Wyrd music – The problem of practice

“Oh no! I’ve missed practice again! And the concert’s only next week – I’ll never have enough time to get it right! Why do I keep missing it? I love my music – used to love my music? – but the magic’s just gone, somehow… all that practice… practice… practice…”

If that’s the feeling – and it’s certainly a common one, especially in a classical environment – it’s worth looking at the problem from a wyrd perspective…

For example, why practice at all? At first the answer seems obvious: we must practice! Why, though? Because we must… because we must… because we… er… because?

Practice is necessary to improve our skills: there’s no doubt about that. But as the labyrinth shows us, it’s a process that’s a lot weirder than it looks – and it can easily drive us round the bend if we don’t understand how it really works! It’s true that we won’t get very far if we try to depend entirely on ‘beginner’s luck’; yet it’s also true that the rate at which our skills improve often bear little or no connection with the amount we practice – and too much practice may throw us so firmly into ‘the dark night of the soul’ that we’re likely to abandon everything in despair… which is not usually what we’re after…

In the labyrinth, practice itself is represented by the long slog of ‘survival’ – the outermost path, but actually the third stage in the process. It’s a stage in which, in music at least, our real aim is to create ‘body-knowing’: provide conditions under which our hands and eyes and lungs and senses can know the sequence of patterns well enough that we can keep out of their way. Whilst we need to get those movements going – direct the flow of our music – trying to control the process simply slows them down: and since one of the central facets of music is timing, all we’ll do by ‘trying harder’ is that we’ll make things worse, for ourselves, for others, and for the music. Letting go without letting go is itself a skill, and one that can be difficult to master: yet it can help us, and our music, a great deal if we learn to recognise the signs when it’s time to let go, and let the music weave its way through our body, our heart, our soul, instead of always trying to control it.

Part of the problem is the apparent need for ‘perfection’. Again, this applies particularly in the classical environment, where chordal harmonies are often designed to leave no room for error – or even for any human variation. If so, it’s essential to leave some room in the practice schedule for ‘mis-takes’ that allow the wyrd to be as it is, and to break free from the trap of over-control: for example, indulge in unscripted improvisation! Or go to a jazz bar, or an Irish session, and join in regardless, in the fun and the vibrancy: allow yourself to discover just how much the ‘body-knowing’ you’ve built up in all those hours of practice can adapt itself to an entirely different kind of music – if you’ll let it do so.

What’s interesting – weird – is that hard as practice can be, it can be even harder to not ‘practice’ in the usual rigid, planned routine, and instead to just let things be. Part of the reason is that, whether we like it or not, our music is part of our wyrd: and that means that it’ll always find a way to challenge us to be more of who we are – which is rarely easy! It always seems easier to try to keep control: the weird unfairness there is that when the music really works, time will seem to fly past us, whereas when we try to force it to work, it all falls apart, and time slows right down to show us every excruciating error… Weird as it may sound, the most important part of our practice is to learn how to ‘do no-thing’, and let the music interweave with us, as an expression of our heart, our soul – and our wyrd.

Another part of practice that’s easily missed is to pay attention to the needs of the instrument itself – our ‘per-sona’, literally ‘that through which we sound’. To do that, we need a better understanding of the ways in which the instrument itself acts as a filter, providing its own weird themes and choices: understanding our instrument as ‘mask’ and metaphor in the wyrdness of music.

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