BENGALURU: I don’t say this nearly enough – I’m grateful to work closely with kids and young adults. And one of the most frequently asked questions (after “Can I come home and play with your cats?”) is, “How much should we practise?” It’s a question I never shy away from answering. Growing up, my brother, Ambi, and I have hunted down every musician who would talk to us and asked them this question. We got some wonderful responses, but my favourite will always be the one from legendary jazz drummer Billy Cobham.
He went stone-cold serious, looked Ambi dead in the eye, and said, “Practise until it’s not funny anymore.” It was a piece of advice that stuck, especially since Ambi was eight years old at the time and mildly traumatised. Different musicians have different ways of practising. Oystein Baadsvik scheduled tuba practice from 9 to 5 on all weekdays. Hubert Laws says before he begins flute practice, he keeps a pile of marbles in one corner.
Every time he plays a piece perfectly, he moves one marble to the other corner. If he gets a note wrong, all the marbles go back to their original spot and he has to start over. I had to experiment a little. I thought it would be great to tell the world I practise singing whenever the TV is on. (It did not work, but you can hit me up for Netflix recommendations anytime.) Later, I would drop my daughter at playschool and practise piano until it was time to pick her up. It kind of worked. I learnt to fall asleep on the right keys so that the clang sounded more musical. I’m a sleep-deprived parent, okay?
Whether it’s music, poetry, drama, or stuffing as many peanuts in your mouth as humanly possible, there is one principle of practice -- be consistent, and work for perfection. Break a piece down to smaller parts to understand it better, play the piece slowly at first and then develop speed, rehearse until you can’t get the piece wrong. Make sure you really know what you are doing. Especially if you’re stuffing too much food in your mouth.
All this, however, is offstage, and here’s a secret - everyone makes mistakes on stage. Everyone. If you’ve ever seen a SubraMania or Thayir Sadam Project performance, and we all seem to be laughing and smiling a lot, it’s usually because someone has made a mistake - and that’s okay.
Once you get on stage, it’s no longer about trying hard to hit the right notes (hopefully, you have already). It’s about connecting with your art and with the audience. If you are too busy thinking about being perfect, you are holding yourself back. No matter what you are doing – singing, playing an instrument, reciting a poem, acting in a play – your time on stage is about immersing yourself in a unique experience. If you are able to find a place of honest expression, and enjoy your work fully, your audience will, too.
The author is a singer, songwriter, educator and social entrepreneur