There are two questions I am often asked by my non-musician friends and family:
The first, is a general, “So….what, exactly, do you do all day?”. When I tell them I practice, they look at my kind of funny.
But then when they see me perform, they inevitably ask the 2nd question: “How do you know where all of the notes are going to be?”. I’d love to simply refer them to the answer to my first question, but that would seem rude. I’m not offended, I swear. I get it, what I do is really strange. I spend hours alone in a room with the door shut “practicing”–whatever that means, and then I perform. Actors have their fellow cast members. They go to rehearsal, they interact. There is a clear process of learning and memorizing lines and stage direction that the common person understands. Athletes? They work either with the rest of their team, or if it is a solo sport, they at least work with a coach. They do drills, they discuss their technique, how to improve. They can measure their progress through speed and distance. But a musician? Hmm. Weird. So, here it is: A day in the life of a musician. Or at least the practice room part of it.
At 9am sharp, I reluctantly put down my morning coffee and head into my studio. I have friends who can practice at any time of day and do it whenever they feel like it. One day it might be in the morning, the next day, in the afternoon, etc. Not me. For me it’s like working out. If I don’t start at 9am, it’s not going to happen. So 9am. Here goes. I start slow, with some scales–yes–the same scales you learned when you took piano/violin/flute lessons growing up. We still do them. They actually were important. (who knew?). It’s like yoga for my arms and fingers. Then I do a couple of Etudes- short pieces that focus on one particular technical issue-an exercise disguised as a piece of music. And then I play Bach. Not only is Bach good for the soul, it is also technically easier on the hands than a lot of other big pieces so it’s a gentle way to get going. That’s the first hour. I take a 10-minute break-check email and texts, check on my garden, etc. and then I’m back. The breaks are important so that I don’t strain my muscles. They need to rest periodically too. Tendonitis and repetitive stress syndrome will keep me from performing. No performance, no paycheck. So I take breaks every hour. The 2nd hour I focus on repertoire that I will be performing soon. At this point, it is all learned and memorized and I am focusing on keeping it in my fingers, and thinking about my sound-the exact way my bow hits the string, the amount of weight I put down the exact angle, the speed, etc. There are about 10 different factors that, combined, result in a person’s sound. It’s a lot more complicated than it looks! After another break, I might start working on newer repertoire. This might be a piece that I haven’t played in a while that I have programmed later in the season, or it might be a brand new piece of music. This is the kind of practicing my husband HATES to have to listen to. I’m picking it apart and going from one note to another back and forth a gazillion times until my muscles memorize the exact distance (the answer to question #2 above). I am tediously making sure that every note is perfectly in tune (praying, swearing, promising first born children etc). and deciding on fingerings, bowings etc. It’s a bit more hard-core, and intense. This is when, in my head-okay-probably in reality too, I always sound bad, and tell myself I should just quit and do something easy, like rocket science. But I try to make a little bit of progress each day. If I can just fix ONE thing, I’ve made a dent. The next day I can make another, and another. If I have more time and I’m still feelin’ it, I will pull out some of the repertoire that my students are working on. Concertos and Sonatas, etc. When I am teaching, it’s helpful to be able to demonstrate a point, so I need to have all of it in my fingers.
Then at some point, I just decide that I am finished for the day. Some days I finish up a practice session feeling really good about things, and other days I leave the practice room feeling utterly deflated, but I’ve grown accustomed to those feelings, and have learned not to take either one of them too seriously. It’s funny how an entire morning and pass by in the blink of an eye. I often think of all of the things I could accomplish if I didn’t have to practice every morning. I could do 6-8 different 30 minute activities. Instead, I often feel like, huh, It’s already the afternoon, and all I’ve done is practice. But that comes with the territory.
So I’m curious. For the non-musicians, what do you find mysterious or confusing about classical musicians? And for other artists and my fellow musicians, what does your “routine” look like? What works for you? How do you structure your time?