Meditation, not by Thais
May 10, 2007 at 11:22 PM
I have always loved Japanese Calligraphy, and if there is one aspect of the culture I would really like to master this is it. When I first got interested in it I received permission from some schools to attend the students regular classes in the art. In order to prepare myself for these I bought a book by a renowned master and pondered it for many hours. One of the most important things in it was his emphasis on the state of mind needed. In order to get there one first learns to sit well. Then one prepares the ink by rubbing a solid lump of it against a slate ink well until the right consistency is achieved. This preparation takes about one hour and was stated to be vital. I was somewhat disappointed whenever I went to classes and found students slumped in spine destroying chairs with convenient little squeezy bottles of ink. Bang went another fantasy about Japanese culture and mind...
In the same vein, I have come to believe over the last few years that in spite of the plethora of information on how to practice, not to mention the very wise references to stretching and warming up, there is actually very little thought given by most players as to how to get ready to practice with maximum efficiency and enjoyment.
We all pay lip service to the idea that anything we do in the practice room will –inevitably- manifest itself in performance blah blah blah. But then we continue to rush to the instrument carrying either our neuroses about playing, the world or all the crap our boss has been giving us all day long. Violin playing, we claim, is our medicine, so as we play the days cares and tribulations begin to wear off. Except although that may be true, one has still successfully integrated them within our technique for at least part of the duration of our practice.
Warming up and then stretching are vital but not the whole problem by any means. They don’t really do much to put the whole person where it needs to be. Alexander Technique , which can be defined as the precursor to any activity (that would include warming up) is sensible. But I am not convinced it is enough either. It is a way of making us do things better but it is not the thing in itself and it is certainly not designed to be practice for half an hour. It is more of an ongoing and largely subconscious process after studying it for a while. Also it is primarily concerned with the physical response to stress not the underlying trauma, phobia or whatever.
What does that leave us with?
Over the last few years I have been trying to define what state or criteria are ideal. My reasoning was that by working the problem backwards a solution would pop up sooner or later. Thus, I felt that before I picked up the violin I wanted my mind to be calm, I wanted to be completely in the present, utilizing the complete minimum necessary muscular tension, well oxygenated, have the widest field of vision, and be able to switch freely from an awareness s focused more on the immediate environment to one focused internally. What I discovered was that meditation fitted the bill perfectly. The type I use establishes all these criteria for the price of about thirty minutes work. The first time I did this and picked up the violin it blew my mind. A very strong reminder that the approach to practicing so current these days, based to my mind, very much on a kind of competition to see who can clock up the greatest number of hours is far less useful than considerably less done with forethought and intelligence.
PS(If you are interested in the CD I use for this purpose then check out www. Wildmind. Org)
The trick is to get yourself in a better state of relaxed and calm than before starting the meditation, I am assuming. Does anyone else get MORE anxious and worked up when they try to meditate?
I know that breathing is a big part of relaxing. I've been to classes on that stuff. But I never really could NOT focus on the breathing, which always lead to a feeling of suffocating and not having enough air...therefore hyperventialating. Not so calming...
For that matter...I supose it is a discipline in entirety. Practicing and meditating and relaxing. To be able to control the mind and as a result control the body is in my mind one of the highest levels of acheivement as a centered and well person.
The fear or worry of not being able to meditate or that something anxious will happen in the process is almost as bad as being tense because one is trying too hard to relax. How many of us have done THAT???
On stage, slow and quiet passage coming up. Lots of important people in the audience. Afraid of the shaky bow..oh no, here it comes...I'm starting to shake..OH NOOOOO!!! (slight tremor turns into a wrist earthquake that the audience can't miss).
Buri, your words are very thought provoking and at least gives me momentum to try these things again or for the first time. What made it habit for you? I do certain advises a few times and then wheee it is gone from my brain and I forget to do it once and never again remember until reading another Buri-blog or article or essay or masterclass or something. How did you get things together cognitively so that you didn't just rush to the instrument and start playing and THEN remember oops I didn't stretch?
THe only one I've basically mastered is my practice routine which involves a gradual workup into the intense and labour-heavy practice so that I don't injure my wrists, fingers, arms, neck, jaw etc. That took FOREEEVVVEERR.
William Starr, disciple of Suzuki and great educator in his own right, recommends something similar. He says that he has traveled and taught around the world, but the Japanese kids have an advantage over all the others, a sort of relaxed focus, that he attributes to Zen in Japanese culture. He advocates some form of deep relaxation before practicing. He has his own way, but different ways work well for different people.
I’m not surprised that you like Japanese calligraphy, which I find is somewhat analogous to violin practice, as it is much a performing art as a visual one. Unlike western oil or acrylic painting that allows you to go over the same spot again and again until you get the result you want, Chinese and Japanese calligraphy are extremely temporal in nature – the minute the brush touches the paper, the ink starts to run and creates a permanent trace much like a sound we draw out of a violin that is unalterably announced to the world.
The grinding of the ink gives one a lot of time to get focused or to examine the model if there’s one. I sometimes feel rosining is a bit like the meditative part of this traditional preparation for calligraphy, so is tuning, son file and vibrato warming up.
When I do calligraphy, each stroke and the expression of each character are just as textured and meaningful as each note, tone and expressiveness I try to make in violin playing. Of course, I don’t mean skills of calligraphy and violin playing are interchangeable. They are categorically different, but there is such similarity between the two, the sense of the artistic appreciation, that I wish I knew how else to better express it.
What I know the best is not Japanese but Chinese calligraphy, which I’ve practiced since a little kid and kept it for many years after I came to Canada. The ink we use in Chinese is more intense, and this gives more shades of ‘color’ (you do sense colors when deal with only black & white). By ways of subtle variations of brushokes, Chinese calligraphy allows a greater range from the softest to the most intense in ‘color’ that the Japanese one. Japanese calligraphy is, as it were, Vivaldi played on a baroque violin, but Chinese calligraphy is Brahms on a Strad.
I’m biased of course, but if you look at some of the work by Song Dynasty masters, I don’t know how you can deny that it’s just as good as it gets. Go to the link below and take a look at Huang Tingjian and Mi Fei, and see what you think:
Su Shi's Cold Food Festival is still haunting my bones. Thank you so much for sharing some calligraphy with us, Yixi.
Yixi and Buri,
Your descriptions of the somewhat meditative calm that comes with doing traditional calligraphy reminds me of the state of mind I get into when I'm painting. I don't do much in the way of actual hang-on-the-wall type paintings, mainly elaborate folk art on little wooden boxes and such, but it still has a way of focusing my mind and driving away all distractions. I just had two bad rehearsals in a row and I'm all scattered to bits--maybe I should go try painting something.
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