The Practicing Musician: Our Path to Success
Excerpt Taken from Eric Salazar’s Journal IV
8:43pm @Home with Gab (and T’Challa)
I have been thinking about how to improve my practicing a lot lately. It’s not that I am unhappy with the progress I am making. I am, in fact, quite pleased with my work ethic. I am constantly improving. Still, I always feel that I can do even more, that I can accelerate just one degree faster. I have been doing this long enough to know these small improvements occur in the practice room. Most of the time all we need is a mental change to make a difference.
“Any deficiency in productivity is solely by choice.”
This quote from Thomas Tapper’s The Education of the Music Teacher (1916) has been echoing in my mind constantly over the past few days. Tapper’s book is an old one. I found The Education of the Music Teacher at a local bookstore in Avon, Indiana. The bookstore had a special section for old books called their “Nostalgia Section.” I sifted through all of the old books until I happened upon the sub-section of Art Literature. As I dug through this section, I came across Opera History, Art History, Art Appreciation, etc. When I found The Education of the Music Teacher I couldn’t believe that someone would sell a music book from 1916 for only $1.50. I had to have it!
I have a soft spot for old books. Somehow, reading an old book makes me feel like I am not just reading about a different time, I am living it. Tapper’s book is a textbook on Music Education. The book was printed primarily for collegiate musicians in training. The purpose of this book is to outline the skills, tools, and character necessary for success as a music teacher. The book was printed in New York. I suspect that this book was used widely on the East Coast during the 1920s. Some of the information is now irrelevant in our age. There are several outstanding points to consider from his book. In particular, Tapper’s depiction of the quality of character the profession demands is shockingly powerful. The main point which resonates within me, however, is the material contained in the quote above.
I am at an awkward place in my career because I don’t need constant instruction but I am also not yet fully functional with total freedom. Don’t get me wrong, a musician will always need a coaching. A musician will always need a friend or a mentor to sit out in the theater and tell the performer how their music actually sounds. We will never be too old nor too skilled to need this kind of help.
All this said, I am speeding toward the point of no longer needing constant lessons. Eventually a musician gets to the point where it is more beneficial for them to meet with their colleagues to share ideas instead of having a mentor direct them. Instead of having lessons, it becomes a matter of attending conventions, trading masterclasses, recording excerpts and sending them to a friend to critique, sharing ideas over a beer, etc. The closer I get to this destination of independence, the more grueling the path becomes. Instead of running a marathon with others by my side, it now feels like trudging up a mountain all alone. The end reward is worth everything, though. I am so incredibly close, I can feel it.
And yet… When I listen to recordings of my performances I am not fully satisfied. I hear poor articulation here, bad intonation there. Some boring choices in phrasing, a few technical mishaps. I keep thinking: There is so much more for me to learn! Then, almost immediately following with a contradiction: but I am ready to be on my own.
I am certain the answer to my qualms lies within the way I practice.
Can I demand more of myself?
Is it possible to get better results without sacrificing my health and happiness?
I struggle to balance the work factor and the fun factor. There are certainly people who would say that practicing shouldn’t be fun—it should be work. There is some truth to this. We can’t just mess around in that practice room. If we don’t take our playing seriously, then we are doomed to a life of mediocrity. Nevertheless, I think the act of playing should always be fun. No, maybe fun isn’t the right word. It should be… Stimulating. Playing music should invigorate the spirit and embolden the passions. A musician should feel alive when they play. With this frame, one can easily see how the act of playing can be mistaken for fun. Playing goes beyond fun, though. Playing is living.
The exhilaration of playing music can be intoxicating. It is easy to get carried away and forget that we must reign ourselves in to pass judgment on our sound. The critique in between the acts of playing should be ruthless. Nothing should be left unturned. Sound must be analyzed, articulation adhered to, phrasing judged, intonation addressed, rhythm obeyed. It all must be there. A musician has to decide what they want to sound like, then critique until they sound this way.
Ruthless critique, however, does not mean negative critique. You should be able to address all of the facts with a level head. You should be able to say, my goodness that was beautiful… It was also twenty cents sharp. Let’s do it again at pitch. You should be able to judge yourself without becoming disheartened. Mistakes offer information, not condemnation. A fact is a fact. The practicing musician must decide how they want to use the facts. Will I make the adjustment? Will I run from the facts? Will I allow the facts to destroy me? You should be able to ruthlessly critique yourself while having the actual act of playing remain positively stimulating.
As I go into the practice room this week, I am going to be ruthless. Not negative, but demanding.
I will not settle for anything but my best.
“Any deficiency in productivity is solely by choice.”