I’m in the zone, jamming with my cello in the living room…getting a really good groove going…yeah…this FEELS good…trying new stuff, new sounds, new rhythms…Suddenly, my mother’s voice issues down from her upstairs sewing room—”David, quit messing around! Practice your piece! Do you just want to be mediocre?”
This interruption came frequently into my teenage practice routine, for let me be completely honest with you: I wasn’t driven to practice. Some people are born with a drive to improve, but I simply didn’t have it. I was much too afraid of facing the ego-crushing truth that there were shortcomings in my playing (big teenage ego?), and preferred to remain blissfully ignorant of my flaws and just play.
I loved how it felt to PLAY my cello.
I loved the inner freedom and refreshing feeling of flow, the completely relaxed yet focused concentration.
But my love affair with music led me to the hallowed halls of Eastman and Indiana University, where I finally learned how to PRACTICE. Gone were the days of just messing around for hours—now I had to focus.
Being a good student, I learned quickly.
I quickly banished the freedom of play.
I began zealously practicing a newfound criticism on myself, and soon found myself imprisoned in my own jail of judgment. Many of my practice sessions ended not with clarity and renewed energy, but with frustration and exhaustion. It did get the job done, though at the cost of most of my capacity for enjoyment.
In 1996 I found yet ANOTHER practice: meditation. By this time I had spent years developing strong self-discipline through competitive swimming (another story!) and my musical career. I was a pro at persevering when I WASN’T enjoying what I was doing, so it was easy to bring to bear on my meditations an intense self-scrutiny and demand of focus with the grim grip of my mind.
But just today I was reading an excellent book that I highly recommend: The Perfect Wrong Note by William Westney. He writes of the freedom of play that we all had as children exploring our musicality, and how easily we lose that freedom when we start trying to be perfect and get things right.
So tonight I experimented with something novel:
Instead of practicing meditation, I played meditation.
Suddenly, my meditation took on a completely different dimension! By reminding myself that I don’t always have to be the critic, I brought in the memories of how it felt to just play. I used these experiences to go deep with inner freedom and flow to find what I was looking for: stillness of focus and immersion into the truth of who I am on the deepest level.
The hour passed in a flash.
So is playing better than practicing? Not necessarily, for if we aren’t careful, play can take us to inattentiveness and loss of concentration.
But notice this:
When you dive deep enough into either practice or play, they both bring the same results: singular focus, inner freedom, and ease.
So whenever you are beating yourself up in your practice, try sliding toward the other side, and remember that long lost joy of playing. And when you find yourself getting tired of just playing around, use a little of your practice to rise to your next level of challenge.
“That,” said the Buddha, “is how to practice: not too tight and not too loose.”