You may have seen our earlier post, the beginning of a series featuring useful and entirely practical advice for any musicians out there who want to learn how to practise better. Well, this post is just the opposite: we’ve sourced all of those dedicated-to-the-point-of-absurdity practice regimes of some of the greatest musicians ever to help you figure out just how NOT to practise.
Pop-psychology quack (or genius?) Malcolm Gladwell postulated that you need to put in 10,000 hours of practice to become a master at something. This sparked waves of controversy, mainly from not-so-amused musicians who groaned at their measly 5,000 hours. So dust off your stopwatch and read on about some of those musicians who might have taken this all-too literally.
Passage of Time Makes Perfect?
Stories of famous musicians’ ridiculously long practice routines abound, helping to create a generation of pessimistic musicians who watch the clock more than their own fingers. Supposedly, Charlie Parker practised 11-15 hours a day for 3 to 4 years. Apparently, Tom Morello found 8 hours of spare time per day to practise while studying for a degree at Harvard. Steve Vai wrote a piece for Guitar World detailing his ’30 Hour Regime’, to be executed over three days. He called it “Freak Show Excess”. Very appropriate.
Whether these stories are true or just bravado is up to you to decide, but what you can take from them is that to truly become great, it does truly take a lot of hard work. Charlie Parker always refused to acknowledge that his virtuosic abilities were the result of pure talent. He said “study is absolutely necessary, in all forms…like a good pair of shoes when you put a shine on it, you know.” We do know.
What’s also crucial is not necessarily how much you practise but how well you practise. It’s all well and good spending 10 hours a day playing the same song over and over again, but if you spent just one hour practising something more useful and worthwhile, you’d be much better off.
Pushy Parenting Makes Perfect?
The father of one of the greatest composers of all time, Johann Van Beethoven’s credentials include musician, singer, teacher and alcoholic, the latter tendency tending to result in violent outrage when young Ludwig’s playing wasn’t up to scratch. When Johann Strauss the First discovered his son practising his violin in secret, instead of working towards becoming a banker, he whipped him into shape, literally.
Contemporary classical darling Lang Lang describes how his father devised a six-hour per day practice routine for him, at just five years old, growing angry and almost violent when his teacher refused to teach him any longer. The young Gustav Mahler, at the tender and weirdly angry age of just eight, used to rest his arm on his pupil’s shoulder (yes, pupil’s) with his open hand at their cheek. At every wrong note they received a strike to the face, ensuring they never missed a beat(ing) again.
The violence erupting from these parents and teachers probably says more about them than the pupil’s ability. Producing aptitude and technique out of sheer fear will never be productive, as the incentive for becoming truly great should always be the simple love of music. The only enforcer of your good practice habits should be you yourself, and it’s absolutely essential that you should always want to practise, above anything else; you should never have to sacrifice something you’d rather be doing, because shouldn’t you always rather be playing music?
Perplexingly Peculiar Makes Perfect?
One of the most celebrated pianists of the last century, Glenn Gould (also renowned for his unusual posture that would make many a piano tutor weep), cultivated a great number of unorthodox practices, claiming that he learned the complete Schönberg with the radio playing at the same time. He also hummed involuntarily while playing, much to the dismay of his recording engineers, and insisted on sitting precisely fourteen inches above the floor. Avant-garde composer Erik Satie ate only white-coloured food, and was called the “laziest student in the Conservatoire” – an accolade that very few amateur musicians would aspire to. Romantic composer Anton Bruckner was obsessed with counting, making sure all of the bars in his epic symphonies made him happy, prioritising the statistically-pleasing above the aesthetically-appealing. The man’s idiosyncrasies were so out-of-the-ordinary that the violently intimidating enforcer Gustav Mahler called him “half-simpleton, half-God”.
And yet, all of the above musicians were, or are geniuses. Virtuosos of the utmost talent. So what are you to do if you’re struggling to devise your own practice routine, puzzling over the best way to spend your musical time, who are you to trust? Should violinists turn to violence? Should amateur pianists pay attention to aggressive parenting? Should you succumb to the seduction of the hourglass, counting the hours until you’ve hit those 10,000? The answer is no, find out what works best for you, and perhaps keep a look out for our Best Practice series that’ll be giving you plenty of tips from real musicians that will genuinely aid your practising.