I try to end every single practice session on a positive note. I want to go to my other tasks without excess tension and worry, and I want to foster a positive relationship with the work in general. If I have a particularly stressful or difficult practice, I take a brief moment to play something light & easy at the end to help me feel centered and leave any stress behind.
Now I arrive at a bit of a bigger ending. 365 days. An entire year passed, a difficult project seen through to the end. I feel proud, determined, and exhausted. I don’t think this project ends here completely though… it has been far too rewarding and informative. From a purely egocentric perspective, I am learning too much to stop. For now I will pause, breathe, and reflect.
I end, at least for now, with gratitude. I am so grateful to folks who have read this blog, many of whom have stuck it out the whole year. Some of you are old friends, continually surprising me with your generous support and encouragement. Others are brand new friends, reading in countries I can only hope to one day visit. You were faraway strangers before this blog started, and now we have commiserated and celebrated together. I have been honored to receive your messages privately and publicly, some with very personal stories of your struggles and successes. Thank you so, so much. Thank you friends old and new for sharing this with me.
Keep practicing everybody. Remember my dad’s advice and you can play anything.
This is my Flesch scale system chart that I started on Day 39. I finished it today, just barely, and I’m exhausted. I feel sick of stopped octaves and inordinately angry at Carl Flesch.
Even though I’m mad at life and hate Mr. Flesch right now, working through this book was a perfectly-sized goal to conquer in one year, and one that has definitely stretched my technique. I think I just might tackle it again this next year or so, but with a few new guidelines. I would focus more on the quality of my playing and less on a deadline of 1 year. I would take #9 and #10 off the chart completely, because they bring me more tension (& sometimes pain… 10ths on the viola should be illegal.) than progress. But, there is tremendous value in this book, and it feels great to say I’ve finally done it cover to cover. Now I’ll do it again, but better.
We tend to begin with beginnings. We listen to music from the beginning, we often learn it from the beginning, and when we hum something for somebody else, it’s always the beginning that comes to mind… it’s just how we think of music. The lasting impression of a thing, though, is the way it comes to a close. This is no revelation to musicians; we are told this all the time. We are taught to end with care, and not just the big stuff, like movements and large pieces. We are instructed and reminded to finish phrases beautifully, to treat the ends of motives and even individual notes as nuanced and important. We are all told this, over and over.
I however, need reminding. Somehow the value of the smallest endings escapes me. I catch myself making this mistake, and correct it briefly, but it creeps back in, an annoying bad habit. (We all have these, and they are infuriating, because we most certainly know better.) But now that I recognize my bad habit, now that I’ve identified it and even admitted it to the universe, I have no excuse. I will give greater care to the tiny endings, I vow it.
I think we all decided long ago to commit ourselves to music. For most of us it didn’t feel like a decision; it just sort of was. I know it was that way for me; I’ve always just felt impelled to be a musician. But there are some other commitments that are easier for us to forget. We need to be committed to caring for ourselves, for example. We forget this commitment because it feels selfish or simply because we are preoccupied with the caring for others or just the work itself, but if we don’t keep ourselves well there will be no progress, let alone artistry. We need to commit to progress, too, because music isn’t stagnant. Strangely, we’ve all given ourselves completely and permanently to music, but have we given ourselves so wholly to growing in it? It’s not as if learning is ever finished. Let’s commit to being humble and open students, forever. And let’s commit to the love of music, the fun of it. There is work and stress and anxiety and sadness here, and it just can’t all be that or what on Earth is the point? We have to nourish what is good and light and rewarding and fun about it so we don’t become hate-filled tension-monsters.
I propose that being committed to music is beautiful, but it isn’t enough.
We strive for productivity every single day. We hope to be constantly chipping away at goals and making good progress. Very many days we can accomplish this, but not every day. It just isn’t possible. Not every day is built for tremendous success. Life gets in the way and even when it doesn’t, some days are just bad days. It’s okay. (This isn’t to speak of intentional “nothing” days, days set aside for relaxation and reflection. I’m talking about work days that get away from us and end up all wrong.)
Here’s what I think we can do: I think we can accomplish one thing every day. Some days, hopefully most days, we will surpass this goal. On days when getting one thing done feels insurmountable, I think that that one thing is not just doable, but important. Getting one thing accomplished means that day wasn’t a waste, it wasn’t a “nothing” day.
It’s important for us to have that one thing under our belt; it just feels better, and it certainly makes tomorrow just a bit more manageable.
Today, a few random reminders. Remember to…
-keep the instrument at its best. I know I am guilty of keeping my Obligatos on a bit too long and scheduling my bow rehairs too far apart, and it helps nothing.
-tidy up the daily work space. It gets cluttered and then we waste time looking for a pencil or a metronome, or just feeling uneasy because the environment has become unpleasant.
-change up the practice routine. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut and find yourself going through the motions. Change the order of stuff, or the amount of time given to each thing, or revisit a technical exercise you haven’t practiced in a while.
These are just a few of the things I need to get better about. What are yours?
Recently I’ve been noticing that we all have a tendency to give people what we want rather than what they need. We all do it, every last one of us, and we need to knock it the hell off. We need to remember that just as we are sensitive artists, we are also sensitive human beings. We are vulnerable and surrounded by vulnerability.
When a colleague or a student needs calm and even asks for it, particularly before a performance, I think we should respect that. It’s easy to step all over the request, but not everybody responds well to loud joking and slaps on the back. When a person is feeling fragile and needs alone time, lecturing them may not be a great idea. A bear hug isn’t comforting to all people, and somebody asking to change the subject may be calling out for support in the form of changing the subject. It may not always be obvious what people are feeling and needing, but as a general rule it’s nice to be open to it, instead of always assuming we know best.
People will go around speaking of free speech or of political correctness, arguing that we should say whatever we feel like. They will say I’m taking things too far, but I’m not advocating for any sort of censorship… we are all free to say whatever we want. But remember: it costs us nothing to choose listening and kindness. It costs us nothing, and it just might bring something really beautiful into our lives.
Time is too fleeting and work too abundant. We all have obligations before us, probably more than we can manage. We can put off our work and feel guilty about it, or we can face it head on. Since time is so short, I try to follow some rules:
- Don’t take on more than you can handle. This means saying “no” and delegating what you can. It will also mean occasionally disappointing people along the way and possibly feeling guilty for having done so.
- In fact, take on significantly less than you can handle. Wouldn’t it be better to be doing smaller amounts of really good work? And why should we be living at our absolute limit anyhow? It’s miserable. Do less, and do it well.
- With the stuff you can’t delegate, break down your work into small, manageable tasks. (I like to make a list and cross those tasks off, one by one.)
- Build small bits of downtime into your schedule so work time is more focused and potent.
I’ve become more and more aware of the passage of time since beginning this blog… there is only one week remaining in the year-long project. As the end nears, I worry I haven’t written enough, or that I could have made a greater impact if only I had given the project a little more time. But… if I’m honest with myself and following my own rules, I didn’t have more time. I did what I could manage. And now I’m not sure what will happen next (save that I’m giving myself a little break) because this has all been too constructive and positive to just abandon altogether. I don’t think I would just continue on; that seems a bit too… aimless? I think I’m going to need a new goal or set of goals. Let me not get ahead of myself though- for now, I still have a few goals left for this last week (Carl Flesch *cough cough*); I’ll keep you posted.
It’s easy to get swept up in the pyrotechnics of music. As players and listeners, we can get lost in the super-quick notes and the craziest-bounciest-bows and the biggest most dramatic moments. But no matter how flashy a piece of music is, we all know the substance is what is underneath. We all know that the fundamentals are where our attention and our work belong, because none of the fancy stuff matters if the core isn’t good. In fact, all of that flash just masks flaws, like a pretty frosting spread on a mediocre cake. I want to make a fantastic cake that stands alone with or without frosting. I’m not sure I even like frosting…
Today was a back to basics day for me, a day of scales and octaves and tone and relaxation. I need more of these days.
A student’s father, a musician himself, approached me today between lessons. He was complaining that lately he feels thoroughly discouraged about his practice. He has all but given up, and said with relative seriousness that he was completely ready to throw his instrument out the window. A few days ago, a different student was telling me she wasn’t practicing because she was too busy panicking. She was making a joke, but it was grounded in reality: her worries were getting the best of her and consuming time that could be spent practicing productively. I hear these kinds of comments all the time, and I can relate. But of course, these are non-options. We aren’t going to give in to our worries and frustrations, and we most certainly aren’t going to throw our instruments anywhere.
This work is tough, and it’s natural to get frustrated. Kvetching is an option. Taking a break is an option. Giving up is not an option.