The Zen of Practice

The Zen of Practice, or, “Do I Have To?”

By Kris Faatz


Playing a piece of music, especially for applause, is the fun part of taking lessons. It’s like having dessert, or pizza. Practicing is like cauliflower. Or brussels sprouts. Or broccoli.

We all know practicing is good for you. (Like broccoli.) Let’s face it, though: it can seem pretty dull sometimes. It involves repetition. Lots of repetition. We make mistakes and go back and fix them, and maybe we fix the same ones again the next day, and the same ones again the day after that. Sometimes we just don’t feel like doing it. So we ask: do we have to?

The short answer: yes. Of course your teachers say that, but here’s why they do.

When we practice, we’re doing terrific things for our minds and bodies. If we want to play a piece well, we need two kinds of memory: brain memory and muscle memory. Brain memory means that you don’t have to think each time about what the notes on the page are telling you. You see the shapes, and your brain understands them right away. Muscle memory means that your fingers know what to do. You don’t have to remind them where to move and how.

The more we practice, the faster our brains get and the stronger and more responsive our fingers get. This means we have more time to step back, as we’re playing, and listen to the sounds we’re making. Then we can concentrate not on figuring out what to do next, but how to do it. How to make the piece sound the way we want it to, and how to make it come to life.

But what about that repetition? Sure, it can seem boring to play the same bunch of notes again and again. (Scales, right?) But the next time you’re doing it, try this: concentrate on what’s happening in your body. Think about the motion of each finger. Notice the satisfaction you feel when each note comes out strong and clean. Don’t worry about “this is taking so long.” Think about playing this note, right now, the way it needs to sound. 

And while your hands are busy, believe it or not, the back of your brain will work away on other stuff. You might finish your practice and realize you’ve figured out how to solve that math problem that was bugging you, or you’ve decided what you should say in that email you have to send. Practicing can actually refresh your mind, letting you come up with new ideas while your muscles work. It’s a win-win.

That’s the zen of practice. So go enjoy it…and while you’re at it, make sure to eat your broccoli.


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