PRACTICE, PRACTICE, SO WHAT?

If you practice 30 minutes a day you sound like it. If you practice 3 hours a day you sound like that as well. Mel Lewis told me about visiting Buddy Rich at his apartment in NY near Lincoln Center. There were a few musicians there and the talk was about music, music, music, politics, food. As he is recalling different stories, I interrupt. I’m not really interested in their conversation. I am interested in Buddy’s living situation. More to the point. I ask Mel, “What drums did Buddy have set up? What sizes? Were they muted or did he have them in an isolation booth for sound control in the apartment building?” Mel looked at me, puzzled, like they were dumb questions. Buddy had no drums in his apartment. No drum sticks hanging around. No practice pads. There was no evidence a drummer lived in the apartment. Seriously? As Mel said, “Buddy is always playing with his band. He doesn’t have the need to practice.”

I heard stories about Jimi Hendrix being so obsessed with practicing he would fall asleep holding his guitar in the bed with him. A friend told me Emanuel Ax, the great classical pianist, practices as he is eating breakfast. That’s how he starts his day. Reading an interview with the vibraphonist Gary Burton concerning his practice routine, he claimed he practiced very little on the instrument. The majority of his exercises were in his head. He would play patterns, melodies, all in his head, away from an instrument. Therefore, when at the vibraphone he had a better understanding of what to play. He had conjured ideas and was ready to put them in action. That’s how I like to practice…in my head. Too bad I can’t translate it to the instrument as Gary does! Needless to say Gary logged in many hours on the instrument.

Carmine Caruso was a legendary brass teacher. He taught in NYC for many years on West 46th St and many of his students were extremely accomplished musicians looking for what Carmine had to offer. He concentrated on breath control and various horn exercises. I had a friend who studied with him. After a lesson, in his Zen state of mind, I asked, “What’s so great about your lessons, this guy doesn’t even play trumpet. My friend replied, “Carmine teaches me a different way to practice. I approach the horn differently.” Carmine was not a brass player. He was a saxophonist and the majority of his students played trumpet!

So basically and ultimately it is about the music. Not just the technique. The aim of practicing is to prepare for the music to be performed. The better prepared, hopefully, the better the performance. And we have to remind ourselves to practice what we don’t know, not what we do. Athletes spend hours working on their faults to help ensure a win. There is nothing more boring than listening to a drummer/musician with incredible chops but no musicality. Granted, we are impressed with phenomenal technique, but let me experience the music, the feeling and I’m happy!

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