Recital Notes – A Fine Example of Living

My daughter had a violin recital this past weekend. She has studied the violin for two years. Thank you, your sympathy is gratefully accepted. I am happy to announce that we ARE definitively reaching the stage where some music is happening and it is not always challenging to listen to. Bless her.

concert-music-musical-instrument-111287The violin is a tough instrument. It is exacting in terms of your finger placement – just the slightest bit off and you’re off pitch. It is demanding in terms of your bow action – this is the reason for the screechy scratching sound that so many young students demonstrate for so long. It is also tough because it doesn’t get a lot of play in popular music (Thank you Lindsay Sterling for bucking the tide), so it is difficult to “play” with in the ways that students of piano and guitar might do. The violin is the instrument that the family studies together because it is loud and takes substantial time to gain even enough mastery simply not to offend others. Am I laying it on a little thick? I am LOVE with the fact that my daughter plays this incredibly difficult instrument. I chose the easy ones and gave up on the violin in a few months as an adult. She really does seem to love it. My swooning over that fact makes the test of endurance possible.

Back to the recital. If you don’t have a child, niece, nephew, beloved neighbor for whom you’ve attended a recital, I would recommend that you seek one of these students out. Recitals are a wonderful way to experience some music, but also to see young people striving, learning, and growing. It can be really touching.

I’ve shared observations from my son’s piano recital and the community that exists in these events here and all of those same things are true in the strings community. I do have some fresh observations from this weekend’s event that I’d like to share.

  1. The Impact of Fear Diminishes with Experience. The biggest difference between the younger students and the older students was not just skill and difficulty of music as I expected, but the ability to perform without looking like you are going to vomit at any minute. My poor baby (who is 11 and still on the young side of this crowd) cracked nary a grin and really was kind of green by the time she was done, despite playing her piece better than she ever has. An older student complimented her playing and then asked if she was okay “because you looked like you were going to puke.” He was actually quite kind, and given the caliber of his performance, his compliment counted double.
  2. You Get to Decide How to Continue from Here. Accompanists always follow. When you are playing with one and you freeze or forget your part or foul up, they will wait. You get to decide how to proceed – whether you march forward or back up. Your accompanist will find you and help pave that road.
  3. Work and Artistry are Both Needed. When playing the strings it seems to me that one hand chops wood, the other turns it into art. The bow hand and arm moves almost constantly, for more advanced players that movement is fluid and doesn’t even necessarily seem to reflect the rhythm of what they are doing. The hand on the fretboard determines what the notes, and the quality of those notes will be. I know there’s a lot more nuance to this analysis, but this is how it struck me on this day. One hand chopping wood, the other carving the statue. It is critical to remember which hand is doing what AND to recognize that both must be done well for success.
  4. Doing It for Yourself. The performers that were the most enjoyable to watch barely seemed to notice the audience after their required entrance bow. They commanded the stage and the space naturally by doing THEIR thing. They allowed themselves to dive in and just play the music AND to experience the moment.
  5. Your Body is Part of Every Experience. Music is meant to be embodied. With experience and a growing comfort level, these students were able to leave the standing as a statue in an approximation of perfect string playing stance into one that allowed for a little more flow, a little more interaction, as thought the whole body was part of the production of sound.
  6. Creating Something Amazing Requires Leaving Worries Behind. No one is troubled by the wardrobe malfunction of a 17 year old violin phenom. One young woman’s blouse became slightly more revealing (not insanely so, but she noticed it and had a moment of concern) when she donned her instrument and began to play. Nobody reacted. We all just listened. No one would want to risk interrupting the amazing thing that was happening. I just wasn’t important in the face of what she was creating.

achievement-adventure-brave-6629I admit that I thought that attending these events would be hard, and it is at times. It is a long to sit still for those of us who are not native sit stillers. But the joy in it for me is ALL of the things that are going on: all of the music, all of the learning, all of the growth, all of the opportunities to watch young people being afraid and doing it anyway. What a fine example of living.

The Earth is Slippery: Aztec Wisdom… Yeah, You Heard That Right

A few weeks ago, on our annual nerdy vacation at The Chautauqua Institution, we got to hear some really great lectures. Well, we always hear really great lectures, but this year I was paying extra special attention. I even took notes – yeah, I was serious about the nerdy vacation comment. As the weeks have gone by since we were there, it’s been interesting to see which ideas have really stuck with me. Some lectures seemed really great when they were delivered, but didn’t really have any staying power; others seemed kind of so-so when I was listening, but took root. One of the ideas I heard was both – it struck me at the time and it keeps coming back because I find it just so darned useful.

The speaker was Sebastian Purcell, a professor of philosophy at the State University of New York (SUNY) Cortland. His presentation was on Aztec philosophy as a a guide for happiness in the modern world. I admit I was skeptical, because the idea of looking to the Aztecs for guidance on happiness didn’t really fit with my limited understanding of Aztec culture. So I guess I was ripe for the picking. The idea that got me was this one: The earth is slippery.

You’re like, really? That’s the big idea? That the earth is slippery? And what the hell does that mean anyway? What?

Slide1Yeah. That’s it. It was a core part of the Aztec worldview to believe that the world is slippery, which means we will fall down. We will make mistakes. Things happen that are out of control that will push us over. Bad stuff happens, and sometimes its our own fault, and sometimes it’s not. The earth is slippery. We can only take so many steps without risking a fall every now and then. Can you see where we’re going here? Professor Purcell pointed out that this idea meant that bad or unpleasant things that happen can often be chalked up to error rather than a lack of reason. In other words, sometimes stuff just happens and everyone makes mistakes no matter how hard they try, no matter how good their intentions, no matter how right their purpose.

Is this revolutionary? Well no, if we’re focused on the messages we explicitly give our children when they are hurting because they’ve messed up and we’re trying to comfort them, but ALL of the OTHER messages (that we give them AND ourselves) are pretty different aren’t they? The messages we send and receive say that the world is drowning in opportunity, that all you need to do is work hard enough (well, and harder than the person next to you), and you will succeed. This very American dreamy message is complicated. There’s an element to this lesson on perseverance that I am TOTALLY down with. Pursuing your thing doggedly is the best way to “succeed” at it – whatever “succeed” means. There’s also a dark side to our failure to really embrace the idea that the earth is slippery.

The dark side of not embracing the slipperiness of earth is that when things go awry, it is all our fault. When things don’t pan out, we are flawed. When we’re not achieving what we want, we need to reexamine everything from our actions to the very foundation of the dream itself. These are all versions of the big one, the giant yuck, the grandaddy of all self-abuse: when bad things happen, I deserve them because I’m not good enough. If the earth is not slippery, we fall because we are clumsy, careless, lazy. If the earth is not slippery, we fail because we are not determined, because we aren’t smart enough, because we are unworthy. If the earth is not slippery, our blame can only be placed on ourselves.

Slide2There are times we are at fault. There are times other people make things hard for us. There are times our institutions fail us. There are times when bad things happen that have nothing to do with our worth. There are times when things don’t work out. There are times when the earth is slippery. If we can just acknowledge that, we can get on with the business of our recovery, our work around, our new approach, our get back up and try again without the full on inquisition of our souls. Sometimes we fall because the earth is slippery.