5 ways to practice holistically
From the perspective of a former conservatory student, there is no question the difference a virtuosic technique makes in performance. Musicians that can control their instruments totally have a command over their musical language. Right notes and articulation are just part of what makes good music though.
Being able to read notation is just one notch in holistic musical education. All of my students can read notation but I impress upon them the notes are not music. You can't listen to notes on a page. They are static and sterile.Music becomes art when a human being can convert those pictures into sounds adding a little bit of themselves to it.
Conservatory students often find themselves trying to fit a cookie cutter mold for orchestral music. There is nothing wrong with being able to fit into the mold but in a world where classical music is harder to position and there are plenty of excellent musicians its important to be able to break the mold as well. That is where being an artist musician becomes important, here are some suggestions to help you play like an artist as a musician.
1. Make Space
We all have lives outside the practice room. Even truly successful musicians have deal with life's usual ups and downs. It can take some practice but if you can separate your practice and performing space from everything else, you can redirect your energies into your music. This makes playing well a lot easier. Physically this may not be possible, thats ok too! For practice purposes I try to think of my life's problems and responsibilities as a physical burden, or a back pack. When I enter the practice space I leave the back pack at the door just outside. They aren't going to go away of course but I can leave them outside and pick them up when I'm done. This is the art of making space.
2. Be realistic about goals
We all want to be the best or at least good at the things we do. This is definitely achievable for students as long as they set reasonable goals. I always say you can play anything to my students. This is true because I never said how fast. There is a tempo that anyone can play anything at. If the note is too high or too low there are ways to adjust for that as well. Look at where you are with your piece. Try playing it slow first and getting all of the notes. As soon as you can do that, start speeding it up slowly. This should sound familiar to most of us as I hear echoes of my high school music teacher instructing me to take things slower. You don't play fast passages by playing them slow but you can build up to them in a sensible way. Find the tempo you can play it at and try it out yourself if you don't believe me!
3. Have a goal and refer back to it
Why do you play trombone? What makes music special to you? These are things musicians old and small often forget over time. They are important to everything you do as an artist. Is that goal relevant anymore? Maybe you were told you had to take an instrument from a family member. If that's the case what made you stick with it? No one forces us to be what we are. Human beings are defined by their individuality: their emotions, actions, relationships, interactions. My college professor asks his students to remember the first note they played and the joy it created when you heard that sound. For many of us, that core memory is powerful and can remind us of why we play in the first place.
4. Avoid imposter syndrome
This is easier said than done, especially at a conservatory. What you do as a musician makes the world a better place. There are numerous examples of this and the power of music in healing but think about it. A 4th grade student plays "Hot Crossed Buns" for the first time to their parents on stage. Someone's grandmother is looking at their baby's son or daughter learning to express themself in a new way. The joy that a simple note creates for the audience is like medaling in the Olympics for some. When make comparisons to others success we forget the good we are capable of doing. This causes paralysis and makes it hard or impossible to bring that light of your art into this world. The sooner you can value yourself and see the value you create the healthier and more powerful of a force your art will be in this world. The world needs artists, be your personal best as often as you can!
5. Use your humanity to bring your music to life
In the practice room, if you play a forte a little louder than it should be who does it hurt? I remember a music critic wrote about an orchestra concert I played in that was admittedly way over the top with dynamics for traditional orchestra norms. This was because every section was full of energy. When a composer has been dead for a hundred years and we are playing their music, it needs energy to bring it back to life! There is a place and a time for this, of course. In an orchestra where the audience expects a calm and perfectly predictable experience like most products they buy, it's important to be able to fit that mold too. Smaller chamber orchestras and community orchestras tend to allow more opportunities for expression in extreme and sometimes a little imperfect ways. Seek them out for a refreshing break when you need it and to practice control over your expression. Being able to adapt lets you be an artist and perform with more people.
6. Build your own opportunities
Lastly, don't be afraid to cut your own path. There is no right way to be an artist performer. One of the most brilliant things I ever heard from a colleague was to play with people who want to play with you. If you are finding it hard to find like minded individuals to play with, seek out the ones that are looking for you rather than wasting your time trying to convince people to do something. When you have an ensemble united under a single goal or belief, it makes it an incredible experience and there is no limit to the level of music and artistry.
It can be a harrowing road to go down when you commit to a music career. A lot of your journey will feel lonely at times. When you find colleagues and friends that bring your light out, cherish and nurture it. Believe in yourself, your goals, and never stop working towards them. When you put pure talent versus hard work, hard work wins nearly every time. Most importantly don't lose your reason and passion for your creativity. Let your light shine and make this world better with your music.