Playful Practice

March 18, 2013, 7:38 AM ·

"The creative mind plays with the objects it loves."
–Carl Jung, psychologist (Psychological Types, p. 123)

Can intense practice be both productive and playful? That is, can we zero in on specific tasks and feel exuberant at the same time? Absolutely! And I think we’re at our most creative when we do.

Here are four ways I've found to bring playfulness to deliberate practice.

1. Toy with Problems
When we practice, we perpetually run into problems, some technical, others artistic. Yet by surmounting problems we extend our abilities, so, in a sense, we need problems.

Sometimes, though, we stop seeing difficulties as opportunities and begin treating them as aggravating obstacles, and then our inspiration drains away.

To keep the creative juices flowing in my practice, I toy with problems. I’ll try one solution, then another, learning and laughing as ideas hit dead ends. I enjoy the process because I know that I’ll find rewarding solutions in the end.

For more about my playful approach to problem-solving, see pages 54-70 of my book The Musician’s Way.

2. Repeat with Wonder
Some people might think that we repeat in practice to congeal phrases into unchanging forms.

Not so.

With every repetition of a phrase, I create something new – a subtler dynamic curve, a smoother legato, a creamier tone. My ears are wide with wonder at the possibilities that each musical gesture contains.

Of course, we rely on repetition to instill secure mental maps of pieces, but with a playful approach, we can navigate those maps in near-infinite ways. Then, even the titles we’ve performed for years stay fresh.

3. Treat Errors as Adventures
We’ve solved problems and done our repetitions. We’re convinced that our material is solid. Then, out of nowhere: Splat! A fat error. (Know the feeling?)

I’ve made countless such errors, and I find them quite funny, almost refreshing. Not that I like messing up. What I mean is that when I miss something, the mistake helps me recalibrate my playing.

My missteps show me that I’ve got something to refine. In response, I search out the sources of my glitches and take pleasure in the refining process.

4. Transcend
Transcendence is a core feature of deep practice, and I think that it’s a pillar of playfulness.

When I practice, I imagine dramatic scenes, dancers moving through space, whatever. I feel an irrepressible flow of imagination no matter what I work on, be it a scale or a masterpiece.

That playfulness begins as soon as I unlatch a case and lift an instrument in my hands because I never know what I might conjure up.

Know the feeling?

A version of this article first appeared on The Musician's Way Blog where you'll find related posts in the Music Practice category.

© 2013 Gerald Klickstein


March 23, 2013 at 06:40 PM · I enjoy your posts - solid advice in an area where writers tend to waffle. I guess I should get your book :-)

March 24, 2013 at 01:04 PM · Thanks, Geoff! I hope you'll pick up either a print or e-book copy of The Musician's Way and share your experiences using it on the book's blog and Facebook page. Gerald

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