30 Days of Violin

Day 5/the past week: I Forgive 

I started a blog that was supposed to be about thirty days of practicing in a row, wrote about three days, and then took a week off. Today I wrote a post about Thursday last week, and now I'm writing about yesterday's practice, and then I'm going to go practice and write about today's practice; I'm not exactly doing what you might call sticking to the plan. It's pretty tempting to say "well, I tried that blog thing, it didn't work either, guess I'm just going to perpetually feel guilty about how I'm not practicing as much as I should." I do feel guilty! I can't help it. My feelings are my feelings and they have a mind of their own. I feel guilty about lots of things: not practicing every day, not answering my emails within 24 hours of receiving them, not calling my mom every day (though I do generally send her pictures of my cat every day, so that has to count for something), nagging my husband about his socks, his dishes, my dishes, the cat's dishes, all while he's trying to write papers and go to school and work.

Did I mention that I feel guilty? Well, I do, and I can't control that. But I can keep the guilt from controlling me. I once heard a wise preacher friend describe forgiveness as "a refusal to let that thing bother you anymore. That refusal might be as simple as flipping a switch, or it might take years of tears and therapy." So, I forgive myself for the past week of not sticking to my practice schedule. I refuse to let it change my behavior. It still feels bad, but I'm going to plow ahead with the rest of these thirty days of practice anyway. (Just as an aside, that's exactly how I've been interacting with the 30 Days of Yoga videos that inspired this series of posts: I've been doing them in order, but I started them in September and am currently on Day 24. Life happens.) So yesterday, as an act of self-forgiveness in the not-letting-it-bother-me-anymore, I got out my violin and played through not only my usual trill, vibrato, and scale warm-ups, but also all of the thirds, sixths, octaves, fingered octaves, and tenths that I did every day at the height of my practice time and motivation. I got hungry before I actually got around to playing any repertoire, but that's not the point. I spent intentional time alone with my violin, and now I'm writing about it. I'm back on this train and I'm not going to let it bother me that I got off of it for a little while.

I do want to be careful that forgiving myself doesn't fall into two common traps that I've observed in both my own behavior and those around me. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, and it does not mean making excuses. I had lots of good reasons for not practicing over the past week. I'm intentionally not going into detail about those reasons, because there are always good reasons not to practice, and the important thing is to find better reasons to practice than to not. I'm also not going to pretend that I didn't not practice, I'm just going to move forward and give myself good reasons to spend time with my violin every day.

Day 4: I Am Supported 

NOTE: I've gotten behind in my posts, but each one is still about a consecutive day's practicing even though I'll be posting more than one reflection per day.

 

I must make another confession. (I seem to be doing that a lot in this blog series.) I didn't practice on Thursday this week, not in the traditional be-in-a-room-by-yourself-for-hours sense. However, I did play in an orchestra concert, the first one I've been in since I finished my Master's degree in June, and I did warm up for that in rehearsal and onstage. I had my violin in my hands, so I saw no reason not to be as mindful about that interaction as I would have been had I been by myself. This is one of the major shifts I'm working on in my mindset towards practicing, that there aren't some situations in which I play my violin that "count" as practicing and others that don't. True, I can't work on solo repertoire in orchestra rehearsal (nor should I try: read my colleague Carmen's thoughts on such questions of etiquette here), but I can work on having a beautiful tone and a beautiful heart, which should really be at the core of any practice efforts anyway. It would be like saying that prayer only "counts" when I'm praying the rosary or writing in a prayer journal on my own, and not in a group prayer or corporate worship situation; I am the first to say that would be a ridiculous attitude, and yet I can't seem to shake it in the context of my violin practice.

So that's what I did in that orchestra concert. I decided that each note I played, whether it was an open string while I was tuning or a repeated eighth note under something flashy the firsts were doing (I was playing second violin), was an opportunity to offer something beautiful to my colleagues and our audience. It was an affirming experience in a way that an individual practice session never could have been: the support of my colleagues and friends in the orchestra, and of my family taking up the entire third row in the audience, was palpable and present while I was doing the work instead of a distant motivator in the future or in another room. I could not only feel their support in the memory of things they had said and done in the past, I could actually see it at work in the same room. 

Now, I'm not suggesting that rehearsals and performances should replace individual practice, any more than corporate worship should replace private prayer. That time spent alone with my instrument is a different kind of support system than the one my friends and family provide; it's a way for "past me" to support "future me" with the skills and confidence to enjoy making music with other people. I am only suggesting, to myself more than anyone, that there are many ways to engage with and benefit from support, both from without and from within.

Day 3: Breathe 

NOTE: I've gotten behind in my posts, but each one is still about a consecutive day's practicing even though I'll be posting more than one reflection per day.

 

Breathing is not strictly necessary for playing the violin.

Insofar as breathing is necessary for remaining alive and conscious, breathing is necessary for playing the violin, but it's not an essential component of tone production the way it is for, say, singing. I have proved this innumerable times over the course of my life as a violinist, simply by forgetting to breathe as a byproduct  of concentration on whatever I'm playing. This unhealthy habit often leads me to become distracted during a performance after realizing that I haven't been breathing and need to. I frequently forget to breathe in practice situations as well, and that certainly doesn't help in performances and also diminishes the length, productivity, and enjoyability of practice sessions.

My yoga practice, on the other hand, explicitly incorporates breathing as a meditation and pacing aid. Each movement of the asana is linked to either an inhalation or exhalation, and while this almost certainly has psychological and spiritual benefits, it also has the practical benefit of making it hard to forget when to breathe. Since this is a useful tool in a yoga context, I decided to see how it would work in a violin context. I also need the metaphorical reminder to stop and breathe this week; Tuesday is normally my day off, but I was romping outside with a young friend of mine so didn't get to sleep in or lounge in my pajamas, plus I have two concerts in addition to my normal teaching load. I only had half an hour alone with my violin on Wednesday. Luckily, I was able to get into St. Luke's Chapel at Dio to spend that half hour; being in a holy space for practice always helps quiet my mind. I went through exactly the same warm-up routine I described on Monday and Tuesday, but this time tried to establish a rhythm of breathing in for every down bow and breathing out for every up bow.

It didn't work.

I remembered to breathe and I remained oxygenated throughout my practice, but it was cumbersome and felt unmusical even when I was practicing long bows on open strings, potentially the most unmusical thing possible to play on the violin. I didn't find it relaxing to link a rhythm of breathing to my playing. So instead, I gave up on technical practice and played the Bourree from Bach's E major Partita. I had fun and took a break from my responsibilities for the week, which in the end was what I had been trying to do, I suppose. Plus I pretended that the piece itself was a living creature with lungs that expanded and contracted with each phrase, which was lots of fun and made me feel almost like I was creating an imaginary friend. I have no idea what this did for my own breathing. I was concentrating on playing the violin. This mantra worked in a metaphorical and spiritual sense, but I will have to readdress the physical issue of breathing another day.

Day 2: I'm Listening 

Let me make a confession. Yesterday, I made a student cry. (One of the things I've been doing in the months that I haven't been practicing much is teaching Suzuki private lessons and group classes.) She was playing Twinkle Twinkle extremely well, and I could tell how much she had been practicing, but I had a theory and wanted to test it so I asked her to close her eyes. She struggled through the first few notes and then started weeping from under her scrunched-up eyelids, which rapidly disintegrated into full-on wailing. She had practiced Twinkle Twinkle and she knew how to play it, but she only knew what it looked like. She didn't actually know what it sounded like. When I asked her to listen instead of look, she didn't know what to do.*

This may sound like a paradox - after all, listening is the primary way that non-musicians experience music - but there are so many things going on while playing an instrument that it's actually surprisingly easy to lose track of what the result of those things sounds like. I am frequently guilty of this bad habit and focus on what I'm seeing, feeling, or emoting instead of what I'm hearing, which means I can't really listen. Several wise teachers have noticed this about me and pointed it out, and I've spent time working against it, but not enough time to break the old habit of not listening and form a new habit of actually paying attention. This is a real problem for a performer. It means that I'm out of touch with the first, and most important, thing that my audience will notice about my performance. It also means that I'm not paying attention to the thing I love most about playing the violin: more than the way it feels, more than the way it smells, I love the music itself (duh!). The violin has amassed an enormous body of repertoire over the past four and a half centuries; it's not all good, but there's enough of it that we can ignore the boring stuff and focus on the good stuff.

In that spirit, today I decided to work on some of the best stuff there is: the Beethoven concerto! My teacher during my Master's degree assigned me the piece after my final recital, knowing that it would push me to listen in the most discerning way possible to what was coming out of my violin. The solo violin part is so exposed and so beautiful that to play it out of tune is a terrible crime. The themes are also basically all scales and arpeggios, so they have the potential to be extremely boring if the phrasing isn't perfect. Besides, I've had the third movement stuck in my head all day, so I had to practice it today. I didn't have to because someone was going to be mad or judge me if I didn't, I had to because I couldn't not. Recognizing that urge is another kind of listening, another one that I'm also unfortunately good at ignoring. So, today I practiced listening - to myself, to my violin, to a call that really is there even if I tell myself I can't hear it.

*Since this blog series is about my personal practice habits and not my pedagogical approach, I won't go into how my student and I fell into this trap (although I am aware that it's an issue in my teaching style that I should address). That discussion, if it happens at all, will take place in a future series of reflections!

Day 1: Intro/I Feel 

Introduction

Hello, friends. I'm embarking on a new project, a challenge to help focus and ground myself in my violin playing and practice, inspired in equal parts by the #100daysofpractice challenge and Yoga with Adriene's 30 Days of Yoga Camp video series (I'm on day 23 - if you want to cultivate a regular home yoga practice, I highly recommend this series!) I haven't done much regular violin practice since I graduated with my Master's of Music in performance last June. I'm told this is a normal thing to happen after graduation, even a healthy one, but that doesn't change the fact that I've been feeling really guilty about how little I've been playing, and the guiltier I feel, the less I want to practice. I needed to find a way to get myself to practice every day in a way that was kind to myself but also motivated me to actually do it (instead of binge-watching Netflix and labeling it self-care - apparently that behavior doesn't end after graduation). So that's where you, my friends and fans and followers, come in: every day for the next thirty days, I'm going to choose a mantra for my practice session to focus my efforts on the process rather than the results, and then I'll post a mini-blog entry about how it went. (I will really try to keep it mini for your sake and mine!) It's my job to practice and write about it, and your job to hold me accountable, and also, should you choose, hold me in your hearts and in your prayers. I hope the next thirty days will be a transformative time in expected, unexpected, and possibly difficult, ways.

Wish me luck!

Day 1: I Feel

Today's mantra is "I Feel." The way playing the violin feels is one of my favorite things about it: the strings vibrating under my fingers, the body of the violin vibrating against my collarbone, the velvety grit of my bow against the string; but also one of my least favorite things about it: the tension in my jaw and neck, the pain in my left shoulder, the out-of-control feeling when my bow skitters around and I didn't mean it to. "I feel" is also, not completely coincidentally, the classic sentence-starter in conflict resolution: "Mr. Violin, I feel guilty when I avoid you, so I keep avoiding you." "Mr. Violin, I feel completely betrayed when that note is out of tune!" The list goes on and on, but that's between Mr. Violin and me. Today is day one of building a healthier relationship for the two of us. 

With this in mind, I stuck pretty much to my normal warm-up and practice routine, but thought about how it related to good physical sensations and positive feelings that come from playing the violin. I started with long, silky bows on open strings - playing my own violin is such a treat after playing students' tiny violins during their lessons! Then I moved on to Tonalization, one of my favorite exercises (more on that tomorrow), and then some trill and vibrato exercises (with a metronome, of course!) that were probably painful for my neighbors and my cat to listen to but honestly felt so good that I didn't care. My left-hand fingers felt strong, supple, and sure of where they were supposed to go. Next I moved on to Carl Flesch. Say what you will about scales and double stops, but I've been using some variant of the scale routines in the Flesch book nearly every time I practice for the past fifteen years and it's such a comforting thing now. It's like a litany, or a mantra, or an asana, or any other repetitive and potentially boring practice that if used effectively can lead to deep peace and creative thinking. I felt each finger pad in contact with the string, stopping it enough to change the pitch but not so much that the sound was deadened. I felt my bow losing its grip and sliding away from the contact point I wanted, I felt myself getting frustrated, and I felt my left shoulder and thumb tightening up in response. So I put my violin down, stretched, checked Facebook, and made a cup of tea. If I have to "power through" my practicing, what's the point? I'm not in school anymore. I don't have a lesson tomorrow or the next day, I don't have a recital next week, I don't even have friends peering through my practice room window to see whether I'm staying on track and feeling smugly superior if I'm not (honestly, I do miss this source of motivation a little). If my practice isn't serving my needs, both as a violinist and a person, then it isn't serving anyone. So I feel like I can, for the first time in my nineteen years of playing, take tea or stretch or cat-petting breaks from practice knowing that that is actually the best thing I can do for my playing in that moment. I feel less guilty now about taking four months off practicing. 

Also, full disclosure: I haven't actually finished practicing yet, because this blog post was burning to be written after my meditative scale practice. But now I'm burning to get back to my violin, so I guess, in conclusion for today: I feel inspired.