Practice to Play or Play to Practice
One of the most insidious cliches in music is the joke: "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" Answer "Practice, practice, practice."
Just Plain Wrong.
To cut to the chase, you get to play Carnegie by playing well at lots of other venues and demonstrating that you love doing it and relatively large numbers of people love, or at least will pay, to hear you.
Or you can just pay $10,000 and rent it out for a couple hours and play for your friends and family.
But assuming that your interest or ambition runs toward the first path, read on.
Trying to practice without playing is like trying to make a fire without oxygen. It is just too hard to stay motivated without the purpose of playing. And without that purpose, your practice will have the focus to propel you to ever greater heights. You can practice your whole life and not get to Carnegie Hall. In fact, I guarantee if you practice your whole life, you will not get to Carnegie Hall? Why? Because you are too busy practicing.
To practice without ever playing, without getting out there and doing the actual thing in music. To play for others is to miss the point and the opportunity for real growth.
So this leads us to possibly the second worst cliche in the practice and expertise world: that you can get good at anything with ~10,000 hours of practice. This concept gained universal meme-like coverage after Malcolm Gladwell published his book Outliers. In it, he mis-paraphrased expertise researcher Anders Ericsson's work on deliberate practice stating that it takes approximately 10,000 hours to get good at anything.
There were a number of errors in Gladwell's statement. First, Ericsson's research looked at a specific group of german conservatory students age 20 and found that, on average, the best of them had practiced ~10,000 hours by that point. However many had practiced more and many less. It was an arbitrary age leading to a specific number. He could have also said 20,000 by 30. Second, while less accomplished students mostly had practiced less, some had also practiced 10,000 hours. This leads to an important distinction. According to Ericsson the real key is that practice must be deliberate. We will get into the details of deliberate practice in another post but in short: Deliberate practice is goal directed, is based on a plan, takes place outside your comfort zone, and has clear feedback to integrate into your next cycle of planning and practice. And all this needs to happen on a daily basis. Hard stuff. And if you are doing it right, it should only get harder.
So back to that first cliche. How to get to Carnegie Hall? If it is not practice, then maybe deliberate practice, deliberate practice, deliberate practice? Maybe! But a more useful statement would be "play, play, play!" Our job, for better or worse, is to develop our unique voice to the point where we can play where we desire. Given that all training is field specific, if you practie playing you will play if you practice only practicing... You get the idea.
Again, the key is to play. Play for your family, play for your friends. Play music with your friends. All the time. Find groups, finds individuals, go to nursing homes. Play on the street. Play in cafes. Just play. You can not over do this. And as you do, you'll we quickly learn what works, what you need to work on and how to improve your performances.
Playing will be your ultimate teacher but also your inspiration. The energy you get from playing with and for others will spike your motivation and give you the focus you need to do deliberate practice.
This is a matter of psychological optimization. A factor Gladwell nor Ericcson spend much time on but is key to great performance. If you want to play at the highest levels, you need to optimize your mental state to be highly focused, passionate, optimistic and rich with a growth mindset. For the performing artist, play is the driving force for these qualities.
Can you play to practice. Yes. In part. This is not to say you run pieces over and over in your practice room. This is not what I mean by playing. Playing involves others, playing for or with others. So set up that next gig, that next performance, the next jam, then practice for it.
And let that playing inform your practice. Practice with a real performance goal, not just in mind, but in your calendar, and better this week than the next. A growth mindset means you believe you can learn and get better, which you can. But the over emphasis on effort without clear goals can lead to ineffective action. 10,000 hours and no Carnegie Hall. Let your playing be your goal.
So play a lot. Learn from it. Play to practice. Then practice to play.