As a teacher, I constantly push my students to practice more effectively. Goal-oriented, mindful, focused practice is essential to development. I have my students keep practice logs, with each practice session consisting of a warm-up (stretching, breathing, embouchure exercises, long tones, overtones, etc.), technique (scales, articulation, rhythm exercises, fingering patterns, vibrato, etc.), and repertoire. Although the benefits of this practice structure are unparalleled, most younger students don't have the attention span to follow it. The longer I teach younger students, the more I want to find ways to take the structure out of practicing and make improvements with a freer creative process.
At the end of my D'Addario training a few weeks ago, a wonderful colleague of mine, Josh Redman, described trying out fresh-off-the-machine reeds and mouthpieces as "sandbox time". For a couple hours, we tried prototypes of new mouthpieces, played and gave feedback to the research and development team on freshly cut reeds, and enjoyed the music-making process simply by playing and listening to one another. Although the idea of playing without any structure seems mindless and fruitless, I found myself fascinated and inspired by the new products, and my practice session the next day was one of the best I've had all month.
How do I recreate this experience for myself and my students? How can we, as musicians, be creative and free in our pursuit of music without the rigid structure so often associated with effective practicing?
I realized I was missing something very important, which I've known for years but lose sight of so easily: it's important be creative while pursuing perfection in music. Without inspiration and the freedom to practice familiar things in new ways, the monotony of practice becomes overwhelming and quickly leads to burnout. Thus, while focused practicing is absolutely essential, the creative process that goes hand-in-hand with the performing arts must not be stifled by the day-to-day rigor of practicing.
My experience at the D'Addario factory filled a void created by too many months of "discipline," where I spent all of my practice hours trying to meet specific goals without feeling like I made tangible or substantial progress. I hadn't "played for fun" or explored a new practice technique in longer than I could remember. In doing so, my passion reignited and my time spent practicing felt fruitful instead of merely dutiful.