November 23, 2013

Purposeful Practice with Jeff Coffin from Dave Matthews Band.

My practice allows me to do my job at a very high level and to feel confident about what I am doing.

~  Jeff Coffin, member Dave Matthews Band

If the Wall Street Journal is right and public speaking is the number one fear in America—ahead of fear of heights and even jumping out of a plane, then one could probably surmise that performing music in front of thousands of people might also make one shake in their shoes.

The same thing we fear in public speaking—being laid bare in front of an audience—holds true. Discerning listeners dissect performances from what is played, and how it is played, to how it compares to the last time, and…sadly but statistically true, to the thing people remember most about performances: what the player was wearing when they played it.

A plethora of practices for performers who suffer through self-induced pressure to show up perfectly is available and, like every practice, there is no one right prescription for all.

Jeff Coffin is an internationally recognized saxophonist, bandleader, composer and educator. As a member of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones he is a three time Grammy Award winner. In 2008, Jeff began touring with Dave Matthews Band, and officially joined the group in 2009 following the tragic passing of founding member LeRoi Moore.

Jeff has always struck me as someone who navigates a very full schedule and life on the road with a grounded, easy presence both onstage and off. And, Jeff practices every day, playing music either on his instrument or in his head working out ideas or problems.

In an interview for The Practice Project, I asked Jeff about his particular recipe, the raisons d’être for his personal practice that supports him to show up so fully:

I practice because I feel the music deserves my best. First of all, I have to serve the music. Then I have to serve the musicians I play with and then I have to serve the audience. After all that comes serving myself. “

As someone who studies practice, I find that last line unusual and particularly poignant—that of all the stakeholders in the game, serving himself comes last.  It is perhaps precisely why Jeff carries himself with such humble grace.

He says:

“The music demands that I be on my game. The people who came before me demand that I be on my game and the young generations coming up demand that I be on my game. I have set myself a very high standard for how I want to play and I have to work hard to maintain that standard.”

My sense is that one of the reasons that Jeff is so successful in his endeavors is precisely the clarity of purpose in his practice. He is exceedingly clear as to why he needs to practice.

As with many others who are successful with their commitment to practice and all that it touches, if you start with why what follows flows a lot more readily than if you’re unclear as to why you should keep showing up—whether it’s on your instrument, or on the mat or wherever you practice.

Our unique life purpose begs the question of how we can use our own unique gifts to have the greatest positive impact on the world. Practice should support us in this purpose.

So, taking a cue from Jeff, ask yourself what the purpose of your practice is. Why do you practice? What is unique to you? What does your practice support you to bring forth?

Then, remind yourself of that purpose. Remind yourself the next time you are in the throes of your practice and remind yourself the next time you’re feeling reluctant to practice.

I’d be willing to bet your connection to the purpose of your practice will make you more enthusiastic, dedicated, consistent and satisfied with your practice, and that it will more deeply serve you and others around you—which is ultimately what it is all about.

For more on Jeff Coffin and his practice, you can read the full interview here.


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Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Greg Kessler



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