I love it when this sort of thing happens. Every now and then someone will say something that is both incredibly obvious, but at the same time completely stops me in my tracks.
In about two weeks I’ll play a couple of songs in a student recital, so I’ve been focusing on my songs. During my violin lesson last week, I was playing one of the songs for my teacher. As usual, and as much as I don’t want to be, I was nervous. I knew she was watching, and that’s all I could think about. Were my thumbs bent? Was my right pinky ok? Were my elbows moving as they should? Was the bow hitting the strings correctly? My head kept swimming. I sounded halting and stiff.
Then she said, “Michael, you need to be the subject, not the object.”
I just stood there. Subject? Object? What? I’m a former English teacher. Are we discussing sentence structure here? Prepositions? Verbs? Nouns?
No. She was referring to point of view and attitude. To put it another way, I was standing outside of myself far too much. I needed to let it come from inside of myself. I needed to stop worrying about all the technical aspects of playing in as much as letting the music come from inside myself.
I needed to allow myself to dive into the music of the song. I needed to trust myself with my own music, rather than surrender to external dynamics. Now, technique is important and necessary, and I don't mean to take away from it. We all need to do as well as we can and keep those elements in our work. However, it is also important to let the music be in the foreground, and not forget why we are doing all of this technical work, lessons, practice, and so forth. We need to take that leap into the music within us.
As for myself, I was thinking too much. I was thinking to such an extent that I wasn't allowing myself to enjoy what I was playing.
Sometimes we get a little too comfortable and forget to take risks, forget to relax, and forget to let go and see what happens. I’m as guilty as anyone of tripping and getting distracted from my goals. I think it’s natural to seek safe harbor in our lives. Routines give us a sense of comfort. Accomplishing little things gives us a sense of purpose. There is nothing wrong with any of that. However, there is also a sense of joy in tossing things out there and seeing where they will land. Pushing the envelope, risking falling down, and facing criticism for something can be liberating. The challenge is to overcome the fear of all that release.
Let me give you some examples of what I mean.
Barbara Smaller had a cartoon in The New Yorker that I’ve always loved. In the cartoon, a woman is holding some books and talking with a man who is leaning against a desk. The caption reads, “"I want to write what I know, but all I know is writing workshops."
I knew a woman who couldn’t trust herself make up her own mind about anything because she was afraid of making wrong choices. So, she went to a therapist, attended group therapy sessions, saw her psychic on a regular basis, had her palm read once a month, and her Tarot cards were read whenever she had a pressing issue. Then, if her palm reader said to do one thing, but her therapist said to do the opposite, if her Tarot cards predicted a third option, and her psychic presented a fourth idea, she’d select the choice she liked the best, and ignore what everyone else said. If something went wrong – and for some reason it always did – she’d start the process all over again and again. (She also kept running out of money. All that stuff ain’t cheap.)
It’s important to make wise and thoughtful decisions, but in the world of creativity, there are times when we can all be a little too careful. We can be a bit too precious. There are times when we need to –shall we say – trust The Force.
Now, I don’t want to get all New Age with all of this. What I’m saying is as a creative person there comes a point when you just have to let your instincts take over and see what comes out.
Play as well as you can, and with the skills you’ve acquired up to this point, but remember to enjoy yourself. Stop thinking and just play the music.
I say all of this from the point of view of a detail nerd who dives way too far into technical stuff.
Last month I wrote about a project where I transcribed my notes from all of my taped violin lessons, bound them into a book. I highlighted sections, to study. I saw areas of progress, areas that need constant attention, and issues I’d simply forgotten or ignored. It was very helpful.
But it was little more than a tool, and not a goal. Therefore, I’m going to take that book and let it gather dust on a bookshelf.
Look - I’m going on 70, and from where I’m sitting, there ain’t no time like the present. So, I’m gonna have some fun playing my violin, and I’m gonna to have that fun today. If I wait around for the perfect this or that, I’m going to end up one angry ghost. Who needs that, right?
I think there is a mindset that places pleasure as something of a final goal to any quest. It’s all business and tunnel vision. The Knight will be happy after he’s killed the dragon, defeated the giant, crossed the desert, climbed the tower, and won the hand of the fair maiden. Until then, don’t bother to smile.
Ever read The Odyssey, by Homer? I mean the whole thing, and not that highly edited abridged version you had in school? It’s quite an eye opener. It took Odysseus many, many years to get home from the Trojan War. Yes, he had some problems. Poseidon was throwing all sorts of roadblocks in his way - monsters, storms, Sirens, some loopy lotus-eaters, a Cyclops, and so on. That’s some pretty bad stuff. But from what I read, it seems he sure took his time getting home, and there are a couple of episodes with Calypso and Circe, where he wasn’t really suffering all that much. (Plus, I checked it out on Google Maps. He could have walked the whole thing from Turkey to Ithaca in about three weeks, but that’s another story.)
How about Huckleberry Finn? Huck Finn and Jim, who are riding a raft down the Mississippi. Jim is escaping from slavery, Huck is fighting with the madness of the civilized world, the river is freedom, and they meet some crazy people. They may have some real problems, but on the other hand, they’re having a hilarious time solving those issues.
So, keep working at it. Keep striving to get better and better, but remember to enjoy it. When my teacher says, “be the subject and not the object,” I need to stop wondering how she is seeing what I’m doing, and just do it, letting whatever comes out simply come out. Yes, it can be better, but I’m gong to trust that it will be better as things go along.
So I’ve got to remember that as I practice for the upcoming recital. It’ll happen right at my 18-month mark for taking lessons. I know some of those little kids are going to sound great. I know there are a couple of teenagers who will blow me away with their music. However, I’m going to do my best, and have fun doing it. I hope you do as well.
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