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Danielle Gomez

Like Brushing Your Teeth

May 20, 2010 at 8:43 AM

 One of my teacher trainers told me that practicing should be like brushing your teeth.  There is never a day when your tooth brushing is affected by other events in your day.  The process is completely emotionally detached.

I mulled over her words of wisdom for quite some time after she said them to me.  What struck me the most was the suggestion of emotionally detaching myself.  All my life I have been told that music is supposed to express emotion.  So it was almost like it would be wrong to try and strip that away.

For me, the teeth brushing example was a very interesting concept.  I realized that the level of habitual repetition of that daily routine is rarely achieved in any other life areas.  Dishes get put off, vacuuming, shopping for groceries.... but I always make the time to brush my teeth. 

Always making the time for practice?  A lofty ideal indeed.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 20, 2010 at 11:04 AM

 I like the analogy, but to me it breaks down because brushing your teeth takes about 2 minutes.  You can always find 2 minutes.  But you can't always find 30, or 60 minutes.  I have read some suggestions for practicing 3 or 5 minutes every day--it's better than nothing--but I've never been able to sustain that consistently.  I spend most of that 3 minutes taking my violin and bow out of the case and putting them back.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 20, 2010 at 3:47 PM

I like the way my teacher Jim Maurer said it, "It's like brushing your teeth. At first you do it because you have to do it, and it's a chore; but after a while, you do it because it feels good."

From Alison Daurio
Posted on May 20, 2010 at 5:27 PM

Well, I don't agree with the emotionally detached part, but I do agree with this: "...practicing should be like brushing your teeth. There is never a day when your tooth brushing is affected by other events in your day."

Why should practicing be interuppted by anything? If I have a "Ohmygosh I have no time to practice" day, I wake up an extra hour early in the morning, or go to bed an hour later. You can ALWAYS make time, and if I'd like to think that if you genuinely love a thing (and this applies to anything, really) you will make the time, simply because it's more important, more enjoyable than anything else...

From Danielle Gomez
Posted on May 20, 2010 at 5:35 PM

 To Alison:

I think being emotionally detached is the most important part about practicing.  I think too often being get bogged down by emotions in the learning process which leads to frustration.  Being detached means that practicing could go from "I can't/won't do this" to "what am I doing wrong and how can I fix this." 

From Nigel Keay
Posted on May 20, 2010 at 6:12 PM

 Well I once had a teacher that simply said: "A professional practices even when they don't want to." I suppose it's possible that she had false teeth.....

From Carlos Vadillo
Posted on May 20, 2010 at 6:19 PM

 This reminded me of the anecdote where a Physics teaches showed to his class with a big crystal jar. He asked his students whether the jar was full or empty. All said it was empty. He then proceed to fill the jar wit tennis balls, until no other tennis ball could be fit inside. He asked again: "Is it full or empty?". Most students agree that the jar was full. The teacher then pulled a bag of marbles and started to pour the marbles into the jar, rocking it slightly so all the marbles found a crevice to move in. When no more marbles fit in he asked again and now all the students agree that now it was full. The teacher now got sand, and started to pour the sand in the jar. When he put in all the sand he could then he asked again. Everyone agreed that now the jar was really full.

The teacher then pull out a beer put it on the table and told the students: "This jar is the time you have. Tennis balls are the activities that are important to you. The marbles represents the activities you have to do and the sand are those things that you do without even thinking about them. The order in which you fill your jar is important. If you start with the sand, there will be no space for marbles. If you start with marbles you will not be able to fit the tennis balls".

As everyone pondered what the teacher just said, someone in the back of the room asked: "What about that beer?". The teacher took the beer, pour it in the jar and said "Even when there is not enough time for anything else, you can always have a beer".

How important for you is practice? Is it a tennis ball, a marble or sand? I think everything is a matter of priorities. The day I don't practice I don't feel good. Practicing my violin is one the highlights of my day. I would never put if off for anything other than an emergency.

From Juan Manuel Ruiz
Posted on May 20, 2010 at 6:17 PM

Regarding the subject of "emotional detachment", I remember something I read in a book called Zen in the Art of Archery, which my violin teacher had recommended me some time ago. I'm not really that much into Zen (or rather the "Zen fashion" which is its most widespread form in the Western world) but this passage seemed very significant to me:

Occasionally several of these right shots came off in close succession and hit the target, besides of course the many more that failed. But if ever the least flicker of satisfaction showed in my face the Master turned on me with unwonted fierceness.
" What are you thinking of? " he would cry. " You know already that you should not grieve over bad shots; learn now not to rejoice over the good ones. You must free yourself from the buffetings of pleasure and pain, and learn to rise above them in easy equanimity, to rejoice as though not you but another had shot well. This, too, you must practise unceasingly - you cannot
conceive how important it is."

I think that regardless of one's experience or skill, we usually carry a lot of emotional conditioning with us - our own expectations, perfectionism, pride, and whatever is happening in our lives when we are not holding a bow. The more we can rid ourselves of all these things, the more concentrated we can expect to be; that's obvious. But I think the most difficult thing is learning to judge oneself...
Still, I believe there is a fine (semantic) line between "emotionally detached" and "autopilot", which I think is most resonant with the idea of brushing one's teeth.
But I wouldn't take the master that literally - after all, I really can't help smiling when I manage to do even the simplest thing right after doing it wrong 60 times. There is always some emotion to be obtained from practicing and learning in the long term...

And I agree with Alison - the time for practice, like the time I take for reading, is usually time that I steal from other activities. It's more about making the time than having it in the first place. At least when you do not have 2 jobs, 4 children and an exciting secret agent life to keep you busy.

Just my two cents. Sorry about my messy English but I'm at work and it's hard to detach myself from certain phone calls =)


From Alison Daurio
Posted on May 20, 2010 at 7:31 PM

@ Danielle,

Music is emotion. I can't imagine taking the emotion out of practice. However, I think the most efficient practice comes from those of us who are emotionally "mature". Saying "I can't" or "I won't" is like quitting your job because you had one bad day, or like being afraid to get into a car after getting into an accident. It's like the grade school kid who wants to transfer classes because he got yelled at by the teacher, or the college student who drops out because he is too lazy to study. Practice itself is an art and an emotion, and the determination to succeed is also emotion. We feel the music even when it's imperfect, and even when it's downright bad, because we know that if we work hard, not only do we get to hear the music, we get to feel it, taste it, smell it, be it, etc. That's emotion. Saying "I can't" or "I won't" is just being downright lazy.

From Lex Carter
Posted on May 20, 2010 at 7:55 PM

 Wow. Tennis balls and beer .... 


This thread is great! 


When I was training for a sport, practice was something I had to do everyday. It helped that I had next to NOTHING else going on in my life. 


but it should indeed be like brushing teeth. not even thought about. Or washing dishes, I can't stand to look at dirty dishes in the morning so I always wash 'em the night before no matter what. 

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on May 20, 2010 at 10:04 PM

I agree Karen!  If practicing took two minutes, I guess we would all be so good ; )



From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 20, 2010 at 11:35 PM

You could pour coffee in there instead of beer.

From Elinor Estepa
Posted on May 20, 2010 at 11:33 PM

My  violin teacher once said that you have to think "violin first" when you wake up in the morning, and as many times along the day. That give your pscyhe, a movtivations to practice more often. When I say it doesn't work in the real world, she said just give it a try. I did, it works though, it make my ears open to intonations, and my mind more set to the piece that I am studying, I can see in my head the measures/bars that I am having a hard time to play or hear, and , sometimes find a solution to my problem technically just my thinking about it, and that gets me going to pick up my fiddle and try to see if its works. As I thought about the piece every chance I get, I know exactly what to work on first, and all the questions I need to ask her when I see her again.

Its a different approach compare to brushing teeth everyday, but I guess, whatever works is fine, as long you get to practice as often as you can.


From Janis Cortese
Posted on May 21, 2010 at 12:17 AM

Emotional detachment from practice is a fine idea.  From music, not so much.

But practice isn't music.  Practice is what we need to do so we can make music.

From Michael Divino
Posted on May 21, 2010 at 12:52 AM

I'm usually not passionate about my metronome.  

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on May 21, 2010 at 12:52 AM

"My  violin teacher once said that you have to think "violin first" when you wake up in the morning, and as many times along the day."

Oh, that I do mentally for sure, but with crazy homework, I'm chained on my desk...  (I'm also beside other people who study next room )

I dream of the day I'll have my home when I'll be able to practice all I want when I'm not at job of course.  This is why I study the best I can right now...  I'll have to be able to pay for my futur home and 2 hours violin lessons per week I want to have then!!!  Quite a contract... Hope I'll be able...

Back to homework ; ( 

So anxious to practice...


At the master class, Vadim Repin said scales were as tooth paste and added... everyday! Which earned me a gentle elbow puck by my teacher next chair saying to me "you see"...

What could I respond to this?

(Yes, in an ideal world...)

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on May 21, 2010 at 1:52 AM

Laurie, you suggested coffee.  Have you given up latte?

I think one should definitely not leave the emotions out of the music while practicing.

From Danielle Gomez
Posted on May 21, 2010 at 2:20 AM

 Perhaps I should clarify: I think one should be emotionally detached from practicing, not music.  

An example would be "I've had a really rough day at work, my boss was yelling at me, I'm simply too cranky to practice."  The point being that very few people would say "I'm too cranky to brush my teeth."  They just do it.

The idea is that, ideally, the actual physical act of practicing (getting out your instrument, going through warm ups, breaking down your piece into sections) becomes an unthinking habit.  The music that is a result of systematic practicing should, of course, fully express your emotions.

From Mendy Smith
Posted on May 21, 2010 at 2:25 AM

When I travel, I always bring with me at least one change of clothes, toiletries (including toothbrush), my viola, a travel stand and some music.   Only if my viola got frequent flier miles! 

I've practiced in hotel rooms, in the hall of a hotel in HK when the cleaning staff came in (not enough room for all of us), airport  terminals, empty conference rooms, hotel lounge with the hotel's pianist before happy hour to name a few of the oddest practice locations.

I don't think I'd ever brush my teeth in most of those locations though - except the hotel room :)

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 22, 2010 at 10:22 PM

Most of my practice time is stolen from sleeping time.  I get up earlier, I go to bed later.  But as you get older that gets less tenable.  And blaming it on age is a cop-out, in any case.  In general, unfortunately, our society does not prioritize sleep enough. 

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