Friday, May 10, 2019

I'm Bored!

Not being a mother, I don't have access to the official book of things to say to your children in every situation,  and thus I don't know what page it is on. But I'm sure it's in there somewhere. When your child complains that they are bored, you say "no, you are boring."

They may have updated the book since, because that seems a little unnecessarily cruel for this enlightened era, but it may have some redemptive sting in it after all. Being unable to either provide your own external stimulus or (gasp) even being able to find sufficient stimulus in the workings of your own mind is a skill, and it ought to be cultivated; otherwise, you risk being bored a lot.

At least, you used to. These days there are screens everywhere and access to thousands of entertainment options. It would seem that the likelihood of being bored has gone down. But then, the tolerance for being able to deal with even a short period of non-entertainment has gone down with it, so there is still a grave risk that at some point a young mind may not know what to do with itself.

I was a child before the days of the internet and even the IPOD was a new and expensive commodity so when I was out mowing the yard I would "listen" to records in my head sometimes for entertainment, or imagine baseball games, making up what happened. Now when I vacuum I plug my phone into my headphones and listen to things streamed online. But when I run I don't plug anything into anything. It is just me and my environment for two or three hours, no headphones, no music. I simply enjoy the trees, the birds, and try not to run over the chipmunks darting in front of me. Once I nearly hit the trifecta of (almost) managing to run over a squirrel in a car, on a bicycle, and on foot in the same day.

I tried music a couple of times; everybody else was doing it. But then I gave it up and let my mind provide its own inner dialogue, or none at all. It was a little bland at first. But I thought it was a good way to cultivate boredom.

--Wait, back up. Cultivate boredom?--

Interesting things happen when you actually create the conditions to be bored. One thing is that you learn to deal with it. Things don't have to happen all of the time. Sometimes just sitting in a chair can be pleasant. And the mind can find things to think about; what is harder is disciplining those things so they are worth the rumination.

There have been musicians who have dealt with this phenomenon quite a lot. Erik Satie comes immediately to mind. So does Phillip Glass. Trying to be intentionally bored can seem like a fool's errand, but if you want mental serenity, learning to de-clutter the mind can actually be a spiritual discipline. Here's Jeremy Begbie: "Music can teach us a kind of patience which stretches and enlarges, deepens us in the very waiting."

Once you've managed to allow periods of non-stimulus, a blank mental slate; to throw out whatever thoughts "do not bring joy," you can decide purposefully what you want to be in there. We go from mental wandering to intentional, structured thinking. It has rewards that many cannot fathom, but it is worth the struggle.

Why am I bring this up today? Because I had a question this week from someone who would like some tips for how to learn music faster. I get questions like this a lot. And, given that practice efficiency is something that interests me, I decided to devote a web page to it. It will be up sometime next week.

The writer's primary motivation for gaining speed, however, does not seem to have been that life is short and there is a lot of music out there waiting to be learned; it was to avoid boredom. Playing the pieces over and over, which seems to be the accepted way to gain fluency, was getting tedious. Is there a way to learn the music fast enough not to have to deal with this?

In the past, my answers to that question, some of which are on this page, have been some variation on the idea that boredom is necessary to competence; that if you aren't bored by your piece yet, you don't know the piece well enough, and that, frankly, getting faster at learning only means you will learn to get bored faster. But there is a way to avoid the negative aspects of boredom. If you are practicing in a way that is completely focused on the music, every moment, every detail, rather than a cursory put-in-the-time manner which worries about playing everything 10 times but does not take any particularl pleasure in a well-articulated C, or a well calibrated dynamic shift; which does not notice the difference between a small hesitation between two chords and gets no delight from being able, on the next pass, of closing the gap, or getting a better sound through more focused voicing--if you think that every time you play a passage it sounds the same, and you only liked the piece when it was new because your ears can't hear the difference between a passage with all of the notes correct and on time, and several that aren't, then you know what?

You are Boring!

Most of the world's amateur pianists will probably stay that way, too, which is my attempt at realism, not mean-ness. But for those who want to try, with pain and struggle, to go beyond that, a vast world will open up. I know this because I inhabit this world daily. It took a long time to gain citizenship. But I am rarely bored, even when the piece is far from novel.

I will even submit, at the risk of seeming like a complete nerd, that I find thinking about and writing about practicing interesting. And so I will make another attempt at helping someone else deal with the scourge of boredom and lead them to practice Valhalla.

I mean, it's worth a try.

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