Progress through recess

Today was band practice with the Omnivores. I am the drummer for the Omnivores, which happened by accident because Michael Rachap is a way better rock pianist than I am, and Michael McGill is a way better rock guitarist than I am. At our first practice, I hopped on the drums and, although I take a break every now and then to play uke, hand percussion, or what-have-you, that is where I stay.

The Omnivores, October 2008I have been busy lately with the school (January is a big month for new enrollments) and with our Haiti benefit on Sunday. So I haven't been practicing very much. But, as a multi-instrumentalist by definition I never practice anything very much.

While I'd like to make myself a cautionary tale and remind all the good children out there that they should be practicing every single day without fail, I am actually pretty happy with my musicianship and I think my path is a valid one.

On the one hand, I am no virtuoso. Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, says that it takes an individual about ten thousand hours of practice, effort, work, whatever, to achieve mastery in a given discipline. So guess what - I started piano at age eleven, and I'm not sure I have those ten thousand hours yet. Julliard is off the table for me, I'm afraid.

However, on the other hand, I have easily put those ten thousand hours into music study in general, including many hours a day of vicariously playing over the shoulders of hundreds of students over the past several years. Even on days that I don't officially practice, I am spending plenty of time immersed in music.

Today was the first day the Omnivores played together since our lazy concert just before Christmas. Yet I am sure I am now a better drummer than I was in December. I was tighter, more steady, more energetic, and I was able to hear (and then execute) all kinds of fills that I couldn't this past fall. We played several songs we've never played (covers including a few Velvet Underground tunes, some early Beatles hits, and some random solo Beatles numbers). I've definitely made progress, trying some stuff I've haven't tried before.

How is this possible? Perhaps I am just judging myself less harshly than I did before, and I have actually backslid. But perhaps rest and time away from the instrument are underrated elements of a successful practice routine.

On one end of the spectrum, a beginner has to practice enough to actually learn how to play the instrument. On the other end of the spectrum, a pro has to play enough to keep his chops in shape, which might be quite a bit if he wants to simply maintain a high level. Maybe I'm in the sweet spot where I have the basic skills to do what I want to do musically, and I don't need to do much to stay there.

Even if I don't have my fingers on the instrument all the time (any instrument!), I am constantly expanding my understanding of the language of music. When I finally get down to playing again, it is a richer experience.

I know the breaks are doing me good - any third-grader will say the same thing about snacktime and recess. Duh, right?