Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Courage to go to Lunch

Groan.  (Lift).  Groan.   (Lift).   Groan.

That could be the sound of me lifting weights at the gym. Or it could be my mental state when I practice the piano. Either way, it's not pretty.

Lots of people have found this out. Practicing is not usually that much fun. No wonder, every fifteen seconds, someone in North America quits taking piano lessons.

I completely made that up. But it doesn't seem that far off, somehow. Anyway, practicing is hard work, or it should be. And it never seems like the result will be worth it. Pity the poor persons who weren't prepared for just how difficult it would be and how long it takes to reap any rewards. Pity me.

That's right; even now, every time I start on a new piece of music I marvel at how much fun it isn't. Even now that, after years of effort and increased skills I can often learn a new piece of music in just a few days, even now the hours seem long, and the frustration always needs to be kept at bay.

But for all that, I have something truly strange to impart to you. I have trouble giving it up.

We are all programmed to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Practicing is pain much of the time, so why do it? And many of us would rather watch television and THEN we'll get around to practicing. Or we'll go out with our friends and THEN we'll practice.

For me, it's a job, and a way of life. I hit the practicing room virtually every morning, conditioned by long years at the conservatory of music. My practicing has gotten much more efficient, cutting hours from the time it takes to get where I'm going. But I wonder sometimes if, instead of stretching the pain quotient over longer time it doesn't just hurt more intensely in the time it has left to torture me.

Because eventually I'll get to the part where practicing is fun. The piece starts to come together and sound like music. I live for that. I've learned to recognize its coming. But I still can't rush it. My mind still has to assimilate all that information, like time lapse photography. I still have to sleep on it.

Which means that eventually I have to stop practicing and get out of the way and let my brain consolidate what I've learned. It takes a couple of days, usually. I need to back off, go to lunch, go home and do something else and let my subconscious work in its own good time, trusting to the results. Funny that quitting practice should actually be a hard thing, but it is.

I started a new piece today; I spent nearly four hours on it. It's in pretty good shape for the first day. But it won't be ready until I've slept on it a little and given my brain a chance to think about it at leisure and from many angles. Sometimes, when I go back to work it's thought of a new fingering or a new way to phrase something. Or the passage I was still having trouble with when I stopped practicing yesterday is suddenly not nearly so hard because I know which notes to focus on or I am thinking in gestures and the notes are taking care of themselves. It's amazing the sorts of things it comes up with, this silent partner of mine, working in secret, on its own schedule, without apparent effort.

If I don't give it enough of a conscious push first, though, it won't realize how important the new information is. That's the importance of working hard. But at some point, conscious work reaches a point of diminishing returns and one has to recognize that and not waste time. Now when I go home and watch television I am actually still practicing; my conscious investment is being matched by the hidden part of my being. Fascinating.

And humbling. And very cool. And if you understand how that works, then working hard and hardly working are actually two very important stages in the same process. Just make sure you get them in the right order!

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