The Importance of Play in Practice

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. 

–Plato

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice by Jonathan Harnum is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.
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One of the most productive practice times in my life happened on a surf beach in Baja, Los Cerritos, while on a 2-year road trip with my two best friends (one of whom I had just married, and the other possessing 4 legs and lots of fur). The routine was this: wake early, before most others were up, amble down the beach a ways with my trumpet case and camp chair, sit all bundled up (it’s cold at night in the desert) staring at the waves, and play trumpet with a Harmon mute stuffed in the end of my bell. (Nobody likes trumpet at that hour in the morning and the Harmon mute muffles the sound significantly. One or two nights a week I’d perform for food and drinks for me and my blushing bride.

Wah-Wah-Mute for trumpet (Harmon) Français : U...
Wah-Wah or Harmon mute for trumpet

During the day, we learned to surf, and we were horrible. It took us about six weeks of constant daily practice before we could actually, with some confidence and style, catch and ride a wave. I’m lying, there was no style at all by six weeks, but we could catch waves and ride them in. It was grueling and frightening at times. But here’s the thing: it was fun!

Practice is often seen (and experienced) as drudgery. Some times it is, but it doesn’t have to be, and ideally, it shouldn’t be a chore. Making practice fun on that Baja beach was pretty easy. It takes a little more effort and creativity in a more “normal” setting. When we are having fun, when we are engaged in play, we’re firing on all cylinders. There’s a reason that play is an integral part of growing up, whether you’re a human, a dolphin, or a horse. All of us play, and in that play, we learn.

There are few more playful musicians than Bobby McFerrin. I recently stumbled on a site that allows you to play with the seven parts of his big hit Don’t Worry, Be Happy. This is a great opportunity to play, and to learn. The rhythms and melodies are simple and the written music is right there for you to toy with. Simple two-bar phrases, fairly simple harmonies, bass lines, and rhythms. If you don’t read music, it’s a great way to become a little more familiar with that odd language of symbols. Try it out! Here’s the link.

And finally, I’ll repost a video that’s worth re-watching. It’s McFerrin playing with an audience at The World Science Festival. Be amazed. And if you must work, work at putting a little (or a lot) of play into your practice. It’s best to put that play at the end of the session. Get your nose out of the music (if you’re reading music), and play around with those sounds you’ve been making. You might be surprised how much fun it is.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice by Jonathan Harnum is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

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