The (Dis)Pleasure Principle in Practice

You wake up groggy after tossing and turning in bed. Perhaps the night was too hot, perhaps your girlfriend snored up a storm—it doesn’t matter. All that matters is coffee, the black nectar that will lift your mood and give you hope for another day. You get up, make your coffee, start drinking. And, miracle of miracles, everything quickly changes. Your circulation speeds up, your headache clears, creativity spins its wheels, and you forgive your girlfriend. Then you’re ready to leave the house and join the orchestra for its morning rehearsal.

Pleasure and displeasure determine much of what we do, be it in the banal choices we make about eating, drinking, and sleeping, or in the more subtle matters of personal interaction, aesthetic beliefs, and working methods. Needless to say, so it is with your daily practice. Everything you do in the practicing room happens along a continuum of pleasure and displeasure. Practicing is a multifaceted art. In a 30-minute work session you can easily pass from doing something constructive and inventive to losing your way in mindless habit. Your practicing is of four kinds: essential, useful, useless, and harmful. Each type can be pleasurable or not. Let’s look at a few examples.

Say you’re preparing Claude Debussy’s cello sonata for performance. In it there are a dozen different varieties of pizzicato: single notes, double, triple, and quadruple stops in arpeggios and in chords, with glissandi, with sforzandi—you name it. But when you work on your pizzicati, your right thumb becomes sore and tender. In time it develops a painful blister. Your whole arm hurts, up to the shoulder and neck, partly because you’re unconsciously trying to protect your thumb and its throbbing blister. If you persevere—and only if you persevere—the blister becomes a callus. Then you free yourself from pain and your pizzicati become controlled, powerful, satisfying to play and to listen to. But it’s no wonder you might avoid practicing pizzicati altogether. Though essential, it’s displeasing work.

During the days leading to your performance of the Debussy, you spend some time on an étude full of fast string crossings at the tip of the bow. You enjoy flicking your wrist and forearm at high speeds and producing a glassy sound that tickles your imagination and transports you to a place far away from your practice room. It’s certainly useful and pleasant to work on your dexterity and your creativity. But, given the impending performance of the Debussy—where this particular bow stroke doesn’t make an appearance—it isn’t essential that you do so.

One morning the unruly spirit of a mischievous child enters you, and for a while you forget about adult life altogether. You lay your cello on your lap and play it as a percussion instrument, hitting its side with your open palm and drumming on it with your fingers. Pleasurable as it may be, your drumming is ultimately useless for your recital preparation.

There’s a one-octave leap shift in the Debussy that gives you trouble. You play it again and again, missing the top note more often than not. The more you want to get it right, the greater the effort you put into it, swaying your head and neck down with the left hand as it moves along the fingerboard. After three minutes of this you still miss the shift, and your very soul is impregnated with feelings of failure and the apprehension of further failure on stage. Admit it: what you have been doing isn’t essential, useful, or useless, but downright harmful. From it, though, you draw the pleasure from engaging in a struggle and appearing to work hard.

Your task as a musician is to recognize your patterns of behavior and organize your practice to maximize the essential (however unpleasant) and minimize the harmful (however pleasant). While seeking the essential, you’ll have plenty of time for the pleasantly useful and pleasantly useless. Here are a dozen pointers to help you along.

  1. Nothing is ever physical, nothing is ever psychological; all is psycho-physical. (Your reaction to coffee proves this conclusively.) Practicing is no exception. “Thinking, acting, sensing, making choices” is preferable to “Acting.”
  2. The whole body is present in all you do. Instead of exercising your fingers, become aware of your head, neck, back, and legs, and little by little find out how they support the work of your fingers.
  3. Develop the habit of analyzing every musical situation: daily practice, chamber music rehearsals, concert preparation. Aim to become able to summarize, in thirty seconds or two short paragraphs, what is essential in each situation and what are its problems and its possible solutions.
  4. Music is a language, and like all languages it’s rhythmically structured. If you practice a gesture divorced from its rhythmic content, you’re doing more harm than good. Let every note be a syllable or word, hinting of a meaningful phrase or paragraph. The more you render your music-making linguistic, the more essential (and enjoyable) your practice becomes.
  5. Try to catch yourself engaging in patterns of addiction (doing too much) and avoidance (not facing the musical and technical issues at hand). At first it may be easier to observe such patterns in other people. Walk down the corridors of a music school and listen to what happens in each practice room. Isn’t it shocking how some people hack away at their instruments mindlessly? In time you’ll become better able to detect those harmful tendencies of yours that have long shocked your friends and colleagues!
  6. It’s impossible to practice well for eight or more hours a day. If you eliminate every harmful moment from eight hours’ work, you’ll probably be left with three or four hours at most. Short, essential practice is incomparably superior to long, harmful practice.
  7. Pleasure and displeasure have their rightful place in life and in practice. The problem lies in basing absolute judgments (“good, bad, always, never, must, must not”) on pleasure and displeasure alone. A dispassionate attitude while practicing, regardless of how intense the pleasure or the pain involved in it, helps you learn and move forward.
  8. Practicing, like kissing, can be repetitive without becoming mechanical. And, like kissing, it can be wholly pleasurable for a long time.
  9. Alternate between exercises, and take frequent pauses. By refreshing yourself constantly you’ll avoid falling into the traps of senseless habit and harmful practice.
  10. Work on the solution, not the problem. Let’s say the problem is a shift. To shift repeatedly is to work on the problem. To work on the solution is to improve general coordination, rhythm and timing, the use of the bow, and so on.
  11. Simple exercises perfectly executed are always useful, and often essential. They require more mindfulness than generally assumed.
  12. Only a few geniuses have the capacity to work primarily on the essential level, without pain and fatigue. We, musicians of average capabilities, must direct ourselves towards that goal at all times. It doesn’t matter if we never achieve total essentialness. The main thing is to get better at it week by week, month by month, year after year.

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