next. I was working at music and then, I was playing music. It was beautiful.

My dad once asked me, “What’s the most important thing in life?” and I was all over the road with my answer. Success? Friendship? Love? Achievement? He shook his head, smiled, and said, “Happiness.”

I found happiness in the incremental results of my struggles back then. The positive feedback I received was still meaningful, but not so crucial.

I began to experience the power of having a calm inner sense of what I could do—what I was capable of when I put my all into my music making. 

The results were positive and helpful, but it began to become clear that the way I achieved and grew that inner place of calm was through work and struggle.

From my vantage point today, as an experienced professional musician, I can assure you that happiness is not only to be found in the results of your work, but with all its profound implications. It is within and during the concentration and repetition itself.

There is happiness waiting for you in the daily challenges of the practice room.

There is no reason to practice if you don’t want to get better. And I think we all do truly want to get better—
be better. There is no way to get truly, deeply better without concentrated effort.

As a musician, you get to build your future every time you decide to pluck a string or sing a note.

I wasn’t so sure my dad had it right at the time. I believe him now—wholeheartedly. Practice as though your happiness depends upon it. The rest will come.

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This article originally appeared in “Making Music Magazine” Dec. 2009. Article reprinted courtesy of Brian Charles brian@charlesmusic.com www.charlesmusic.com.
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