Play more than you practice. What an odd phrase to come from a music teacher! This advice from Victor Wooten’s TED Talk video, “Music as a Language,” doesn’t capture the totality of becoming fluent in music, but it points to an idea that perhaps needs a bit more attention.
Many young musicians find daily practice a chore instead of a source of enjoyment. Perhaps that is because “practicing” is about building the skills we need to accomplish something down the road, whereas “playing” is about creating and being fully engaged in the moment.
It is easy to forget how to “play” as we get older. So let’s find a place to begin, some boundaries—like a child in a sand box with only a shovel rather than the complete inventory of Toys ‘R’ Us…
Here are some ideas to explore with your instrument:
• Experiment with making up phrases that communicate a particular feeling or character.
• Play a favorite melody and gradually embellish it.
• Take a major scale and experiment with making a note other than the starting note the “home” pitch—that lets us hear the modes before we ever try to understand them in a theoretical sense. Discover how rhythm can help to establish the new tonality. Fool around with preceding the new home note with a note a perfect fifth away to begin to understand harmonic progressions.
• Explore repetition. Play a musical idea the same way twice, then vary it the third time. You will start to internalize one of the most important ideas in form and composition.
• Sing along with folk songs (they are usually diatonic) and then make up one of your own.
• Sing along with several blues heads and then make up one of your own. If you start by writing a lyric, the rhythms seem to come easily.
• Make a game of going back and forth between singing what you just played and playing what you just sang. This helps you start to become one with your instrument—you want whatever is in your head to come out your instrument with no barrier.
Am I suggesting that we should not practice long tones, scales, arpeggios, and so on? Not a chance! But every time you pick up your instrument, remember to play as well as practice. Develop the ability to “think in music” and, most important of all, to enjoy.