The Dangers of Daily Practice

Yesterday was the first day that I’d repeated the previous day’s musical idea quite so closely.

I’ve repeated myself before. Sometimes intentionally, but just as often “by mistake” (let’s call it “without conscious intention” instead). Similar tempos, similar grooves, pretty close on the tone-center, same mode. Melodic motifs—now there’s a pitfall. I’m discovering that I’m going to my go-to melodic gestures quite a bit.

But two days in a row?

It gets worse. Yesterday I did something pretty atypical to come up with an idea. Mid-day, I had a free half-hour with no access to a suitable recording space, so I took out my iPad with Loopy on it and I just messed around. Had fun. Didn’t think. Just let it flow. Then I went home hours later and found one of the ideas compelling enough to clean up.

Today I listened to yesterday’s song and the prior day’s song back-to-back. Same tempo, similar groove. Same key center, and just a slight difference in the mode (ionian to mixolydian, for the curious).

So, when I cut loose, when I don’t plan, when I take it easy, when I let it come naturally… I just go right back to something I had just said?

Naming Some Dangers

When I was not making music every day, there was a feeling of starvation. “All these ideas in my head, when will I ever express them?” But I’m discovering that there are also dangers to daily practice, and they become subtler over time. And here I find myself sliding in to some of them. Yes, the danger of repeating myself, of complacency. But more subtly, the danger of second-guessing myself, of questioning the worthiness of my musical instincts.

(Parenthetical reality check. Do let’s recall that there are “dangers” and there are dangers. Surrounding yourself with violence. Driving while distracted. Neglecting your health. Risk-taking to seek a thrill. These things will eventually harm you. Singing? No matter what, your singing won’t leave a stain on the wall. As long as you take proper care of your instrument, the only dangers are emotional dangers. Real, and important, but of a different nature.)

Neural pathways become well-worn. All these new—and for me they are still new—techniques for generating and developing musical ideas, I’ve been going at them so frequently and consistently that they are staking out territory in the network of my neurons. On some level I know that if I let them become so ingrained that I become inflexible, the meaningfulness of my musical expression will suffer. I must remember how valuable musical agility (not fast singing, but a rapidly adaptable musical mind) and elasticity are. I must remember that making music is not a mere technical exercise in manipulating tonal and rhythmic information; that it’s expression of meaning, human-to-human, in a medium other than speech or dance or painting or sculpture.

That danger is subtle as a brick.

But to be in a place where I can detect doubts starting to nag me? Unfamiliar doubts; not whether or not I’m capable of saying anything, but whether in-the-moment I’m saying anything new and worthwhile. No-one wants to be the person at the party standing in the center of the room with a bullhorn, repeating the same tired old line of conversation they always do. A doubt, a fear lurking in a shadowy corner of my mind is starting to whisper: “you might be that guy.” This murmur is a bastard, and a sly one.

Seeking Asylum

Well, what do we do with dangers? We’re no strangers to danger, are we? To live is to experience some danger. What do we do? We may guard against them; or avoid them; or deflect them, re-directing their energy; or we may accept their consequences when we know there’s a chance me may come to some degree of harm, trusting that we know also how to heal. What else?

Avoidance is a non-option. What am I going to do, quit? HA!

Against complacency and being in a rut, there are techniques. As I re-read my own advice from eight months ago, it seems a bit naive perhaps, but still on-target. I’ve let my discipline slip. It was so, so productive for me to have a tempo each day as a starting point. I used to keep track of what tone-centers, modes, and grooves I was using on a day-to-day basis, and intuitively reached toward any territory I’d not recently visited. I’ve got to get back to that. Perhaps it will provide some armor.

Better to also surround myself in exciting musical sounds. An echo chamber will make a rut fast, no? It’s probably well past time I soaked myself in awesome music of all kinds. I’m not going to admit, here, to having been a tad self-involved…

And there’s what I wrote above, about remembering the value of being musically adroit and pliable. Not as an end unto itself, but as a means for achieving meaningful musical expression that might make a positive difference for someone. That, after all, is the gig, isn’t it?

As for the insidious dangers, here I’m in unfamiliar territory. But I have a few new techniques for that, too. Not exercised nearly as often or consistently as my vocal improvisation techniques, though.

To start with, I’m going to shine a big ol’ floodlight into the shadowy corners of my mind, where the fears lurk. Say hello to them, give them a hug, accept them as a part of myself, perhaps try to listen to what underlying important messages they might have for me. That’s part of why I’m writing this.

The fears won’t go away. Floodlights dim, people go back to sleep. But people wake up too.

What would be the best case scenario? I mustn’t let the fears, longings, angers, doubts, and sorrows have power over me. Perhaps there’s a way to accept them as part of my power, in the way that I openly accept my joys, awes, memories, and the skills and knowledge developed over time that I lean on.

Wouldn’t that be a trick?

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