Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Getting to Nirvana

Practice is suffering.

We established that last week.

We also decided that, if done well, that suffering can be lessened because you will be so engrossed in what you are doing that you won't be noticing how difficult it is. And because when you practice well you cut down on the amount of time it takes to learn stuff, hence, less time to suffer.

But you can't make it stop. It's going to be difficult some of the time. And in order to learn how to deal with it, you have to develop the discipline to be miserable for a period of time and just keep going. You get better at that the more you do it, therefore, suffering doesn't just build character, it builds perseverance. So you are trying to learn how not to suffer and yet welcoming such tests of fortitude at the same time. Sound about right?

I thought I had better summarize last week's blog because it could have been a bit complicated.

For me, the worst time to be working on something is when it is fairly new. Not completely new, necessarily: during the time you are discovering a piece you've never seen or heard before the very sounds the composer put on the page may seem so fascinating and new that you don't mind your slow, halting attempts to realize them, It's what comes immediately after that which is hard. Now you have to try to assimilate the materials. That generally takes a lot of repetition, and can really wear out your mind fast. Eventually, say several days in, the work gets easier. Now you basically know the materials and can start making music out of them. You have control over the notes and can play them the way you want to. Practice starts to be about how I want to play that Eb (with what kind of touch or expression), not whether I can get my finger there in time.

At that point, practicing that particular piece become pretty pleasurable. It's the getting there that is the hard part.

It could just be me for whom the early stages and the late stages of practice are so diammetrically different. But I've noticed something else:

Let's say it's just a few days before a concert, or it's the week of the church service and I haven't even looked at the postlude yet. I start in. It's hard. I'm pretty stressed out because there isn't much time. I should have started on this thing earlier! I spend a pretty miserable day drilling away. But by the middle of the next day the ice melts and suddenly I'm no longer worried. In fact I'm even beginning to have fun with the piece.

That was pretty intense, but fortunately it was short. Now suppose I have plenty of time to prepare and I don't go at it with the same panicked intensity. You know what happens?

It spreads out the misery, that's what. It's as if there is a predestined amount of unhappiness that it will require from you until you get to the point of familiarity. And you can do it in one short, intense burst, or a longer, less hellish manner, but either way, you can't escape it. And basically, you will pay the same price in quantified misery either way. Weird, huh? But maybe that's just me.

The point being that I've noticed this happening over and over and I expect it to happen. I expect to feel anxious and unhappy and as if I will never get the piece learned in time, and then to do it anyway. It's just a part of the psychological element of practicing. And realizing it is probably what keeps me going when many folks, for whom these feelings of worry and failure are a complete surprise, take these symptoms seriously and decide to give up.

They don't go away, either. They are there each time I start a new piece of music. And they are there to be conquered, every time. Knowing this dynamic doesn't make it easier. But it does keep me going.

Because I've seen what is on the other side. Many times. It doesn't make it that much easier to keep pushing, but somehow...makes it possible.

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