How to Play Music You Hate

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The girl closed her ears with pillowsI don’t like starting a blog post with such a negative title, but I might as well admit it;  sometimes we have to play music we just don’t like. You can probably instantly bring to mind that one piece of music you really can’t stand. Maybe it’s a holiday carol you’ve heard in too many shopping malls or maybe it’s just a piece that is definitely not your musical style. But now you have to play it, and so you sigh, maybe grit your teeth a little, and prepare to endure – oops, I mean, practice – it.

Just because you love music doesn’t mean you like all music. I have fairly eclectic musical interests myself, but I always smile when I remember my parents’ totally divergent interests. Both music lovers, they enjoyed a subscription to the opera for a number of years. My mother wept happily through the Italian grand opera masterworks, while my father slept his way through them. His interest, though, was captivated by the Mozart operas that my mother couldn’t connect with at all.

So what do you do when you have to practice and perform that piece that sets your teeth on edge? I think there are three things to consider: responsibility, opportunity, and strategies.

Responsibility

Responsibility can sometimes feel like the “grit your teeth and bear it” part. Obviously it means you need to practice and prepare properly whether you like the piece or not. Why? Because you have an obligation to the music itself. Being a musician isn’t a part-time gig; either you are one, or you aren’t. And musicians honor their craft by honoring the music.

Music is a three way communication between the composer, the performer and the listener. In most instances, it is the performer’s job to bring life to the composer’s written idea and intention and to be the medium through which the composer speaks to the listener. When we musicians consider our role in this light, as interpreters between composer and listener, it becomes much less personal, and consequently less annoying, to play music we don’t like. For the listener, it’s not about you playing the music, unless the listener is your mother. It’s about what you’re playing and how that makes them feel.

Opportunity

Turning the situation around to look for the opportunity in it can create positive energy around your practice, even if you don’t like what you have to practice. Can you bring something new to the piece? Will this be a chance to work on a technical skill? Maybe you could use this as a note reading or rhythm exercise, or a memorization project, something that will further your musicianship skills. Sometimes having a challenge goal beyond just learning a piece can motivate you even when the music itself doesn’t.

And your performance of the piece creates an opportunity for others, too. Not only can listeners enjoy your music (and even if you can’t stand another “O Holy NIght,” it’s still a favorite of millions), but you may be creating opportunity for other performers as well. For instance, your part may be necessary to support singers or other instrumentalists who couldn’t perform the piece without your part. You can focus your efforts on being a good colleague.

Strategies

So what can you actually DO to make your practice more interesting despite not being interested in the music?

  1. Make it a technical drill. You might as well get some benefit from it.
  2. Pretend you’re someone else. If you were (insert famous musician name here) how would you practice and play this?
  3. Practice it in crazy ways. For instance, try turning it into a cowboy ballad with a swinging accompaniment rhythm. Or tame that super perky piece by playing it in minor. Change up the tempo, the dynamics, anything you like.
  4. Find one thing you like about it: one chord, one measure, the introduction, the ending, any one thing. And enjoy that moment when you get there.
  5. Find one interesting fact that relates to the piece and connect with the piece that way.
  6. Practice it first, so all your practice after that seems even more enjoyable.

Above all, remember that even if you don’t like the piece, someone out there does. And you’re playing it for that person, so do your best. I can see your halo glowing from here.

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  • Carole Smith

    Great post and very insightful. I always thought only about how much I don’t like a particular song. It never occurred to me that people might like to hear it. And it most likely sounds better in the audience hearing the entire orchestra than it does just hearing my part. Otherwise, our director would not have picked it for a concert.

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  • Gretchen

    Ah, such good timing. I have a Christmas cantata in December that fits most of your descriptions above. I will add the word “torture.”

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  • Sharon Baird

    I love how you stated this, Anne: “Because you have an obligation to the music itself…and musicians honor their craft by honoring the music.” How right you are! and an excellent way to look at it, I’m going to remember that……

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  • Joe Wessels

    Thanks. I needed that. Practicing for an upcoming Christmas event and some of these pieces are daunting for me. Your suggestions will help make the “medicine of practice” go down a little easier.

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  • Gretchen

    I tried sprinkling fairy dust and thinking happy thoughts about the Dec. cantata…my attitude adjustment is thinking this will just take up one day of my life. I also know I have to put on a smiley face because the performance is recorded, and the harp is in the front of the stage.

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  • Darlene Deisinger

    Hi Anne:

    I am doing “O Holy Night” for a retirement home. I hate to play it but the words and music are so beautiful. Also, so many people enjoy it. This is what I need to think about when I am trying to play it.

    Thank you – Anne.

    Reply

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