It’s All the Same

Last week was a whirlwind of long rehearsals and stressful “cram” practicing for a couple of gigs. The first gig was for a play development center that has developed works by great playwrights such as Rajiv Joseph, author of the Broadway hit Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo currently starring Robin Williams. I was also going to be working in a series of vignettes starring a certain well known actress both on the screen and on the stage, and, one of the short plays was written by the aforementioned Rajiv Joseph. It seemed like a really big deal and a great opportunity so I did some schedule shifting and made myself available for the rehearsals and the performance.

When I got there, rehearsals proceeded as normal. As I sat at the piano listening to the cues and playing through the music I realized, this is like a million other rehearsals and performances I’ve played for. I’m as prepared and am playing this music just like any other rehearsal/performance situation.

My second gig was not as glamorous. I played a junior voice recital for a NYU student. The pre recital banter was a little embarrassing as everyone thought I was a NYU student myself and found it hard to believe that not only was I over the age of 20 I also had a master’s degree in piano… but whatever! Accompanying provides extra cash, keeps me playing, and there were some great Faure pieces in the program so I was pretty happy.

The music was definitely a little more tricky and I was nervous for some of the pieces. However, as soon as I started playing I realized, It’s all the same. I loosened up considerably and ended up playing a good program for my singer. She was so happy and her family came up to me after the performance thanking me for creating beautiful music with their daughter.

Yoga Sutra 1.12 “Practice and detachment are the means to still the consciousness”

Detachment is a common theme in the sutras. Detachment for want of power, riches, and fear of failure helps keep the mind even and stilled. Essentially, when the mind is undisturbed by outside events there is more opportunity for happiness, stability, strength, revelation, and honesty to the true self.

So often we work hard for only a specific goal or idea in mind. I myself have experienced this. Uh oh, I have a huge audition that requires me to know how to improvise. I hope I can learn by tomorrow! However, if I am constantly working on improvising (which I don’t always do) I would have a better chance of playing the audition with success. Nothing comes without consistency and with consistency comes progress. In my example of the two gigs the circumstances were quite different but the music was the same- music is the great equalizer of truth. Often times people say play a gig to one person like you would for a thousand. I think this is great advice. Work towards playing music beautifully no matter what and where you end up playing.


 

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Upon further reflection…

Dear Readers,

Upon reading the last post “Dig a Little Deeper” I came across numerous typos and grammatical errors. This is yet another one of those “detail things” I am striving to work on. At some point I bought this book in my college career.

Image It looks like in addition to reading my Sutras I have some extra bed time reading to do. I can’t guarantee that future posts will be flawless but I’ll do my best to omit the gentle errors with some extra proofreading. As I’ve said earlier in one of my other posts, “nothing is improved without consistent practice and work”.

Sincerely,

Aspiring Grammarian

Dig A Little Deeper

I recently started a new project that made me feel overwhelmed.

The new skills I’ve been trying to learn have been producing, recording, and more specifically, making beats. It didn’t take me very long to realize that I had entered a life time of work. My high expectations for excellence and perfection put me into a slight whirlwind of despair. Great. I am a mid 20s something year old trying to figure out what a high hat is. How am I ever going to get those fantastic beats I am imagining in my mind?

It’s all part of the Journey

This made me think about a yoga sutra I read awhile back that discusses the joy of learning as stepping stones to gain enlightenment. In any sort of of creative endeavor the end product can be seen as samadhi, a higher state of consciousness. But the process of getting there and how one gets there is just as important. The more I learn about little details and how to craft together good beats, awesome melody lines, or discovering new chord progressions, the more I learn about myself and the potential I have. Yoga is described as having dual natures- the existence of the current self and the existence of the self we are striving to be. Practice is about acknowledging the present and working towards a greater and happier future.

Below is a poet by a persian poet Hafiz, a poet who lived in the 12th century. I am always amazed at how modern, and happy, and carefree his poems are. He discusses love, contemplation, dancing, music, and throwing a good party as a way to enjoy life and discover a deeper relationship to God.

An Old Musician

How

Should

Those who know of God

Meet and

Part?

The way

An old musician

Greets his beloved

Instruments

And will take special care

As a great artist always does

To enhance the final note

Of each

Performance.

Ultimately I would like to be a great artist and a good person. This poem helped me remind of the joy that goes into discovering how to create the best performance with special care and great attention. If one focuses only on the end product then things will be lost along the way and will be missing crucial parts of the full package.

Now back to those beats….

The Art of Practice- by Rebekah Olstad

My sister Angelica writes often about the flow of practicing, especially as a classically trained musician and now as a yogi. I’m not a classical pianist and don’t ever plan to be, however like many other artists and creatives I share the need to “practice,” and the need to develop strategies to practice best.

In her undergrad and graduate days studying piano, Angelica would tell me that she had to hole up for hours practicing in the piano rooms, seeing no one except for another piano or music major doing the same thing. That’s what a good pianist does, she would tell me, explaining that practicing eight hours a day was a norm. The need to practice in this way seemed pretty foreign to me, until I wrote a senior thesis last year.

At my alma mater, Hampshire College, our senior thesis work mimics the intensity of graduate programs (albeit on a different scale, as we have one year to complete our work which sometimes includes both the research and the writing.) I researched for my creative non-fiction narrative during the Fall, living in Cuba, and came back in the Spring with few commitments aside from the need to sit down everyday, write, and complete the work. Instead of eight hours at the piano keys I faced eight hours a day on the laptop.

So what happened? For one, I learned experientially that writing is a practice. (Something I had “known” about before, but had never confronted so strongly.) Writing a final work that I could be proud of (and that my professors would pass) didn’t necessarily have a lot to do with creative intelligence, compelling subject matter, or a way with words. I needed all of those things too, however just as importantly I needed to know how to enter the flow of writing. Through the flailing, here are some of the strategies I developed (or wish I had) to finish my work:

Accept that Practice is Practice (Or, a draft is a draft)

It took me quite a while to realize how important this idea was for me to move on with my work. Angelica used to have performance anxiety, and she realized that one way she could address this was to simply perform more. She performed so infrequently and for such high stake events (such as degree recitals recitals at the end of each year) that it was understandable that she would feel overwhelming anxiety on the big day. While I was writing my thesis I wanted every word, every paragraph, every chapter, to be beautiful, compelling, thought provoking, and publication ready. Those are some pretty unrealistic standards that would keep me from writing at all, and I had to learn that practice is practice and a draft is a draft. Looking back, I needed to build more time in to my senior year to have time to “practice” and feel the pressure of the deadline less strongly.

Engage the Body to Engage the Mind

I have to admit that during my thesis I often let myself slip with this one, holing up in the library without making time to exercise. When I came to my senses, though, I would go for a swim  and come back to my work refreshed and more focused.

Accept That There Are Bursts

Routines help us commit to our work and give us the time to truly practice. This is one of my goals currently as I begin the practice of writing again. (I also want to use the idea of the “ready position”  to help me have a productive practicing session.) During my thesis I had to accept, however, that there would be bursts and these were a crucial part of my practicing flow as well. Truthfully these bursts were often instigated by a looming deadline a day or two away, but I found that when I accepted that the work needed to be done I could actually enjoy the process of writing in huge bursts. (Perhaps because I finally had to let my inner censor rest so I could turn something in to my professors.)

What other strategies do you use to enter the flow of practicing? Do you experience bursts as well, and do you consider this to be a helpful or harmful part of your flow? Do you need to remind yourself that “practice is practice”?

 Rebekah (Becca) Olstad is currently based out of Portland, OR where she works at a bilingual preschool as a Spanish Teacher. She pursues her interests in writing, education, travel, and moving outdoors while seeking sun in the Rose City. She blogs about these topics and more at RadishPop

Classical Improvisation

This is really excellent. Improvising in this style is now something of a lost art. Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach were all known for their incredible capabilities to improvise at will.

Bringing it back!

X Marks the Spot

Last week I decided to revisit the Revolutionary Etude by Chopin. About a year ago I had started working on it but gave it up as other projects had come up. I also gave it up because it was hard. My left hand was just not really there yet and it felt like one of those pieces that was causing more harm than good. Fast forward to the present and I now have a much more solid sense of the harmonic language being used and my left hand technique has improved considerably. As I was playing through the piece I made a realization that life is like learning a new piece of music. In music there is a certain point when patterns become familiar, reading the notes becomes easy, and one can play through the piece with little to no effort. If a section is not working you can go back and repeat until it gets better. Like life we get into habits and learn how to go through the motions to finish a task.

Learning written music is in many ways like learning a second language. The notes are there for you to learn and master. I once had a teacher who told me that learning music is like following a treasure map. Follow the music and it will eventually lead you to the treasure that lies between the notes. Like reading a novel there is subtext, emotion, and foreshadowing that gives music fullness, vibrancy, and beauty.

Yoga is very similar to music. There is a system of asanas and breathing techniques that are designed to lead to one thing: higher consciousness. However, unlike music yoga is more about self acceptance. With written music there is the reality of having to learn many notes correctly. The music is completed as is and the goals is to learn every note, every rhythm, dynamic, and then express this treasure through interpretation.

In some ways I have a knack for this type of music learning. I was able to pick up piano after a long absence through a lot of practice and dedication. But I still have problems. I’ve experienced hard sections that never seem to get better no matter what I do or how long I practice. It is hard for me to develop the coordination necessary to match the abstract ideas of sound I have in my head. Talking to other musicians I realize that this is a problem for others as well. So the question is, how do we learn all those damn notes?

I’ve been learning that the answer is actually quite simple, “Take time to stop and smell the roses”.  Often times when I am learning a new piece I get so excited about the end product that I gloss over details; I rush through hard spots, and when I repeat those tricky sections I usually make mistakes. Here’s where the yoga philosophy comes in handy “You are where you are”. Mistakes, bad habits, and other problems are formed over time through haste or desire for quick fixes. The mind is like a record groove. Focus on every moment with care and one is less likely to make mistakes and further cement those mistakes in the brain. Spending time on every moment and enjoying the process of learning and discovering leads to overall success.

I’ve been finding that this mentality to enjoy every moment has been enormously helpful in everyday situations. When I am on the subway commuting I think, this is a great opportunity to get some reading and writing done. When I have to wait in line at the grocery store I think, this is a great opportunity to work on my standing posture. I’ve been finding that this conscious awareness and appreciation for the small things has lead to an overall enjoyment for my life on whole. Instead of focusing on the end project and my narrative I’m enjoying life and actually improving it by being attentive to things in the present. I’m less stressed, I feel healthier, and my skin has been clearer (no joke).

I think that’s a good treasure worth fighting for.

 

Ready, Set, Flow! by Lela Clawson-Miller

There are moments in one’s musical career that can be earth-shattering. Sometimes it takes the rest of our lives to apply these insights, these pivotal moments. Have you ever had this experience? For me, some of my greatest musical moments occurred during private piano lessons.

“Where is the music coming from?” my professor asked me. So many answers to this one question. My hands. My fingers. Go a little deeper. My ears. My mind. Deeper still. My heart. My memory.

“Yes, music comes from all these places, but it must be grounded in something substantial. I want you to try to play this piece from the center of your belly.”

I remember that I was playing Bach’s Allemande from the French Suite in F Major. I had gotten to know this piece pretty well. My fingers knew where to go. My ears were guiding me. I even was beginning to feel the emotional undertones well up inside me. But something was missing. I still felt uneasiness with the piece.

Placing my hands on my belly, I took a deep breath. So this is where the music is coming from? From the center of me? Placing my hands on the keyboard took on a new meaning. I felt a sense of total commitment, trust and opening. I was willing to be a channel. I was allowing the music to flow from me.

Fast-forward four years. I now have the privilege of guiding students through the beautiful landscape of playing the piano. Lately I have been talking with my students about finding their ready position. This must happen before they even touch the keys. I like to relay this concept back to sports. Every sport has a ready position. Sometimes as artists we forget this. We too must remember to ask ourselves, “Where does it come from?” In answering this question we begin to remember why we play music in the first place.

Music sings the melody of our own souls. In choosing to believe that there is a source to our sound, we allow the music to move as us and through us. Connect with this power and never fear it. For once you do, you will find places of inner-strength that you never believed to be possible.

About Lela Clawson-Miller

Lela is a native of Colorado and graduated from the University of Northern Colorado with a degree in Music. She currently teaches piano and serves as an accompanist in the Fort Collins area. Her greatest passions in life are music, yoga, Eastern philosophy, writing, hiking, ballroom dance and sculpture. More blog entrees may be found at http://heartmindspeaks.wordpress.com/.

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