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The art of playing

Yesterday I spent the morning with friends and family at an inflatable aqua adventure park. The idea behind these places is that you don a wetsuit, buoyancy aid and helmet, then jump into a lake filled with inflatable obstacles and trampolines. It's incredibly good fun and at the end of the hour and a half session I came out of the water with a big smile on my face and just one or two very minor injuries.

Aquapark - Wooten Wawen

So what has this got to do with music? Well, as you know, my writing style is focused on the positives taken from every day life that you can apply to improving your musical career or just being a better human being. In this case I'd like to talk to you about a particular obstacle, how I overcame it and how we can apply the methodology to almost any skill.

At the end of one set of inflatable obstacles was a long tube (pictured above). The starting point was from an inflatable platform and once you sat on, legs astride, you had to shimmy your way down to the end. Sounds simple enough, right? However, the air filled log twisted from side to side with the slightest of movement. You had to perfectly distribute your weight to reach the end.

I approached the obstacle with confidence and tried to quickly shuffle to the end. I was humbled by the log and thrown into the lake, not once, but many, many times! Each time I tried completely different methods until I exhausted all options. I chose logical, sensible approaches and when they didn't work, I switched to far more unorthodox and radical ideas. Each time I was thrown into the water I thought about my next plan of attack. It very quickly became an obsession as I spent 20 minutes repeating the obstacle.

I was analysing each attempt and tweaking my tactics to maximise my progress. After a while I snapped out of my obsession and swam away. I would love to tell you that I made it to the end but.... I didn't. This disappointment was amplified when my wife made it to the end on her third go! I was proud and mortified at the same time.

After the session I sat at the piano and I started to think about that time at the aqua park. Had I achieved the overall goal?! I can take away some positives though. I guess you could say that in a small but possibly measurable way I had improved the following attributes:

  • Strength

  • Agility

  • Swimming

  • Balance

  • Planning

  • Determination

  • Tenacity

  • Mental focus/clarity

The overall impression of the event was that it was FUN! I was playing and improving my skills was secondary to the sense of joy I was experiencing. It was similar to the gamification of my nerdy teenage years where I would happily waste hours on a RPG upgrading my character, collecting potions and swapping my steel dagger to the Sword of Balduran!

I started to play the piano. I spent 10 mins just enjoying the feel of the piano and listening to the sound coming out. It was a joyful experience and it soon extended to some serious practice as I discovered chords and passages that needed adapting and refining in order to improve the sound. I explored some traditional piano skills (like fingering technique) but it didn't seem tedious because I was just playing around and having fun. I used repetition as a device to improve whatever passage I was working on at that particular time and it was fuelled by my inner competitiveness. I completely lost track of time and I was eventually interrupted by the arrival of a student.

Pursuing a goal is one of the most gratifying aspects of life for me but it can also be utterly soul destroying. Learning a skill should be fun and fulfilling. It has to be this way in order to come back to it time and time again.

Now, you could argue that trying to reach the end of an inflatable log is not exactly a life goal. You could even say it's pointless! I would agree in a way. My life is exactly the same today as it was yesterday and I would say the same for my wife who actually achieved the goal. It hasn't made a big difference to us as people and yet, I am writing about the positives of the experience. I believe that most skills are transferable and that time in the cold waters of the lake has minutely improved my life. All these moments incrementally add up and make you a better person in whichever field you choose to work in.

I often talk to my students about taking on challenges just for the fun of it. Like Sudoko puzzles; what on earth is the point of a Suduko puzzle? Or a Crossword or Pub Quiz, are they completely a waste of time? Once again my wife embarrasses me by completing a Suduko puzzle in about half the time it takes me, but when I attempt a puzzle I enjoy the process and although I'm not outwardly competitive (I've never really enjoyed picking sides and beating other people), I get an inner competitiveness which is all consuming. I become stubborn and obsessed by completing things on my own. The sense of achievement to me is then worthwhile even though the reality is that I've spent 15 minutes scribbling a few digits in biro in a newspaper!

When tackling a difficult element in music I try to think in a similar way. Firstly, I try to have an end goal. Sometimes this is generalised like: improve speed/flow, or more melodic improvisation, or play with more feel. At other times I have a laser focused target like: play the piece with no mistakes, play at 188bpm, play a phrase correctly 5 times in a row.

Trying to accomplish goals is of course a worthy pursuit but it can also seem either too clinical or if the goals are too big they may seem unreachable. From time to time I would encourage some unadulterated play to stimulate new ideas and bring back some enjoyment to your practice sessions. As the old adage goes: "time flies when you're having fun". With this in mind, what better way to spend hours in training than to loose track of time playing music?

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