Making Music

June 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Kipling: Success and Failure, the two great impostors.
How does one define success? Achieving goals?  Making a lot of money?  Being famous? Playing in Carnegie Hall? Pleasing my parents? Being Happy?  Perhaps.  But I think of success in terms of the process, those moment by moment improvements; developing an expressive musical idea, solving a technical problem, playing a passage better in tune, finding a better fingering, a more beautiful sound, being more relaxed, those many small successes which are pursued in a state of mind of fascination.  Fascination with the process. In the practice room.

Goals are important because they define the direction in which to work.  We set about accomplishing a task, learning a new piece, preparing a concert, working toward something.  We achieve a goal and it feels fine, but then what?  The next goal.  They’re transitory.  It is in the work itself which is the true measure of success, and that is never ending.  
Likewise, often we equate making mistakes with failure.  But mistakes are essential to the learning process, we learn by making and correcting mistakes.  So are mistakes bad?  No, they are valuable, interesting, fascinating!  When he was well into his nineties, Pablo Casals was asked why he still practiced his cello two hours everyday.  After all, he wasn’t playing concerts anymore.  He replied, “I think it is getting better.”  He didn’t mean better than when he was at the height of his career.  He meant better than a minute ago.  He was correcting mistakes as he had done all his life.

Once I was practicing in my studio at the university and when I stepped outside to take a break one of my students was there. He said he passed by three hours ago and I was practicing the same passages I was working on just now.  “How do you have the discipline, the patience to practice that same two minutes of music for three hours?”  I looked at my watch, was it three hours?  I had no idea. It was like sitting down with a good book and the whole day goes by.  It didn’t take discipline or patience.  I was fascinated.  I believe it is in that state of mind in which we learn the best.  It’s almost child like.  In fact children are naturally in that state of mind.  They call it play.  It’s interesting that we musicians use the same word for what we do.  It is amazing how children learn when they just play.
However, isn’t there a difference between practicing, and child’s play or being absorbed in a good book?  If so, what might that difference be, and why?  I think it is often the presence of judgment in the practice room, the assignment of blame, right and wrong, good and bad, success and failure.  There is a fine line between being discerning and being judgmental.  We often cross that line. We blame ourselves in the process.  We don’t do that with a book.  Nor do children when they play.

But don’t we deserve the blame when there is a mistake, if it is for instance out of tune?  Well, what exactly makes a note out of tune on a string instrument?  Let’s think about that. Maybe I wasn’t concentrating.  Maybe I didn’t hear properly. I did something wrong.  But how would a child answer?  The finger went down in a different place.  It is that simple.  Where does blame belong in that?  It doesn’t!  The way I see it, an in-tune note is one kind of information, and an out-of-tune note is another kind of information.  Both are valuable to me as long as I know which is which.  The finger just needs repetitions.  

Intellectual learning and motor learning take place in different parts of the brain, and involve different processes.  If an idea is not too complicated the intelligence can understand right away.  If a note is out of tune we usually hear it immediately. But motor learning is accomplished only by repetition which takes time.  The hands have no intelligence in the normal sense of the word.   The problem is we confuse the intellectual and motor learning processes.  “If I know what is in tune, then my finger should be able to go to the right place. If it doesn’t then I am at fault.”  But the hands learn only by repetition, there is no other way.  So it is not the fault of the intellectual self, unless of course it chooses not to practice.  The intelligence has it’s own roll in the process, which is to oversee, to be a keen observer and listener, allowing the hands enough repetitions.  That’s fascinating!

It is useful to understand the difference between I, and myself.  “I” can be seen as my consciousness or intelligence, and “myself” as my body, the rest of me.  If “I” look at “myself”, then the difference can be seen.  But if I say, “I played out of tune”, that implies it was the fault of my consciousness when actually it was a mistake of the finger, or part of myself.  So it is fallacious to say I failed. If one truly believes a fallacy, then the result is  hopelessness, anxiety, tension, and the obstruction of learning.  It is possible to take conscience control of the body, but it is very inefficient and anxiety producing.  It is far more effective just to be a conscious, objective observer of the motor learning process, being discerning without being judgmental. That is the easiest and most effective way to learn to play, and to achieve goals.
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