The Value of Playful Practice

June 28, 2022, 11:40 AM · How did we get so serious? In classical music, it seems to come with the territory. All black clothing, expensive equipment, analytical studies, and some very serious practice. Scientists, however, are clear about the data: a playful approach makes any endeavor easier, more enjoyable, and more likely to be repeated frequently. And play pushes fear to the backburner.

In other words, playful is the perfect approach to practice.

violinist having fun

According to research, play for adults is not trivial fluff. It stimulates the imagination and relaxes the body – good news for our technique. Play is kindling for our passion. It allows us to explore within our practice sessions rather than relying on endless repetition. Most importantly, it imbues our most daring and difficult tasks with a sense of lightheartedness. Engaging in play lets us dig deep without feeling overwhelmed. It invites us to be patient.

Here are some of the characteristics of play:

  1. An element of surprise.
  2. A sense of humor.
  3. A modicum of challenge.
  4. Some playful competition.
  5. An element of spontaneity.

Tips for Cultivating Play in Practice

Incorporate goof-off time in practice. Let the last 10 minutes of practice be any fun jam or song you want to play. We tend to remember experiences based on how we end them, so well-placed goof-off time can be key to feeling positive about practice.

Use a randomizer app like Daily Decision Wheel on on IOS or on Android. Let the randomizer decide which scales to play or which practice challenges to present (like "get to the frog as often as you can").

Play with virtual accompaniment like on Tomplay or play along with a YouTube accompaniment. You can adjust the tempo!

Make a Zoom practice date and meet a friend virtually to practice (muted) side by side, followed by some happy hour social time.

Use apps like Rhythm Sight Reading Trainer (on iOS) or Complete Rhythm Trainer (on Android) to help game-ify learning rhythm. For links to my favorite apps, head to the Favorite Apps Tool on my website.

Play along with YouTube and have your own back up orchestra. The trick is to use different performers, not just one, and elect the custom speed tool in the settings. (You may need a speaker to hear it well enough.) Why play alone when you can play along with the Concertgebouw Orchestra?

Pick a daily practice theme to lighten your work and become more efficient. For example, on "backwards day," practice all your hard licks in reverse. On "dancing day," move around like crazy. Think of themes that address your to-do list, but in a lighthearted way.

Use timers to make sure you’re not practicing something into the ground. When time's up, move on! End your practice when you’re feeling good about it.

Journal your sessions to add a some playfulness. A sense of play and spontaneity is one of the things I tried to imbue in the prompts of my practice workbook/journal called Practizma.

Remember, being a serious musician doesn’t mean you always have to be serious!

Want to learn more about play? Here's a fun (pun intended) Ted Talk I recommend.

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June 29, 2022 at 01:01 PM · An excellent musical philosophy. Thanks, Susanna!

June 29, 2022 at 01:56 PM · You speak to my heart. Music should be fun. After all it is the language of emotion and nobody enjoys a dour performance.

I use the Doflein Method supplemented by lots of other music. I have found that there are lots of songs that people, even young musicians, enjoy that teach exactly the same lessons about location of half-steps, position, shifting, various types of bowing,... The bottom line - working on music that you like makes practicing fun.

As Duke Ellington stated "If it sounds good it is good!" To be sure there are those who love to name-drop with a bit of snooty attitude what they are playing (actually more of who the composer is with an emphasis on "The Greats") At youth orchestra rehearsals I overhear parents doing this all the time - my child is playing Mozart/Bach/Beethoven/... Yet most of these families don't listen to music at home or go to concerts other than those where their children perform.

When it ceases to be fun, avoidance follows.

June 29, 2022 at 03:14 PM · I love this, Susanna, Thank you!

June 29, 2022 at 08:10 PM · A little over a year ago I started to play the violin again, after setting it aside for close to 50 years. When I was younger my father, a very good violinist in his own right, “encouraged” me to practice an hour a day on weekdays and two hours a day on weekends and when school wasn’t in session.

I have an office in my home. It is a quite nice place to hang out. I used to call it an office when I still was working. Now I have been transforming it a bit. One day I told my wife I was going into my studio for awhile. She understands me quite well and liked my new perspective.

Similarly, at times, I found myself lazy, and not wanting to practice. I am 68 years old, you know! So I decided that I needed to stop associating practicing with the time of my youth, where it was forced upon me. One day I told my wife that I was going up to my studio to play my violin.

She smiled.

My point being is that I agree wholeheartedly. Playing an instrument should be a magical, enjoyable experience, not filled with the frustration that, all to often, accompanies our practice time.

Now if I could just perfect advanced bow strokes and make my arthritic fingers play with greater speed!

June 29, 2022 at 08:10 PM · Susanna, I just bought the Practizma journal and intend to use it for a concert I'm preparing. Thanks for a great post!

June 29, 2022 at 09:39 PM · Susanna! ALWAYS with excellent suggestions! Thank you again and again!

June 29, 2022 at 10:39 PM · "Let the last 10 minutes of practice be any fun jam or song you want to play." Or (and!) the first 10 minutes, to warm up and create a pleasant mood for the rest of your work.

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