Musical Work aka Practice

by Stuart Mawler
Here is an essay on the topic of musical work, or what people frequently call "practice".

I really like the thoughts on technique vs emotion; this is a topic that is not well communicated because it is so subjective and nebulous. I think, however, that most of us will agree that a firm grounding in technique allows greater and more effective self- expression, whether or not that technique is developed prior to the musical concept being executed. With this in mind, I thought it might be interesting to put forth some ideas on the actual process one uses to develop technique *and* self-expression: Musical Work.

Musical work is my term for what most people call, somewhat interchangeably, practice or rehearsal. I use a new term simply because neither existing term is accurate enough nor broad enough to describe what we do as musicians when not performing or recording.

Musical work is any function that prepares a musician or a group of musicians for performance, recording, or more advanced musical work.

This work can be broken into three parts:

  • Practice
  • Rehearsal
  • Development
  • Practice is the most easily understood phase of work, being something that everyone does and needs to do. In this phase, a person generally works alone or with one or two other persons at the most. Any number of activities are possible within this phase, but the primary goal is to develop technique and study applied theory; this may be done for or through specific pieces of music. Practice is often best when it is done within larger blocks of time where complicated ideas can be worked out; the muscles need to be trained.

    Rehearsal is also easily understood, but little used in its best form. This phase must be completed with the entire musical unit that will perform a given work, be that one person or one hundred. The most important thing about rehearsal is environmental/situational replication; a song (or a set of songs) must be rehearsed in the manner in which it is intended for performance or recording. If you plan to perform at loud coffee houses bearing gurgling espresso machines, you should not rehearse in a sound proof room with the lights on full bright; the coffee house setting and noises will distract you immensely.

    To take environmental/situational replication one step farther (and to take an idea from a Stick player), the state of being in which a person performs most frequently is a state of unpreparedness. I do not mean that you have never practiced enough, rather, when you arrive at the local Gasthaus with bass in hand, you are unlikely to have a two hour pre-gig warm up; rehearsal should be approached in the same manner. Play the song(s) in correct order, mistakes and all, and then take a break for a significant period of time, then do it again. And again. Recording is, of course, quite different from performance; a musician frequently has the luxury of preparation, session work aside. The point is the same, though; play the song to be recorded all the way through as you envision it with no false starts.

    For a real-life example, I used this technique in preparing a set of songs for solo Stick, an instrument I had never played in public. By constantly replicating my debut environment and mind-set, I was able to boost my confidence level immensely. Also, clinical studies have shown that information on exams is best recalled when studied in an environment closely resembling that of the exam itself; e.g., you will take the test sitting in a hard wooden chair under flourescent light, so you should study in the same manner. It follows that a similar concept would be true for music.

    The final phase, Development, is less clear; it is a phase that crosses into both rehearsal and practice. Development is the time when new songs/works are written or learned. If I were to graphically represent the three phases on a scale it might look like this:

    Raw Woodshedding                                    Performance-Level
    |                                                                   |
    Practice          Development                               Rehearsal

    I place Development much closer to Practice, but still feel the two phases to be distinct. The development phase seeks to write a new work or learn a specific song. This phase is a good place for unrestrained jam sessions where new and exciting ideas can come out spontaneously without concern for virtuosity in the execution; that can be worked on in practice. Some may feel that the Development phase artificially separates creativity and self-expression, but I would argue that these forces are merely channelled for maximum effect; to me these are the most important aspects of music, and the very reason I make music, so I want to focus my attentions on them when appropriate.

    I am not sure that I have clearly defined these elements, but I do stand by the overall concept. It is just this concept that was lacking in almost all of my bands; our rehearsals would frequently degrade into "practice" or, more accurately, noodling, as would the developmental sessions. I also find that, with a day job in the private sector and my time correspondingly at a premium, good use of band work time is required. The other members of my upcoming band project have heard this drivel and agree in principle; we need to make an impact and have very little time in which to do that.

    Hopefully some of you may find this useful in directing your own musical work schedule. The bass player is, as we all know, the foundation of the band.

    [Stuart] [Practice Methods/Tips] [BassWork Index]