A year or so ago, I was chatting it up with a fellow vocalist. We were chortling, snorting and swapping stories, when at one point in the conversation, she told me that she doesn’t practice. (Screeching brakes, crashing plates) “Huh? Say what?” I sputtered back. She said it again, “I don’t practice.” In that moment, I was completely incapable of hiding my disbelief. My face contorted just like Curly’s does right before he falls over and spins around on the floor. Part of me wanted to kill her. But another part of me wanted to throw her in a laboratory and study her to see how the hell she pulls it off. This is a great singer that I was talking to. She’s also a very successful one. She’s received lots of accolades, keeps a busy gig schedule and is well respected among her peers. I should also add that she’s a super nice chick and makes me laugh my ass off. She just doesn’t practice.
In my own experience, practice has not made perfect. If anything, it’s made me more aware of how process oriented the creative ride is, at least for me. As both a writer and a vocalist, I have to work at it. I have to put in the time. Of course, these disciplines are two very different beasts with different feeding schedules and care routines. I’ve written for as long as I can remember. I started when I was a kid. It’s what I studied in college. It’s always been my thing that I do. It anchors me to the world and I’m good at it. I came to singing later in life. I started out singing blues before moving on to jazz. This transformation of styles was not an easy process for me. It was like going from playing hockey to figure skating. Cleaning up and refining a goober like me is no small task. It’s been a haul. At 13 years in, I feel like I’m just now scraping the surface of jazz, especially when it comes to improvisation.
I write every day. I sing every day. If I don’t write daily, I lose my edge and my sense of rhythm. My focus floats away. I become mentally doughy. Of course, there are a few million reasons why I need to practice vocal stuff. For one, the voice is a physical thing. I have to work it out to keep it in shape. Think crunches. What takes months to build up can be lost quickly after just one week of slacking on the couch. For two, from a technique standpoint, I’m still trying to get to some kind of cruising altitude. The business of mastery and refinement is ongoing. And then there’s the whole crazy improvisation thing. That shit takes work. So much so that I’m certain that my dogged pursuit of scat singing will eventually land me in the mental hospital. But troubling outcomes aside, I don’t know what would happen if I didn’t practice. Ping-pong, “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and binge shopping at Wal-Mart come to mind.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should probably mention piano, which I also came to later in life. I picked it up about 3-4 years after I started singing jazz. My practice routine with piano could be described as more miss than hit. Unfortunately, when I don’t practice piano, my music theory gets fuzzy and not in a cute way. The irony is that piano is my favorite thing to practice but it’s the thing I do the least of. Go figure. People are cuckoo.
In the grand messy scheme of it all, I don’t know what impact practice has had on my successes or failures out there. I don’t know if it has afforded me more opportunities or if they are really just a matter of luck. If the latter is true, then maybe the effort of practice is, in part anyway, a dubious pursuit. Perhaps my time would be better spent by the pool with a magazine and a fruity drink. But the truth of the matter is that I practice so that I can live with myself. I can’t really settle unless I know I’ve gone the distance to the best of my ability. Even if I fall on my ass, I’ll still know, on some fundamental level, that I put in the effort. It’s a way I stay clean with myself. I’m not one of those elegant beauties who can glide on natural talent. I’m a clunky workhorse, usually a beat or two behind the herd. I have to put my head down and plough through, one clippity clop at a time.
So what about you? How does practice factor into the day- to- day of your creative life? Do you hang out in the shed? If so, why? If not, how come? What is the point of it all? Are you getting better at what you do? Does practice make perfect or just crazy?
The comments are wide open. Please jump in and let her rip!