More from the mailbox: Not knowing what to practice.

Thanks to all for writing and for your questions and thoughts. Always appreciated. For this recent one, I am going to paraphrase the question:

“Dave, I’m having trouble knowing what to practice. I feel like I am working a lot but not moving forward, and I’m a little frustrated at not knowing where to look for inspiration in my practicing and playing. Help.”

I have a few thoughts about what you’ve said. I broke them up into a few avenues of inquiry that you might find helpful.

First: Presence. A part of any activity in the arts is like meditation or simple awareness, depending on how you look at it. The meditative mind is a huge part of the practice of practice. Notice what’s going on around you and inside you. I’m reading a book right now called Rebel Buddha, which I wholeheartedly recommend. I am not a Buddhist (last year I actually reaffirmed my identity as a Christian, just… not the kind that believes in killing people… oof!). I feel like some quiet sitting and focus might sharpen your musical instincts. Add that as part of your eight hour day. Lots of manuals are available if you look. You probably already have at least one in your house. This is a way of focussing your presence so you can be more aware of what you are working on.

Second: Absence. Music is a subtle devil. So much of the power is in things we never think about or talk about. The power of absence in music — a quick concrete example is when you release a note as opposed to when you attack it. Your release creates an absence and is almost half the power of the note itself. Think about where and how your notes end. Think about how the silences in your rhythm make the music stronger. Think about how the wake of your notes makes the metronome swing.

Third: Tone. Profound element and how often do we work on that? Sit around playing long tones and tinkering, in a microscopic way, with the sound of the one note. Vibrato, dynamics, timbre, harmonics, articulation, smears, multi-phonics, growling, etc. all found in holding that one note. Listen to Billie Holiday and think about how many different ways (and how expressively!) she sings the same note every time it comes around. In some ways I feel like this is the development of taste, in a good way. When you get on the stage you want every note to be beautiful and powerful. Loaded with meaning.

Glad we talked.