The Case for Active Practicing

By Henry Myers

Practicing: the word itself inspires pain, suffering, depression, boredom, angst, and turmoil; it evokes images of stern-looking students, arduously drilling a passage until they either squeeze out five consecutive successes or quit in frustration. The sheer effort that it requires seems monstrous and intimidating; the payoff, relatively small.

Predictably, it’s an activity that relatively few people enjoy.

I myself have struggled with it for most of my life. Having professional musicians for parents and an aspiring cellist for a brother, playing the cello always felt more obligatory than elective, and thus I learned to resent practicing and avoided it at all costs; subsequently, my inability to play well induced much pain during my lessons, where I was often brought to tears by my teacher (no hard feelings!)

Eventually I realized that I did, in fact, want to play the cello, and starting about 9th grade I became a practicing fiend; in the following years I would only log more and more hours. Yet I felt like the archetypal student musician (as the image so succinctly and somewhat humorously depicts). While I did improve over my high school years, I often felt that the countless hours I put in weren’t quite paying off. I tormented myself with thoughts of being inadequate, untalented, unintelligent.

Why was I so incapable of efficiency?

Truth be told, I was inefficient because in my practicing I placed repetition over thought. Compared to the sheer amount of hours I practiced, the level of brainpower that I exerted was rather underwhelming. I didn’t really have a coherent method: I just practiced somewhat aimlessly until I either hit some preplanned number of hours or drowned in frustration.

Once, during a moment of exasperation as I neared a deadline, I was told not to worry; that even if my progress seemed stagnant, if I continued to work I would eventually have an epiphanic moment where everything would come together. Instead of feeling soothed, though, I felt angry. Why can’t progress happen incrementally? Why does practicing necessarily have to be so passive? Ironically, I found the answer by examining that question.

See, the term “practicing” is deceptive. It should instead be thought of as “learning”.

This may seem like a tautology, but it really isn’t. The term “practicing” suggests repetition, while “learning” suggests the acquisition of knowledge, which is what I believe the colloquial “practicing” should be. Furthermore, “practicing” is passive; learning is active. To define the italicized terms, let us consider the mind.

For practical purposes, imagine that your mind is neatly divided into conscious and subconscious halves. The conscious is active; it’s basically what most people would identify as the “thinking” part, in which thoughts occur and observations are made; we control this part directly. The subconscious, is passive; it functions behind the scenes and is responsible for taking the observations made in the conscious mind and memorizing, interconnecting, and abstracting. It is also responsible for what we call “intuition”, which could be understood as unconscious reasoning. The subconscious is basically out of our control.

When we practice, we too often leave the process of abstraction entirely to our subconscious. If we keep missing a shift, for example, and try to remedy it by sheer repetition, we have to wait until our unconscious mind develops a solution based on repetitive data. However, if we instead stop to examine the problem consciously, we provide our subconscious with a variety of more helpful information that it can much more quickly extrapolate into something useful.

To be clear, I don’t advocate trying to replace your subconscious functions with your conscious functions. First, it’s impossible, and second, you WANT your subconscious to work for you! It’s incredibly powerful and capable of doing amazing things. What you don’t want is to rely entirely on it. Instead, use your conscious to guide your subconscious. The conscious part of the mind needs to play a more active role in learning.

Let’s return to the shifting example. Rather than merely attempting the shift several thousand times, ask yourself what you can learn about it. For example:

  • What do the positions that I’m shifting between feel like? What fingers are on what notes? How does the hand balance on the instrument?
  • How can I go between the two positions fluidly? How do I feel and understand the transition?
  • How can I work vibrato into my shift? How can I coordinate it into the shift?

Answering these questions involves experimenting physically, so while it’s possible to abstract something verbally about what you discover, the answer itself may be non-communicable. Eventually, this process can be automated, where solutions and ideas just occur naturally. Once you have answered these questions, i.e figured out how to improve the shift, then it’s time for repetition. Repetition is used to convince yourself that what you’re doing is correct, and to establish everything as part of a sequence of motions. In that way, repetition allows you to merge a process into a single thought.

After you finish practicing that shift, set it aside until the next time you practice. If you come back to it in an hour, you might find that you can’t exercise the ability that you worked on, that you can’t activate the mental pathways you thought were created. This doesn’t mean that your practice was lost: in fact, it probably means that your subconscious is processing it. So put it away, sleep, and give your mind time to work. When you start practicing in the morning, you might find that you know the shift better than you did before. Congratulations! Your practice was effective. It wasn’t boring at all; it was just like solving a puzzle. It was even fun. Now it’s time to start practicing again, but fortunately you’ve gained ground since yesterday and have new puzzles to solve.

It has always been the case that much of the process of learning is subconscious. However, we tend to struggle with practicing because they simply go through the motions and rely almost entirely on whatever the subconscious does to learn. What we need to be doing instead is actively using our conscious to investigate, analyze, and solve problems. Practicing shouldn’t be a mindless, repetitive exercise; it should instead be both mindful and informative. If I could leave you with a single thought, remember that practicing is learning: learning to practice is only a specialized version of learning to learn, and learning starts with thought. Remember, activity is key. Now get off your butt and go practice.

Or rather, get off your butt and go learn.

Henry grew up studying cello in St. Louis, Missouri with Ken Kulosa. After graduating from Northwestern University as a student of Hans Jensen, he continued his studies at the Eastman School of Music with Steven Doane and Rosemary Elliot, to whom he served as a graduate Teaching Assistant for five years, and as an Assistant to Guy Johnston for one year. Henry received a Master's degree and Performer's Certificate from Eastman in 2018, and earned his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in 2022. Henry currently lives in Kirksville, Missouri with his wife, violinist Dr. Sooah Jung and their Shiba Inu, Donut. Henry plays a 1962 Alberto Guerra cello.