By Florrie McCarthy
I would say there are quite a few of us around Ireland who were sent to music lessons for a portion of our childhood by our parents(as a warning, this article is going to be basically fully directed at these people). Regardless of whether we were prodigies destined to become rockstars, showed the slightest inclination to bang a few pots and pans together or couldn’t tell a harmonica from a toy tractor, some parents around the country will see baby virtuosos through their rose-coloured glasses no matter what was really there, and so they took the notion to go to the lengths of finding a teacher with the patience to drill three blind mice and other favourites into a snot-nosed tot. I understand that this would probably be regarded by many as a fairly privileged position to be in, what with music lessons generally being very expensive, so many would see it as a luxury. While this is true, and I understand how I and many others across the country were lucky to have this as part of our growing up, it is a lot harder to see these occasions as opportunities when you have the combination of the small, childish short-sightedness that only sees what you want right now and what is easy along with the fact that cartoons are on TV at home right now and you could be watching them or playing outside instead of squeezing your very soul out through a battered trumpet.
Maybe that last sentence hints loudly enough(no pun intended) how that particular image is personally anecdotal – indeed, I was pushed through lots of different structures in music around Cork between the ages of six and eighteen – first taking a little plastic recorder into music appreciation lessons, upgrading to the piano in second class, going through a guitar phase in third class and getting a cornet (small trumpet with a mellower sound, NOT just for small people) in fourth class and having to stick with it up to sixth year. While I might see now that summed up to bring immense value to my life, in the form of the enjoyment I get out of music as a more developed individual, I know that ninety percent of those lessons I took were spent in misery. The amount of homework I had done rocking up to my recorder lessons? Minimal. The ache in my fingers trying to play the scale of C major on guitar for the first time? Excruciating. The wrenching agony in my gut while feeling the seconds tick by sitting in the waiting rooms outside the piano exam halls? Horrible, indescribable. The dread I felt going into cornet lessons knowing my teacher would see straight away the lack of practice I had done? Absolutely overwhelming. And the trouble all stems from that last, greatest sin for musicians – having no practice done.
You see, as I said at the start, all these music lessons were undertaken essentially against my own will. Sure, it ended up being a great idea, but at the time, practising music was the most painful process I had to deal with in my insignificant, silly little life. I already spent way too much time on my homework every day, having an absolutely shocking attention span, and so it’s not like I needed anything else to eat away at my free time in the evening. So, when it was time to take out the books, go through the scales, go through the hard bits of recital studies and go through all the foundational elements of good playing technique, I would mope and moan endlessly to myself. Taking all this attitude into account I think you’ll believe fairly easily that, especially when I was younger, not a lot of practice got done when it was meant to. If I was being paid hourly to practice the cornet in sixth class, I’d be a very rich man, considering the number of times I became bored with scales and put down the instrument “just for two minutes” to wander into the TV room and see try and get a glimpse of my brothers’ envious freedom, subsequently forgetting I was on the clock. No, with my unfortunate lack of ability to focus as a child it was a tough task working through a process that I didn’t really want to be a part of. Funnily enough though, now I can’t help but wish I had done more practice when I was younger. I like being good at music for the sole reason of being able to hear cool music when I play for myself. Obviously, there’s work I can still do now, but there’s some of that time that I wish I could have back.
However, the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago and the second best time to do it is now. So, when I get the time these days, I do a bit of practice. It’s a hard mental wall to get yourself over, to sit down and pick up the guitar or open the piano and prepare yourself to do things slowly and badly but if you turn it into a routine it can be therapeutic and enjoyable. It starts out tedious, and you might procrastinate it forever if you think it won’t be that fun but there are a few things that I like to do to make it easier.
For example, you don’t need to be practising for hours. Setting aside a half-hour slot a day, whenever you can fit it in, or even just twenty minutes whenever you can build up a lot faster than you think. A psychological concept that I find myself fascinated by is the power of habit, and what it can make you do. If you can build good habits to practice often, and make sure you practice well, you set yourself on a steady track to becoming better and better, slowly and steadily. So, leaving your guitar out on a stand in the corner where it is easy to grab makes the process of building that habit of practice that little bit easier, if that’s what you’re trying to do; and then, getting into the habit of only practising for a half an hour day when you want to will help you always remember that even if you are not enjoying your practice, that it won’t last long and that it should be easy enough to power through.
Then, when it comes to doing the actual practice, it will of course vary from instrument to instrument, but there are many concepts about general practice and about music theory that is applicable to all musicians. A huge one for me is to practice slowly. This is the most tedious thing I find about practising when it feels detached from the actual music you’re playing, but it will help you play properly, and with better technique. It is very easy to be impatient, and run up and down roughly through a cool solo after only trying it for the first time, but trust me when I say that if you make mistakes when you’re learning something, and you keep learning that way, then you will learn with the mistakes and they’ll come out when you play. Good technique is important for clean, smooth playing. If you ever get tired or it feels like time to stop, then maybe it is just time to stop or take a break. You can practice as hard as you like but your hands will need time to rest, as will your mind. Practising can be really mentally exhausting so it is very important to know when to stop. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly – use a metronome! This is the most painful type of practice for a lot of musicians, and understandably so, but it will make you a better musician. If you keep messing up, it can be really annoying to wait for the first click to come around – try turning off the 4-beat setup so you have a constant click to practice to that doesn’t have bars/measures.