Happiness is…

September 30, 2009

Today I had one of those moments that reaffirmed my totally irrational love of trying to teach kids to play the violin. It only lasted a few minutes, but it didn’t matter. It happened after the last several days of my thinking about how I could expand the sound repertoire of my students’ musical environment, to expand their awareness of how sound can be big and expressive, or subtle and atmospheric. I was thinking about how much the piano had contributed to my overall knowledge of sound and musical style, since I was playing 20th century composers before the age of 10 (like a piece called “Pink” – as in, the color), and had experienced many different moods, tempos, textures, rhythms, and structures in my piano music at an early age. On violin, most of the early work is technical, because it requires both left and right hands to produce any given sound. Violin music is mainly melody, until the point where you reach enough technical mastery to actually express something more complex emotionally. (I was 9 years old and in a master class with Josef Gingold playing Saint-Saens Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. Mr. Gingold asked me if I knew what the word melancolico meant, which was marked by the composer at the opening of the piece. I said, “Sad?” He said, “I hope you don’t really know how to play that way at your age.”) Violinists often rely on other instruments to provide texture, harmony, and depth. Many years and hours are spent perfecting the production of a focused pitch and tone. Only then can you begin to embark on the journey of layering tones and textures through fancy bowstrokes and acrobatic left hand maneuvers.

From the age of three, I always studied both piano and violin in parallel, taking for granted that so much of my childhood universe was spent in a state of deep listening to sound and music. Several weeks ago I began a year-long immersion course in the use of sound, voice, and music in healing. I can’t begin to describe it fully in words, but it has opened me up to the direct experience of sound through listening. I realize that so much of what we call “listening” is not that at all. It’s deciphering and decoding, labeling or waiting to talk, enduring, or filtering, or manipulating.

But listening is actually a process of going inward, to the deep place of silence within each of us. When we have truly listened, we have internalized something from what we have heard. If we have truly listened, then we will have felt the effect of sound throughout our entire being.

When we go to a concert, we are not “listening” any more than we “listen” to a movie at the theater. Concerts are a display of human competence, and if we’re lucky, we might walk out feeling some  emotional effect other than the ringing in our ears. But that effect depends on so much beyond the sound. We’re bombarded with images, lighting, rituals that are specific to the concert venue, and then the language of the musical style presented. Classical music is becoming so distant from our cultural mainstream that most people feel they need to learn how to listen to it. There’s some truth to this, which has led to a much-needed trend of classical performers’ addressing audiences using words, before or after their concerts. Not only does this lend a humanity to the people “doing” the music, but it provides the listeners with a bridge toward understanding what they are hearing.

As my experience of listening and sound evolves over the year, I will undoubtedly have more to share about what I learn.

But now back to that moment from teaching today. Read the rest of this entry »


A visit with an old friend

September 17, 2009

Last night I sat down at the piano in my studio for the first time in a long time. My mom likes to remind me that I studied piano for more years than I did violin, and it contributed as much if not more to my overall music appreciation. She’s right (grumble). But I never found that same connection to teaching piano or the community of playing piano as I did with violin.

I had two different piano teachers in my life. Both of them are now deceased. Mr. Leviton started me at age 3 and took me through age 13 or so. And then the last three years of high school I moved on to Dr. Isaak, at Northwestern University. He was the one who thought I was absolutely NUTS for not continuing to study music in college. He said I was already at the level of a typical Master’s Degree student at Northwestern! I simply ignored this, or dismissed it as the rantings of someone as lunatic as you must need to be in order to become a professor of piano.

In retrospect, I missed out on some great learning by not being open to him at the time. Read the rest of this entry »

Deliberate practice…it is what you think

March 23, 2009

Last week’s Wall Street Journal ran this article on the realities of really practicing golf (or any discipline – the article mentions music, chess, sports, science, and business management). “Deliberate practice” refers to a repetitive training regimen involving both mental and physical demands (even if the movements are largely physical), and specific feedback, usually from an expert mentor, to guide the training.

From the article:

The bad news is that deliberate practice is very hard, and usually unpleasant. “It has to be. Otherwise everyone would be an expert,” said Mr. Colvin, a Fortune magazine columnist [and author of the book Talent Is Overrated]….

For golfers, this can be a buzz killer. Take what for most of us comprises the bulk of our practice: hitting balls at the range. Mr. Colvin, a lifelong golfer, narrates a typical range session as a way of conveying exactly what deliberate practice is not. We drag over one ball after another and hit, with no plan and no particular goal. We may vaguely aim at targets but we don’t closely monitor the results or otherwise seek meaningful feedback. Our minds wander. Most fatally, we often find the experience pleasurable and relaxing.

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” said Mr. Colvin. “But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that when we hit balls this way we’re accomplishing anything at all.”

Effective deliberate practice is about committing yourself mentally during the time when you are practicing. How often do we “go through the motions”, just hoping that by showing up and “getting through” the practice session, we will automatically improve?

Yes, showing up is the FIRST step. It is a very important step. But it is not enough for development of mastery.

This might be OK with you. You might be happy with the way your golf game is (or with whatever you are trying to practice). But the question we should ask ourselves is, “In what area of my life will I choose deliberate practice in order to improve my experience and mastery of it?”

What will you choose?