I spent a lot of my youth practicing just enough to get by. I played oboe and I progressed fast without a lot of effort. I liked that – it gave me time to do many important things, like hanging around with my friends.
Even with all that free time, I got really, really good really, really fast. Maybe too fast. There was little challenge. No struggle to get better. It just came to me. Senior year in High School I was looking at a fat envelope from my first choice school. A scholarship to music conservatory. Let’s just say the transition from High School to College was not an easy one.
In the big leagues, no effort equals no results. If you knew me in those early college years, you’d know to look for me in the school practice rooms. Turns out I wasn’t a prodigy. It would have been a lot easier that way. I was scared. I had bitten off a lot, and was choking on it – I could feel the dream of playing in a major orchestra slipping away before I even got a chance to mess up an audition.
So I practiced. And practiced and practiced and practiced. It worked just a little at first. Not fast enough to keep up, but enough to keep me going. Weeks went by. I began to find hard to play musical passages easier. More practice: new sounds came under my control. More and more practice: I could play in tune, with nice tone, for much longer. Something happened. It started feeling less like practicing and more like playing. Less like work and more like fun. That subtle wink when it shifted from practice to play is hidden somewhere in my memory and I can’t recall the point exactly, much as I try. If you’re in the middle of it, right where you belong, it passes by in a flash, and the moment shifts to the next and the next. It’s beautiful.
My Dad once asked me “what’s the most important thing in life” and I was all over the road with my answer. Success? Friendship? Love? Patience? Achievement? He shook his head, smiled, and said: “Happiness.”
I was finding happiness in the results of my struggles back then. And as I gain experience, I can tell you that I also find it in the struggle itself.
There is no reason to practice if you don’t want to get better. And I think we do, all, truly want to get better – be better. There is no way to get truly, deeply better without effort. As a musician, it’s the effort that comes from you, alone in a practice room.
I wasn’t sure my Dad had it right at the time. I believe him now. Practice as though your happiness depends upon it. The rest will come.