Building vs. Fixing



In the past few years I have become much more cognizant of the language we use around practicing and performing. One that I hear all the time is: I need to fix my -- insert desired skill here --. Whether it be I need to fix my intonation, I need to fix my technique, I need to fix my rhythm, all are fairly common. But I would like to ask: Are these things broken? Did you have them and they broke somehow? This is puzzling me lately because we think all the time: well I still need to fix things in that last section. Or, I still need to fix the intonation in this part.


When we think about the word "fix" (a very versatile word) in this context we are talking about mending or repairing it. However, most of us use this when referring to still learning a piece. I think it is important to point out that we have never fully learned, achieved, or produced this piece, excerpt, or whatever it may be in the first place (most of the time, unless of course you are reworking something you have already played, but I still think this applies). We never really talk about building or crafting a piece of music.


For me this was a big "ah ha!" moment. What if we thought about building a piece up instead of just going into it thinking it should be correct and we just have to work a few things out. The quality in which we build a piece/performance is going to determine how solid, convincing, and high quality it will be to your audience.


If you think about building a nice piece of furniture, or thinking like a craftsman, they use tools to be extremely precise. For example, you wouldn't try to build a coffee table without a ruler or a pencil. That would make for one wonky coffee table... you coffee would very likely spill. Of course you would have something guide you along the way, and in this way the metronome and tuner are essential. They are your guiding tools to make sure you don't need to go back later and fix something once you try to put it all together. So, next time you think about not using the metronome or tuner, know that the end result will be a little wonky and you may actually have to "fix things."


If we keep going with this analogy we can apply it in so many ways. If a true craftsman spends time to add detail to a piece of furniture (one of a kind! not mass produced) it is of a higher quality. People appreciate the detail that goes into these things, and are willing to pay a premium for the high-end materials and craftsmanship. If we think about the materials being used (quality of wood as opposed to particle board) as the tone quality we can also take this analogy further. A simple piece of furniture (no frills) can be of the highest quality if it is made from beautiful materials. Same with a simple melody being played with a ravishing sound. In this case as musicians we also build the materials. I like to think of the materials as the fundamentals.


Some questions to ask yourself during your practice session (building session): How can I make this phrase of the highest quality? What tools can I use (vibrato, phrasing, articulation, etc.) to make this phrase into something I love?


How will you know if it works? Record yourself... Try new things! Compare two different ways of playing a single phrase to see which one you like better! Use all your tools! Is it worth it? YES. Why? You will have left no stone unturned. If you build something you truly believe is of the highest quality, you will be proud of it. The question "is it good enough?" goes away because it is the best possible performance/recording/audition you can produce. If there is any doubt of it is good enough, you may be in the mentality of "fixing" which inherently presumes you should already be able to play whatever you are preparing.


The danger of this is it is a recipe for frustration. When we think we should already be able to do something and then don't meet our expectations we get frustrated. Why do you expect the house to be built already? Why do you assume you should be able to do it? Really think about whether your moment to moment expectations in the practice room have been holding you back from building something truly beautiful.


What if you never assumed you could just play anything, and you got busy building instead? You maybe had a twinge of frustration from the fact that you can't play that passage you worked on for half hour yesterday. But what if you let that go and met yourself where you were in that moment? What if you practiced as if you were your own teacher, slowing down the metronome for your student is helpful. Slowing the metronome down for yourself is helpful too, the difference is we judge ourselves all too often for just clicking the metronome back down to where it was yesterday.


A difference I will acknowledge between building a physical object and building a performance is the "how." In music we are given guidelines from our teachers, exercises, example practice routines, timers, practice logs, and examples for how other people achieve things. However, what we are building is ours. It can only be known through us and we need to figure out the "how" on our own. We don't know the "how" until we accomplish what we set out to do. There is no secret formula or blueprint because as artists our performances can't be mass-produced or built by just anybody. They are uniquely ours to share with the world.

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