Making Life Practice my B****

As a musician, much of my life revolves around the idea of practice. Most kids will tell you that practicing sucks. My friends with kids bitch about practice logs they need to (forge) sign and turn in to music teachers fighting for priority with the other hours of assigned homework each night.

I’ve given lots of advice about practice mindset, practice strategy, and practice goal-setting. Practicing music is a joy for me, not a chore. When it comes to music, practice isn’t a bitch, it’s my bitch.

Most people will say that practicing is repeating something over and over again in order to achieve some goal. I don’t like this definition. It reminds me too much of those days locked in my room playing the same phrase over and over again, often worse off at the end than when I started.

Practice is no more than the real world application of theoretical principles. Simply put, stop thinking about how to do it and do it. Practice is not about getting it right. Practice is about getting it wrong, mindfully.

When it comes down to it, is practicing music is any different than practicing anything, be it yoga, healthful eating, or writing? What about being a better listener, or a more patient parent, or putting down the IPhone and taking in the moment? Why don’t I practice life like I practice music?

My yoga teacher talked about practice yesterday, and how it’s a daily commitment–a choice. To grow, we have to embrace the discomfort,and let go of the ego enough to explore. I am too often focused on accomplishing some end state. Wrong goal.

The goal of practice is integrity. The alignment of idea and action.When one achieves alignment, energy travels without interruption . That’s the goal, right? For the words to flow like water, to run without touching ground, to savor every bite of life until your soul is full?

If you want to align something you don’t jam it into place and bingo, you’re done. You have to fuss with it, explore the boundaries, experiment to see how different actions give a different result. You have to practice.

You also have to get some humility.

Sometimes, I’ve worked a difficult passage until I have it down cold, but then blow it when I have to play it outside of my practice room. Is it that my fingers don’t know the shapes, the placement, the correct bow tension to produce a sound? Not really. It’s that I get close to the passage and that little voice says “Hey Heifitz, here comes that passage. Don’t fuck it up.”

Why don’t we accept that our nature is to err, and embrace it? After all, that’s all practice is. Instead of saying “I effed up” I can say “I’m out of alignment.” Not because I can’t deal with screwing up and need some sort of feel-good double-speak. It’s because mistakes aren’t the end of the world. They are the world. It’s because it’s often my fear of failure, or the fear of feeling like a failure that keeps me from practicing in the first place.

I know it sounds all new-agey of me, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Practice takes time. It takes commitment. It takes patience. It takes a sense of humor and more than a little forgiveness. Practice takes love.

So what is it you want to practice?

Throw Out 50 Thoughts #18 – There are no do-overs

ApplauseThe show must go on. Especially when it’s already going. It’s one of the tenets of performance. Things blow up? Keep going. When it’s over, flush it and move on.

I played in a chamber music concert yesterday. One of the pieces was the premiere of a wind quintet by a local composer. It was contemporary–not atonal, but not like Mozart where you know exactly where it’s going. If you get lost playing Mozart, you can regroup pretty quickly. This composition was more fluid, with meter and tempo changes that made it unpredictable.

A couple of minutes into the first movement, the work began to sound a little more contemporary than it was supposed to. When I looked at the oboe player’s face, it confirmed that the train had jumped the track.  They had no idea where they were, and none of them were in the same location. After they finished, rather than leaving the stage, they asked the audience if they might play it again, so we could hear the work as it was meant to be.

It was a ballsy move. It would have been a lot easier to pretend all was well and leave the stage. The audience wouldn’t have known the difference. They’d never heard it before.

The group played it again, and the audience applauded. They lauded the composer and the musicians felt proud of their performance. I didn’t see it as a failure, but a success. The fact that they struggled made the performance that much more poignant.

Sometimes I treat life like a performance. I made a mistake? Just keep moving. That decision is done, the  moment is over, and I can’t go back and ask for a second shot.

Or can I?

I won’t know if I don’t try. Perhaps the world is a more forgiving and accepting place than I believe. Maybe I can ask for patience and try again–to play my part the way it was intended to be.

My career as a writer has had many stops and starts. Sometimes I feel like the world is saying “Haven’t you been here before?” But maybe the world isn’t. Maybe it’s only me. So I begin again, and hope to find applause at the finish line, even if it’s only my own. To amend the saying, it’s not over until the diva sings, and I’m not close to done, so get some popcorn and settle in.

Words by J. B. Everett

Photograph “Applause” by Svenwerk ©2007 Creative Commons


Musical Chairs

When I was first learning how to play the violin, my stiffest competition was also one of my closest friends. She and I constantly battled it out for first chair – the musical term for the best player.  I’d challenge her on some piece and win, then she’d challenge me on “The Irish Washerwoman” and kick my ass. We burned a lot of time that way.

Today, I play principal second in an orchestra. That’s the first chair of the second violin section. I’ve spent a fair amount of time, however, in the second and third rows, looking at that first chair and thinking, I can do that. I’ll bet a fair amount of money that there are people sitting behind me thinking the same thing.

I was chatting with a Girl Scout troop during the intermission of our last concert, and a young violist asked me “Why do the best players sit up front? Shouldn’t people who need more help sit near the conductor, like someone who needs help sitting next to the teacher?” I explained that the first row was there to lead, and they needed the proximity to the conductor to know what he wanted from the rest of the section. I couldn’t help but wonder, however, if she had a point.

Taking the principal position was an eye opener for me. When I told my teacher that I was taking the position, he sat me down and said I needed to hear the hard truth. “No one will ever be happy with your bowings. They will complain. Be prepared.” Okay, I thought. That makes sense. I used to complain about them all of the time, too.

The hardest part for me, however, is being the leader as opposed to following the leader. It’s like singing with the radio on, and then with the radio off. I can’t watch the bow of the person ahead of me. I can’t get a heads up after 28 measures of rest. I have to do that for everyone else, which means I have to be focused and present every moment.

It is infinitely easier to follow and complain than it is to lead and take responsibility. Were we talking about music?

What I’ve learned  is that sometimes you don’t really know if you’re capable of doing something until you do it, which brings me back to the Girl Scout’s question. Changing our vantage point forces us to develop new skills, react to new challenges. Leadership can emerge from unexpected places, and may only be discovered when it’s tested. I think that’s why they call it rehearsal. It’s a place where we practice skills before we have to put them to use.

My friend and I didn’t learn much from our weekly skirmishes. We didn’t lead much, although to be fair, we were in grade school. It did, however, establish a certain mythos around chairs that might have obscured the point of playing in a group. If I were teaching, I’d be inclined to tell us both to take a chill pill, sit in the back and give someone else a turn. It’s not about where you sit. It’s about where you stand. I have some more practicing to do.

Words by J. B. Everett

Photograph by Herman Yung © 2007 Creative Commons

Next thing you know, I’ll have a kitten poster

Cynic that I am, I generally cringe at successory-style sayings. I know they are meant to be inspirational, but after I’ve heard them the billionth time, they seem to lose their power.  People repeat them, yet I think they’ve forgotten what they really mean. They become platitudes, and we all know how I like to skewer platitudes.

Saturday night my quartet played at a benefit dinner. We were making good on an auction commitment–the high bidder got a 45-minute performance.  It was a private dinner, hosted by a lovely woman who was raising money for her church. We were there to provide background music during the cocktail hour.

The hurricane had wreaked havoc with our rehearsal schedule. We had played most of the material before, and had run the set three weeks prior, but only had one rehearsal the week of the event. I was still fighting some burnout and was in let’s-just-get-this-done-shall-we mode. We got there, set up, did a warmup and let ‘er rip.

People milled about the room, drinking and talking. It was hard for us to even hear each other. I’m used to playing in situations where we are in quiet rooms of people that are there to hear the music. Chamber music isn’t a huge draw, so the audience is generally made up of people who know the repertoire. They are watching you play. This was different. There was one gentleman on the sofa who was focused on listening, but everyone else was busy chatting and sipping wine.

I’ve never played better. I’ve never felt freer. The thought that went through my head was “Dance like no one is watching.” I was playing like no one was listening.

Usually I’m acutely aware of the energy of the audience and draw from it. I always say half of a great performance is a great audience. So what is it now, the other half of a great performance is no audience?

I think it comes back to this issue of judgement. Just as I’m learning to play without self-judgement, I need to play without assuming others are judging as well.  I know there were plenty of mistakes. Because I assumed people couldn’t really hear them, they didn’t throw me off. When we finished, they gave us wonderful applause and compliments and said it made the evening unique and special, and I really think they meant it. So they must have been listening after all, and despite the mistakes, enjoyed it all the same.

So that platitude does actually hold meaning for me after all. Now if I could only cook like no one was eating.

Words by J. B. Everett

Photograph by Takeshi Kuboki © 2011 Creative Commons

Measure for Measure – Being right where I am

I had a recital last weekend. We played the first movement of the Schubert Cello Quintet.  It’s a monster of a piece. Intricate, with interwoven lines, each part rife with technical difficulties. And it’s 15 minutes long–if you don’t take the repeat.

The real challenge of the Schubert Quintet is focus. You have to be present in the music, every single measure.  There is no looking ahead, or mulling over past mistakes. You have to be exactly where you are, because if you’re not, your ensemble is toast.

I’m a worrier. I worry about my kid. I worry I won’t publish my novel. I have always been this way. I worried about my job. I worried about my grades. I probably had my own copy of “What to expect” as a baby and checked my progress against expected milestones to make sure I was on track.

To no one’s surprise, I was worried about the recital.

The beauty of chamber music is that you aren’t alone. I have a group, and I trust that group more than I trust myself.  I know they are there and will be there for me at every point. It’s mutual. So I did what I had to do. I ceded control to the music.

I’m not going to say the performance was magical. Nor was it the best we’ve ever played. It was, however, the calmest I have ever been before, during, and after a performance. Why? Because I had no choice.

Usually, my focus is only 1/3 on the present. 1/3 is kicking myself over stuff I can’t change, and 1/3 is worrying about the mistakes I haven’t made yet.  The Schubert has no room for it. It demands 100%.

What would life be like if it was more like the Schubert? If I didn’t brace myself for every screw up, prepared to defend myself afterwards. If I acted more than I evaluated or anticipated? I don’t know if I’d get more writing done, or play more in tune, but I’d sleep better. I really like sleeping.

So thanks, Franz. It’s one heck of a mantra. Hope you won’t mind if I skip the repeat.

p.s. The link is not my quintet. It is the Kontras quintet, and unlike their first violin, I am not a dude.It’s what we sound like in my memory. I have a vivid imagination

Words by J. B. Everett

Music – Schubert String Quintet in C Major – Kontras Quintet