What is the musical playground?

Erica Sipes

Erica Sipes, freelance pianist, practice coach, and blogger, received her bachelor's and master's degrees in piano performance from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. She has served as an adjunct faculty member at Radford University and is currently living a double life as a musician and a manager of a toy store. She has a passion for helping people fall in love with practicing and has written a lot about the topic on her blog, Beyond the Notes. She has published a coffee table book for the music studio full of inspirational thoughts, quotes and images called Inspired Practice.

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Image courtesy of author. Image courtesy of author.

“No pain, no gain…”
“Practice makes perfect…”
“You have to practice 10,000 hours before you’ll be an expert…”
“How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice…”

In the musical world these phrases and ideas swirl around us all of the time. Pretty quickly any young music student comes to the daunting and not so appealing understanding that learning music is hard work and involves hours and hours practicing music over and over and over again. Parents also dread the daily ritual of forcing or bribing their child to practice, as do teachers who lament over the repeated scene of realizing that their student “didn’t have time to practice” since their last lesson.


I think a dislike of practicing is pretty understandable given how narrow a definition most musicians have for it. And it does take discipline and persistence to turn down more entertaining options in the name of music. What gets me, though, is how this attitude often doesn’t go away as a musician matures. As a practice coach and someone who has had a lot of conversations with people on social media about the topic, I can assure you that a very high percentage of musicians at all levels, students, amateurs, and even professionals, struggle to get themselves to a practice room. And when they do get there they often waste a lot of time and get very annoyed and frustrated with themselves in the process. Why is that?


It’s because we don’t play when we are playing our “Many musicians, at all levels, struggle to get themselves to a practice room.”instrument. Our practice room is not our musical playground. Whereas practicing can and should be engaging in order to be efficient and effective, it is too often boring, repetitive, discouraging, and ineffective. Progress can seem like lightyears away and you can find yourself thinking negatively about yourself on a regular basis. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be like this! With some clever tools in your toolbelt and some creative thinking, practice sessions can actually be challenging (in a good way), varied, can provide you with good exercise (really!), and dare I say it, fun?! Here are some of those “tools” that I have in my toolbelt and how they can be used by musicians of all ages, at any stage.

  • Drumset: Use your body and any other objects, if you wish, as your own personal rhythm section. There’s no end to how creative you can get with this, but the most important thing is to tap into a pulse and to get into groove with the rhythms and music you’re working on. Walk around to the beat and clap difficult rhythms, making sure they are all accurately lined up and rhythmically correct. Sing and clap the beats. Sing and conduct. Try to use your entire body! Do this inside, outside, while you’re in the shower, you name it! And if you can do this away from your music and instrument, even better!

  • Abacus or calculator: An abacus (or calculator if you feel like being part of the 21st century), can be used when figuring out any rhythm that is giving you some trouble. You may be surprised how many musicians don’t take the time to really understand all the rhythms they need to play. Put your instrument down, take your music somewhere else and using your imaginary calculating device, do the Math with the rhythm in question. Make sure you know mathematically how the rhythm lines up with the beats.

  • Magnifying glass: Another good tool to use away from your instrument so you’re not tempted to just play through the music, use your magnifying glass to do some musical investigation. Look for patterns, small and big, that repeat in the music. If a pattern is broken, why did the composer do that? Be able to identify sections that make up the piece as a whole. Start to recognize basic music components like scales and chords. Learn how to tell what keys occur when and make observations about that. Even if you don’t know music theory you can still find cool things that will help you start making some musical decisions. Just keep looking, wondering, and thinking. You will never run out of things to discover.

  • Super ears: I don’t think super ears really exist, but you can use your imagination for this one. In the practice room, using super ears means listening, truly listening, to the music you’re making. Close your eyes a lot, especially in troublesome spots. With your energy being diverted from your vision to your hearing, you’ll think you do have super ears. You can also record yourself and listen back. Or you can listen to recordings of other musicians playing. That can count as practicing too.

  • Paintbrush: You can actually think of any art supply as a creative tool for the practice room. With an imaginary paintbrush you can paint the contours of the musical lines that run through the piece. Does the melody form a giant mountain or does it look like a rainbow to you? Is there a part that looks like waves rolling on the water? Or maybe some of the music winds around here and there like a snake. You can also use your paintbrush to paint what you think the whole piece sounds like. Or draw a map to help you remember all the sections and how the music is put together. Pull out a pen and write out a storyline. Assign different colors to different parts of the music. Using these art supplies will tap into your right side of the brain which will ensure that you don’t rely just on the left side of your brain for too long.

  • Light Bulb: In order to use a light bulb, you need to have electricity. That electricity can be found in your brain! Whenever you have an issue in the music, pull out an unlit light bulb and put your problem-solving mind to work until you have a lightbulb moment. Mindless repetitive practice doesn’t count - there’s no power in that, so make sure your thoughts are charged!


In addition to making your practice sessions more interesting, using some or all of these tools turns your practicing into the playground it needs to be in order to make the connections in your brain stronger. It will also make it less likely that you’ll get bored and unintentionally shut off your brain, resorting instead to mindless repetition. I want to leave you with two quotes that I think sum up beautifully how I feel about the necessity of play in practice…


We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything than when we are playing.” - Charles Schaefer, American psychologist


and


The playing adult steps sideward into another reality; the playing child advances forward to new stages of mastery.” - Erik H. Erikson, developmental psychologist


I’ll see you in the musical playground!


How do you get the music flowing? Let us know below!

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