April 4, 2020 (transferred from WordPress)
This post is inspired by my own inability to function normally at the moment and also some phrases that I’m hearing from various colleagues and students.
I’m scared that I’m digressing
I was making such progress before, but now I’ve lost it
I can’t play my instrument anymore
I think these go hand in hand with some lies that are spun in conservatory mentality. “If you aren’t practicing, you’re wasting your time” or “if you aren’t getting better, you’re getting worse.” These used to be so engrained in my mind that I felt like I could do nothing without the overwhelming weight of guilt for ‘not practicing.’
Anyways, these are wrong on many levels, and I cringe to think about the time I’ve wasted being ‘productive.’ I believe one of the underlying misconceptions in the classical music world is that progress can only be defined by instrumental ability.
Let’s just take a second to appreciate the very real complexity of being a musician. (Or maybe just being a human being…)
It is mentally, physically and emotionally demanding. It is athletic and requires physical awareness and ability, intellectual, and emotional requiring both mental and spiritual awareness. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts I believe there is too much emphasis placed on the action of playing an instrument, and not enough on studying. And not just studying our instrument, but also our body, mind and emotions.
As human beings we are constantly changing as we learn, grow and respond to our circumstances and this undoubtedly affects our ability to play. Some examples:
There have been times where I’ve flown into a new place for a concert and suddenly I feel like I’m a foreigner in my own body playing someone else’s instrument..it’s less than ideal.
Or, in light of the current situation, maybe we figured out how to thrive (or survive) in school, but now we are asked to do that same work in a new environment and are struggling.
Anyways, learning about ourselves and figuring out how to adapt is HUGE to what we do. Let me show you a completely un-scientific graph that I’ve created!!
The top line (purple) is your optimum capability. It’s your playing in your best circumstances (when you’ve slept well, you’re focused, have support, when you’re physically strong etc.) The bottom line (black) is your minimum. How you play while at your worst (when you’re emotionally drained, when you’re exhausted, when you’re distracted, when you haven’t practiced in days etc.)
We all love spending our time in the top line and want to push the top up higher and higher: it’s easier to make progress up there, and while it fluctuates a lot it’s the most fun! But when our circumstances change for the worse- the bottom line takes over. Ideally the bottom line would be somewhat close to the top, so that at our worse there can still be a fair representation of our capabilities.
So how do we get the bottom line to budge? It can be a bit painful to face the bottom, but often it’s the most beneficial. It requires all the ‘extra-musical’ learning. For instance, figuring out how to be willing to share music when you want to hide under the covers, discovering how to make the physical motions easy/efficient while you are sore, or learning how to focus when you’re mentally drained…basically figuring out how to cope with difficult circumstances.
I show this silly graph because this mentality gives me a sense of purpose in my worst moments…
Anyways, if you’re struggling to be productive in this time, don’t worry that you’re wasting time or that you’ve lost anything. There can always be purpose in spending time understanding our bottom line.
And honestly, if you aren’t practicing you are probably doing something even more important- being a human.