Let Your Dim Light Shine

Let your dim light shine. ~1995 album by Soul Asylum

Mediocrity obtains more with application than superiority without it. ~Balthasar Gracian


My wife Michelle just returned from a work trip to Istanbul and whenever she travels she brings me back an instrument from the country she visits. On this trip she picked up a tef (known in other middle-Eastern countries as daf or def), a frame drum with 3-inch cymbals around the rim. It looks like a giant tambourine and has a great sound. I can’t wait to play with it in Meh!, the free improvisation group I play with every week. Am I good at playing the tef? Well, my rhythm is good, but I’m guessing that my technique could use a lot of work. Will I become a professional tef player? Certainly not. And this is what brings me to the point of this post: the pervasive idea that if one is to do anything at all, it must be done professionally and at the highest of levels. This notion that if something can’t be done really, really well, then it’s not worth doing is just plain wrong. And not only that, it’s harmful. But before I go off on that subject a little more however, check out this tef player:

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

I’ve been buried in reading research and books on music practice for the last six months and have noticed a couple trends that have begun to bother me. The research done so far is superb and insightful and incredibly helpful for anyone attempting to understand what practice is and does and can be, but only to a certain point. The readings range from broad generalizations and philosophies about the nature of talent (The Talent Code, Talent is Overrated, Outliers, Dr. Anders Ericsson’s work) to very specific aspects of music practice, like Stewart Ross’s The Effectiveness of Mental Practice in Improving the Performance of College Trombonists (JRME, 1985), and a whole lot of other research and writing in between. At some point I’ll put up a complete list of reading available on the subject of music practice.

All of the research and other writing on practice is focused on the highest of classical music levels [and of course, I’m speaking of Western art music in general–you know, Bach, Beethoven and the Boys–and not just the Classical period (1730-1820)]. The goal is to find out what it is that can help someone reach the absolute pinnacle of human classical musical potential. This is as it should be, because it makes sense that those who have acquired such amazing abilities have done so using techniques that could benefit all of us. What I would like to point out–and champion–is that not everyone aspires to such heights. In fact, a vast majority of people have neither the inclination nor the desire to put in the 10,000 hours of pains-taking practice necessary for true mastery.  Most people simply want to get better and enjoy playing music with others. It’s important to remember that it’s perfectly okay to be okay at playing music. Of course it’s also okay to want to be one of those players at the pinnacle of human ability, too.

We often lose sight of those who are content to let their light shine dimly. I say let’s celebrate the casual musician who practices but doesn’t make it his or her life’s work. Let’s celebrate the casual musician alongside the grand master.  Anyone who plays or has attempted to play an instrument knows that it can give you an even deeper appreciation and sense of wonder when you hear an amazing performer, someone who makes it look so easy and natural and powerfully beautiful. This bias towards the super-performer isn’t the only bias in the research literature on practice. As Yoda said, “There is another.”

Nowhere in this research will you find out about how a tef player practices to become a good player. In fact,nearly all of this research on practice I’ve read thus far focuses strictly on Western classical music. This is fantastic and also not so fantastic. It’s great because we can learn a lot about practice in general and specifically about the practice of classical music which involves particularly skills, most notably the reading of music notation. But the research is limited in that few (as far as I can tell at this point) have really looked into how jazz, rock, blues, punk, or “world” music is practiced. Important exceptions are Lucy Green (How Popular Musicians Learn: A Way Ahead for Music Education), and Paul Berliner’s wonderful doorstop of a book, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. It’s not often stated, but there seems to be a bias that Western classical music is the apex of musical endeavor and because no other forms of music practice have thus far been studied in the same depth, the implication is that classical music practice is the only genre worthy of deep study. Of course, this is simply not true and I doubt anyone would actually stand up for such a belief, but it’s implied by the research record I’ve read so far. To get the full picture of practice, other ways of practicing must be investigated. Some of the research tells us that the practice-room activities are different depending on how much experience one has, and I would bet big money (if I had any) that the activities in the practice room are different for different genres of music as well. A rocker is going to practice differently than a concert pianist.

It’s hard to maintain a belief that you can get a lot of joy out of doing something at less-than-professional levels when you’re surrounded by a culture that tells you otherwise, but I’d like to say that not only is it possible to maintain this joy-in-amateurism, but I’d venture a guess it’s the norm. If all musicians in the world took a survey on this issue, we’d find that there are many more happy amateur musicians out there than there are happy professionals. We should all let our lights shine and celebrate not the intensity of the light, but that it shines at all.

Have fun. Good luck with your practice.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Great post! I agree as a culture we need to encourage people who do not aspire to be professional musicians to participate in playing music. There are so many benefits beyond even the music aspect, like creating community, sharing stories and experiences, exchanging ideas. We don’t get that from watching American Idol, which only reinforces this notion of perfectionism. Here’s to making imperfect music with friends! Thanks again for your insightful post. I’m surprised there aren’t more comments.

    1. Thanks for the message! I enjoyed your post on Mike Seeger and am glad to know there are more out there who believe that music-making shouldn’t be left to the “professionals.” Cheers!

  2. Clyde Morgan says:

    Awesome! Great to hear a supportive rant on the issue. My early experience of being a good rather than great player truly has given me a perspective and appreciation of just how good the top players really are! (or sometimes are not)

    Now, 35 years later, on a whim I bought a cheap Chinese pocket trumpet for goof-around fun. With that and your book I’m headed toward being a casual come back player. I will probably never again scream a high F across the L.A. Coliseum, but I will dust off the old Strad and have some fun.
    Thank you very much!

    1. Thanks for the support! So glad to hear that post has resonated w/ folks, and it warms my heart to know that book is out there doing what I hoped it would. Thanks for making my Friday!

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