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Terez Mertes

Zen and the Violin: Ten Tips for the Journey

July 10, 2013 at 2:38 PM

So, I’m a meditator, and that’s a good thing to be in today’s world. I’m pretty lame at setting time aside to meditate on a daily basis, however, which is why I head out a few times a year to go on private, silent retreats. Last May’s retreat was particularly effective, for whatever reason, and I returned with greater clarity that has served me well since. I recently compiled an article for the dance community, comparing Zen precepts and my meditation practice to my ballet practice. There are a surprising number of similarities: staying focused on what’s unfolding right there and then; not being distracted by nagging thoughts; remaining wholly present physically and mentally. Then there are the not-so-Zen facets of ballet. It’s all about beauty, grace, the illusion of perfection. It’s competitive. There is an image in your mind you’re doggedly striving for, that you can’t seem to ever reach. Ego, desire, dissatisfaction all have a field day in the ballet studio.

Violinists are not ballet dancers, but they are both still part of the performing arts world. I wondered if some of the same precepts could apply to the violin world. Taking my little list, I revised it for a violin-based readership. Tell me if you agree with any of these.

Gentle tips to help you on your the journey

1) Wherever you are in life, at this very moment, and in your violin practice, is precisely where you’re supposed to be. Even if, at this moment, something feels like a mistake, a mess, a problem that needs to be fixed.

2) Don’t be afraid to fail. You learn far more through failing than you do through succeeding.

3) Strive to remain in the present daily, hourly, in your lesson, your practice time, your life. Try to observe, without judgment, the way your attachments and aversions often dictate your moods, your choices, and consequently limit you.

4) It’s good to improve on a regular basis, set goals for yourself, but don’t withhold satisfaction with the way things are right now. Don’t live your life waiting for the day things will be easier, or better. The reality is, that day in the future when things are “better,” you will find a new “better” dangled before you like a carrot. It’s all an illusion to pull you from your life in the present.

5) It’s all about the journey, the process of learning. Once we stop the learning, we stop living. The destination, believe it or not, is largely irrelevant.

6) Practicing and/or playing the violin is hard, and can be oh, so discouraging. Same goes for life. But it's the hard stuff, these forays outside your comfort zone, the scary (to you) risk taken, that make it so rich and worth living.

7) Observe everything and everyone, including those against whom you compete, with gentle compassion. We are all on this journey, on parallel roads. Each has its bumps and smooth spells. We all made choices in life that put us where we are now. We deserve to be cherished, and respected. Particularly by ourselves.

8) Some days it all comes together. You’ll have moments of startling insight, power, clarity, perfect intonation and musicality. You’ll play like Heifetz/Oistrakh/Milstein/insert-your-favorite-violin-master-here, and it will feel like You Have Arrived.

9) The next day, poof, it’s all gone. “From God to clod,” as my teacher wryly puts it. You decide you haven’t sounded this pedestrian and amateurish in years. Worse, you stay in this less refined space for days, even weeks. None of this should not be construed as failure. It is simply another facet of the learning process.

10) Pain hurts, both the physical and emotional kind. Don’t judge your own pain, even if it stems from competitiveness or disappointment. If it is there, burning, whether or not it is noble, have compassion. Compassion of the self is where it all begins, and is the greatest gift you can give yourself. Harsh self-judgment is nothing more than pain on top of pain.

Most of all, make sure you enjoy the journey. Make it full of music, inside your heart and out.

© 2013 Terez Rose
The Classical Girl

PS: You can find the original dance-related article here, at

From Tom Holzman
Posted on July 10, 2013 at 8:08 PM
Terez - I thought most of these were right on, especially the idea of the journey being crucial and the advice to enjoy the journey above all. The others may simply be corollaries of those two. Anyhow, someone who is following your points will be living as fully as possible. I trust you are following them.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on July 10, 2013 at 11:13 PM
Tom, darned if I don't catch myself, every day, (every hour?), failing to do what I am so nobly proposing up above. I read someone else's list once, and one was "you will forget all of this." And maybe something like "you will be reminded" but for me it's "you will have this list to consult and chuckle ruefully, and not try to be to annoyed with yourself for being a poor student at your own subject."

Thanks for responding, Tom!

From Mendy Smith
Posted on July 11, 2013 at 3:51 AM
I was reminded by my viola teacher before we took our summer break "it is all about the music". All those etudes, scales, technical studies, stage fright etc...? At the end of the day mean nothing if it is not musical. She advised that I play with abandon over the summer and let my inner violist out of the closet for awhile, no matter if it was in tune or not.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on July 11, 2013 at 3:59 AM
Aww, Mendy, what a wonderful comment your teacher made. And the line "it is all about the music" can be construed in so many rich, wonderful ways, down to a simple rhythm and musicality of life itself, just going with what it's humming to you. (Yikes, did that make any sense at all to anyone besides me?!)

Thanks for posting your comment/thoughts - I really enjoyed hearing them (and hearing from you! - do you ever miss your Santa Cruz County days?).

From Anne Horvath
Posted on July 11, 2013 at 9:56 AM

Have you read "The Inner Game of Tennis" by Timothy Gallwey? This was assigned to me by my first teacher, and I still re-read it every year or so.

And I don't play tennis. Or do ballet...

From Terez Mertes
Posted on July 11, 2013 at 12:43 PM
Anne - ooh, that book sounds great; they say it was a phenomenon in the era when it first came out, and no surprise. What is so readily available now, in reference to sports psychology, music psychology, work/science/life psychology, wasn't back then. But look what else Amazon showed me when I found the book on their site: The Inner Game of Music.

I love getting tips on books to read - thanks! Nice to chat with you here. I was off, out of the country, in the latter half of June. (Tom - it was my family's turn to hang out in Paris this year. Big fun!) Nice to come back to friends!

From Tom Holzman
Posted on July 11, 2013 at 5:54 PM
Terez - I hope you had a great time in Paris. Did you go to the Musée de la Musique? It is super.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on July 12, 2013 at 12:15 AM
Oh, sob, missed it! I should have had this conversation with you prior, Tom, and not after. Where is it located? (And if you say in the 5eme, near the Pantheon and/or the Place de la Contrascarpe, I'll weep more.)

I did go to the Palais Garnier and its attached museum for the first time ever. Just loved seeing the interior of the venue. (Opera house and ballet, for those of you might not have known.)

Guess I'll just have to go back to Paris, again, Tom. Twist my arm. (And yes, a great time was had. Really great.)

From Mendy Smith
Posted on July 12, 2013 at 12:53 AM
Terez, yes I miss living in the mountains, especially during Houston summers like this one. I wish I had my running creek again and abundant shade. At least I have a green zone beyond my fence-line... though it breeds mosquitoes, possums and 'coons.
From Anne Horvath
Posted on July 12, 2013 at 11:14 AM
Inner Game of Tennis >>> Inner Game of Music.

Paris sounds like a marvelous subject for a blog...

From Tom Holzman
Posted on July 12, 2013 at 1:02 PM
Terez - it is up the Northeast corner of the city in the 19th ( It is right next to a fabulous science museum which I also highly recommend.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on July 12, 2013 at 7:11 PM
>Terez, yes I miss living in the mountains, especially during Houston summers like this one.

Mendy, I was thinking just the other day, when it was so hot here by day, but cooled off dramatically by 7pm, that it's one thing I love about the weather here. Then again, when I moved to the West Coast from the Midwest 22 years ago, I remember being shocked, just shocked, that I needed to wear a sweater sometimes in the evening. At the time, it felt so wrong. Good thing we all adjust to what we're stuck with!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on July 12, 2013 at 7:20 PM
>Paris sounds like a marvelous subject for a blog...

And how do you like that, The Classical Girl already has blogged about it. A bit. ((... What? You say you're dying to read it? Well, if you insist, go to: The Classical Girl/Palais Garnier)) Okay, that was only a tiny bit; I need to write much more. I am ashamed, though, to confess I never went into a single violin shop or luthier's shop during the whole two weeks we were gone. In fact I never saw one once. Tom, do you know if there was a neighborhood in Paris that I should have nosed around in for that? Or is Paris just not a violin kind of city, the way London and Rome seemed to be? I must confess, I associate it much more with ballet than classical music.

BTW, Tom, I love the sound of the science museum you recommended, in the same area as the music one. Both are great to know about, for our next Paris trip.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on July 12, 2013 at 8:02 PM
Terez - if you are looking for violin shops, they are all on the rue de Rome near the Gare St. Lazare in the 8th.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on July 13, 2013 at 12:45 AM
Whew, again, I wasn't near there, and that makes me feel somewhat better. How aggravating it is to discover something had been within two blocks.

Off the family and I go, to a less glamorous destination: the redwoods, for camping. So if someone replies here and I don't reply back, it's b/c I'll be wrestling with mosquitoes. (Mendy - it's Big Basin State Park. Gee, aren't my family and I intrepid campers?!)

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