On Practice and Warmups

I have recently begun studying piano again in earnest. I have played off and on since I was a kid, but I never really developed any particular aptitude because I never liked to practice. Drawing on the other hand was never a chore. I could draw for hours and never feel like it was any effort at all. It is because of this that I haven chosen the mediums I have. I followed the path of least resistance.

On the plus side, I have invested my energy in mediums that I truly enjoy the process of. On the con side though, it means that in many ways I never learned how to actually practice.

I am very fortunate to have a very skilled piano instructor. Initially, I chose her to teach my son. But after several months of sitting in on his lessons, I realized that she was not just an excellent piano teacher, she was an excellent teacher. I thought that I had resolved myself to never play piano again, deciding that I was just not meant to be a musician. But I realize now that was just laziness and ineffective learning. What I had not learned yet was how to actually practice. Age is my ally now, giving me more patience for structure and routine.

My piano lessons started with me learning scales by Hanon. I continue to start every practice and lesson with them. This is not dissimilar from the kata that I loathed practicing as a martial artist. The same moves, memorized, over and over. However, with these piano exercises, I have re-learned not just finger dexterity, but also rhythm, accents, dynamics, fingering, wrist and shoulder movement, tempo and a dozen other attributes. And it is all based on practicing the same scales hundreds and then thousands of times.

My piano teacher has also provided structure to my practices themselves. A certain amount of time on warmups and skills, some time to review previous work, and the rest of the time on the pieces that I am currently focused on.

I have felt for a long time that one of the many disservices Art Schools do to students is that they don’t teach student the craft of art making. There is too much emphasis on novelty and exploration of the spectrum of mediums. There is a myth that artists are just inspired people and that all they need to do is be presented with the material and they will create great works. The common approach in my academic experience was a that an exposure to a broad survey of arts would allow the student self-select for personal mastery. Of course, the result was broad mediocrity. In art school, we never learned how to Practice.

For me, Practice is figure drawing and anatomy studies. Every day. Every week. I start every drawing session with quick gesture drawings, then longer poses. Then reviewing anatomy or copying master works. And then finally working on whatever my current project is. For me figure studies are both the practice and the final product. But I recognize that initially, I am practicing. And when I don’t practice for a few days, I can tell during the next session. The lines are sloppy or overly rigid. I get derailed in details. Or I draw a curve counter to observation, following a preconceived notion of form instead of what is really in front of me. I can see when my drawing is out of practice as acutely as I can hear when my piano is out of practice. As acutely as my body being sore from not exercising.

What this has me begun to think about is how do we Practice sculpture? What is the warmup? How do you review?

I would love to hear from other sculptors how they approach warmups and practice.