Practice as play

By Hattie Butterworth

Since graduating I have not struggled with having days away from playing the cello. Of course, the residual guilt from years of practice control and obsession linger, but within a year of the largely absent musical world, I happily found other outlets for my time. As events resurface, I am returning to playing again now but I am struggling with my relationship to it. I want the cello to be a space of creativity, joy and exploration, but I have it so tightly wrapped around the concept of ‘work’ that I struggle to motivate myself.

This mindset becomes clear to me as I see myself planning days off frequently. Despite loving the time lost to cello play, the thoughts around picking it up are exhausting. I find myself watching the time pass, intent on achieving a minimum goal. I try and ‘get it done’ early so that I can ‘relax’. I feel guilty if I skip my warm up and find myself returning to a mindless play-through of Haydn D major 1st movement because I still can’t play it in tune, and couldn’t two years ago either. That’s degrading, exhausting and writing it down makes it abundantly clear why practice is some serious dull work for me.

I am asking why it can’t feel playful. Why does the idea of sifting through piles of music, working on pieces I can’t guarantee I’ll ever perform feel so awful? Because I have been taught that there is a ‘right’ way to practise. A correct length of time, a focussed mindset required, an analytical postmortem and the need for a list of highly ambitious outcomes. My musical eduction was incredibly rewarding, but the balance of work and play, especially within musical practice, was absent.

We need to remember that dance, music and art is actually an outlet for many. They form the foundation of the contemporary forms of play, to benefit people’s wellbeing. A hobby perhaps, or a way to relieve the stresses of work, money and illness. The common adage ‘we play an instrument, we don’t work an instrument’ is frequently heard, but not widely practised. I have watched many masterclasses in which musicians have been encouraged to relax, to adopt a playful, expressive manner and to ‘let go’. Such demands within the highly structured, controlled music education system is laughable, at best.

So how can we begin a drip feed of playful practice? I am hardly the expert, the opening paragraph detailing a current account of my practice life- but I am here to think about how it can change and better serve me as a musician. In order to improve, we have to spend time with our instrument. In order to learn repertoire, teach adequately and perform with confidence, a dedicated relationship to our instrument is essential. I see this- this is reality, so I want to ask how I can feel more drawn to the cello, more in touch with it and how to spend more time with it, whilst cultivating an excitement and playfulness around it.

I have recently read a book by the German theologian Hugo Rahner entitled ‘Man at Play‘. It’s actually a really accessible book if anyone is interested in reading it, but to summarise, it is essentially a study of the work-life balance. This is not balance apart from our work, but also the balance within our work. It is easy to maintain a hatred of practice, desperate for the time to end in order for relaxation to start, but Rahner suggests we should ‘play in order that you may work’. This means making our play our work, rather than forcing our work to be playful. He understands the realities of our simultaneously joyful and tragic existence, but suggests to us that playfulness of creating should be our first priority.

How can we make our play our work? Maybe we should begin with asking what drew you in, how can you identify what you love, what makes you feel alive in practice and performance and make that into your work? For me, I love studies/etudes and working on ensemble music. I struggle with sitting down to learning solo repertoire, so am deciding to look for paid work that encompasses my love of teaching technical challenges and my desire to play with my piano trio.

If the core of my practice focusses on the joy that has become my work, then the other repertoire I want to learn will develop more organically and with less resentment for the scarcity within my playing at present. Making our play into our work is radical, but important if we are to find solace and enjoyment within our practice spaces.

Hattie xx

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