I ran across this interview that a couple of high school kids somehow got for their school radio station, a chat with the great Louis Armstrong. By then Satchmo was in the business 50 years, already had several careers as a jazz trumpeter and as a singer, and achieved more than most musicians could ever fantasize.
But even after years of playing and working with the same eight notes in the musical scale all that time, he still held to his practice regimen.
“Even if I have two, three days off, you still have to play that horn,” Satchmo said. “You have to keep up those chops. I have to warm up every day for at least an hour.”
John Coltrane, one of the greatest ever on tenor sax, practiced at least eight hours a day, at leadt according to a guesstimate from one of his contemporaries. And when jazz pianist Bud Powell was incarcerated he found some chalk, drew a keyboard on his cell wall, and practiced on that.
Doesn’t matter what your art is, you probably have specific things you do for practice.
Some writers free-associate on paper, putting down anything that pops into their heads, and keeping the pen moving is the only real objective. Daily journal writing is what this ink-stained wretch calls practice. Whatever it is, my practice is done in longhand while the coffee is brewing. It’s part brain dump and part playtime, where I can experiment with stuff without worrying about it being readable.
Practice. That’s the time to try those phrases kicking around in your head. Time to see how that melody sounds against the chords you keep hearing. It’s when you develop your muscle memory, build up some physical stamina, fine-tune your eye and ear. Become even more familiar with your tools. Absolutely essential.
My phrases may come out all tortured and my logic twists all over the place during practice, but that’s fine. Satchmo’s and Trane’s practice sessions were probably more skronkfest than those burnished tones you expect from a musical genius, but that’s also fine.
Practice is absolutely essential, but it’s also playtime. It’s supposed to be fun.
I’m old enough to remember watching Fred Sanford fight. It was always good for a laugh, and even decades after his doppelganger Redd Foxx’s passing, it’s still funny. It’s still seen in male-bonding situations everywhere.
But it’s more than just humor there. Foxx’ pugilistic methods are those of a guy who has all the right moves, has good reflexes, maybe even a good left-right combination. But his opponent is perfectly safe. He may get pneumonia from all that fanning, but that’s about all.
Ol’ Fred’s boxing is aimless. He’s just beating the air.
All art, including comedy, imitates life. The things we creatives do to accomplish our work are taken right from life.
Without a sense of purpose, my work is little more than wildly swinging in random directions. If I hit my target, it’s accidental.
Here’s the thing, though. My purposes may change over time, or even according to the project. When I first started writing, my purpose was to make sure I could really do it, that it wasn’t a mirage.
Later I wrote for practice. I still do that, but over the years I found some other purposes.
For a long time I wrote to make a living, to shake up the status quo, to maybe gain adulation and some awards. I wanted folks to think, man, that Eric is some kind of journalist.
But let’s back up a minute. There’s that purpose thing again.
I think one of the reasons I put all writing on hold in the late 1990s was because I got mixed up on purposes. I wrote to keep food on the table, and it’s not one of the easier/more effective ways to make a living. Are you kidding? Driving a taxi or working in a factory is much easier, and the pay is better. Journalism became a job. I felt like I’d lost all other sense of purpose.
I was beating the air again. Trying to make it interesting. Turning a cool phrase, not for anything related to the story I was telling, but to show off. Launching the Fred Sanford knockout punch, fanning the breeze.
But as far as the other things that come from doing my work — the joy, the fun, the sense of sharing something important, of telling a story that no one had ever told in that way before — those things were not there.
Purpose is important in what the artist does. He need not tell others what this purpose is; some things are best left inside. And it’s worthless to cast a judgement on what the artist’s purpose is. As long as he knows, that’s all that is needed. Besides, if creativity is done for the wrong reasons, the results will show this eventually.
A few years ago I picked up my pen again and scratched out my first uncertain lines in a decade. I had no idea what was going to happen. I wanted to make sure I could still do it; that was enough purpose for me then. Again, making sure I didn’t lose too much.
After my old editor saw some of my work online and told me I still had my fastball, other purposes started to fall into place. I can rattle off a few right now, in just the time it takes to type them out:
I also write to explore a personal issue, to get it all out, to have a nice healthy purge all over the page. For me, that’s crucial even though I’m the only one who is ever going to read it. Keeping a journal is something I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone.
You can bet Thomas Edison wasn’t thinking future profits down the road when he assembled the first light bulb. Rather than thinking about what his creation might do for the per-share price of ConEd, he might have been thinking he won’t have to run to the store to pick up more candles. Or more likely, he had that idea that was there, like a burr in the saddle, and he wanted to do something about it.
I write because it was a gift given to me before I was even born, and it’s my responsibility to use it wisely. It’s not like it’s something I own, but I’m holding it in trust.
If you write, the best way to do it is daily. And a good way to get some daily practice is to keep a journal.
It doesn’t matter if you keep it on your hard drive in a text file (as I used to) or write it in a bound book with a fountain pen (as I do now), the idea is to write something. Daily. Even if it’s your grocery list.
A bonus is that reading what you did a year ago, five years ago, gives you an idea of how far you have progressed. Or what habits you still need to work on. A journal puts everything right in your face. Oh yes, it’s good practice too.