There are only 1440 minutes in a day.
Once we have fulfilled our daily duties - be it at work or at school, slept 6-8 hours, had a couple of meals and taken care of various other tasks, that only leaves us with a limited amount of time to devote to developing our skills on the instrument.
It's important we know how to best optimize that small window of time to reap the best return on our efforts as possible. The first step to this is knowing the fundamental difference between two key activities we engage in as musicians.
Practising and Playing
Practise is the process by which we develop technical proficiency in any given skill. This is achieved through deliberate, conscious effort and tonne of repetition
It is repetition that allows us to develop habits and helps us internalize newly learned techniques and information, so we can recall it in an instant when we need to.
If you walk through to the other side of your garden on a snowy morning when the snow is fresh, you will leave footprints. These won't be very prominent on the first journey and you may not even see them at first glance. However, if you turn around and walk back the same route to where you started, you will see development of a trail. Do this a few times and you will soon have a pathway, maybe even with grass and soil visible.
This is basically what happens when we develop a habit through repetition in practise.
Good habits = good technique.
Good technique = good sound.
Good sound = good playing.
However, abandon the path for a few days and you may not see it again. New snow will fall and soon fill any remnants of the old path - to the point where it's no longer visible and you will again have to strap on your boots to get to the other side of the garden.
This is why practise must be regular. Consistency is key to developing any skill.
Once we have developed a sufficient amount of proficiency in the skill, we can then put it to use in our playing.
Playing is the culmination of what you already know. It's the techniques you practised, the chords you memorised and the scales you drilled put into use in real time. This could be when you're playing with other musicians, performing, improvising, recording or just writing a song.
Much like this blog post is a culmination of basic English language fundamentals that we have all studied and practised, such as the alphabet, grammar, spelling and punctuation - your playing is the implementation of your various techniques and knowledge which you have practised.
Your playing will showcase the skills you excel at. It's the means of expression for your unique voice and character on the instrument, whatever it may be. However it can also expose your shortcomings if they're not taken care of - those things you hadn't practised.
This can take form of that ugly, dissonant chord you hear when you've placed your fingers on the wrong keys. Or a cat shriek of a string bend when you haven't pitched it right in your solo. Or your drum groove fluctuating in and out of tempo. You get the point.
Next time you sit down at your instrument with the aim to improve something, make sure you confront the aspect of your playing that needs work and refinement. Make sure you do improve it, even by a little bit. Resist the urge to spend all of the limited time you have just playing a song that you learned weeks ago that you already find easy. Unless of course playing is your aim for the night - in which case enjoy it and have as much fun as possible!
It's through practise that we develop proficiency; where we iron out kinks in the mechanics of our technique and create habits that grant us the ability to express ourselves musically through playing.
Playing is the fun part; whether you're playing to an audience or just yourself, with other musicians or solo, the musical experience is what makes the hard work all worth it. It's expression, creativity, and freedom that can only be experienced through music.
A privilege you paid well in advance for by the currency of your effort and hard work in many hours of practise.