Ableism and Practice Time
When we assume that all musicians can and should practice for 3 or more hours each day, we inadvertently discriminate against people whose bodies and/or minds don’t match this ideal.
Let’s just get this out of the way: I “practice bass” for about 30 minutes each day, six days a week. This doesn’t include the time I spend memorizing tunes using Anki, listening to music, practicing yoga, or playing bass in teaching/rehearsals/gigs. In total, it’s at least 4 hours worth, sometimes a lot more. But for activities usually considered to be “real” practice – technical drills, scales/improvisation exercises, troubleshooting/memorizing repertoire, etc. – I only spend half an hour a day on that…
In the past, I’ve been more “out” about my psychiatric disorder than my practice schedule. This is because among jazz musicians, there’s a common attitude that you need to be practicing at least 2, preferably 4 or more hours a day to be considered a legitimate musician. While some musicians and teachers emphasize effective practice, the focus overall tends to be on quantity over quality.
The reason I’ve been so reluctant to discuss my practice schedule is that it’s a tangible reminder of my disability. Anyone can claim to have a psychiatric disorder – and many people assume it’s just like the normal depression that comes with life. But to say, “I can only afford to practice for 30 minutes a day because: a) I need time to manage my mood disorder, b) my anxiety disorder prevents me from engaging in the kind of high-stakes competitions that would necessitate longer practice, and c) my attention-deficit disorder makes it hard to concentrate for much longer than that,” it’s suddenly clear that I have a real disability with tangible limitations.
There will always be musicians who seek to bully others in an attempt to eliminate perceived competition. For many years, I tried to prove that I was every bit as capable as a male musician, before I realized that all I was doing was staying closeted about my disability and compromising my health. By using professionalism, not perfection, as my metric for self-assessment, I’m much more satisfied with my own playing. I’ve gone from, “I’m a failure for only practicing 30 minutes a day,” to “I’m pretty decent for only practicing 30 minutes a day!”
I try to tell my students that it’s OK to start out slow with practice – that even 5 minutes every day is better than 1 hour a week in one sitting. If they are able to build up to an hour or more each day – great! But if they aren’t, that’s cool too. I don’t resent musicians who practice 4+ hours a day either. While they have to worry more about injury prevention, that’s just how their bodies and brains are designed. I’m trying to make shorter practice sessions more accessible because they tend to be stigmatized, but I support each individual’s choice of practice time.
If you allowed yourself permission to honor your limitations and focus on quality over quantity, how much time would you actually practice?