In her recent lesson with me, Alice, a flautist in her late 40’s, with much frustration in her voice, complained
I feel as if I am having to start all over again this week in my playing. It’s driving me insane!
You see, recently we had slightly moved her embouchure so that she was able to make a more resonant sound in the long-term. This had left her feeling unsettled because her flute playing was suddenly unfamiliar. Though a temporary state, her tone felt messy and irritating– she wanted to hear perfection and it just wasn’t happening fast enough in her opinion.
Skip ahead a day or two and I then had an email from my other student, a flute teacher named Benny, also in his 40’s. He couldn’t have been more opposite than Alice in his observations about his practice:
I very rarely ever get frustrated with my playing, however rancid it may be. I tend to laugh and think ‘well, that was a load of poo. Perhaps it will be less poo next time!
For Benny, it would seem that a day struggling in his flute playing is no more stressful than say, having an annoying hair day. He acknowledges it’s there, rolls with it, and holds out that tomorrow things will probably be different.
The observations from both Alice and Benny about their practice sessions exemplify the nature of artistic duality in learning an instrument. Momentary periods of unhappiness (or oppositely, joy when things are going well) will most likely happen every time you play in some way or another.
Case in point: how many times have you experienced frustration when you are having a day where something is not clicking in your practice?
Last week I swear I could make my piano notes softer than today so what’s wrong with me?
But I thought I had this tricky passage under my fingers?
Why is my tone so fuzzy this morning? Should I just melt my flute into silver jewellery and quit this madness?
Or oppositely, how about when all your hard work seems to finally be clicking into place?
Gosh, I am having such clean articulation right now I could be hired in place of Pahud!
My fingers nailed that passage, by golly I think I‘ve finally got it! Yeeeess!!
My tone today is gorgeous. I’d better remember what I am doing to make it like this tomorrow.
Embracing this temporary duality in our playing– where some days things click and sometimes not at all—is something that we need to be more willing to embrace. Don’t get me wrong here, it’s taken years for me personally to come to terms with the idea that every sound I create is only fleeting. To put it simply– while today I might sound on-top-of-the world fantastic tomorrow I could have to accept that something in my playing might sound no better than if I were playing a PVC pipe.
Of course, to have more accuracy in our playing so we aren’t falling apart in the same way all the time is why we practice in the first place. But, despite how many practice hours we log, as Alice reminds us, this temporality is one of the most frustrating aspects of being a musician. While this might sound obvious, it is not how we are conditioned to believe our practice should take shape. There is a belief that what you were doing yesterday (or even last month) should easily be on tap, always waiting to be musically recreated just as it was when you left it.
This herculean task reminds me of Joni Mitchell’s famous live speech recorded on her 1974 album ‘Miles of Aisles’. Here she vents her frustration about this same expectation from her fans:
“That’s one thing that’s always, like, been a difference between, like, the performing arts, and being a painter, you know. A painter does a painting, and he paints it, and that’s it, you know. He has the joy of creating it, it hangs on a wall, and somebody buys it, and maybe somebody buys it again, or maybe nobody buys it and it sits up in a loft somewhere until he dies. But he never, you know, nobody ever, nobody ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint a Starry Night again, man!’ You know? He painted it and that was it.”
While we have can hope that our music should sound like an improved copy of what we played last week with no backwards steps, I believe this pursuit brings much unhappiness and frustration into our musical experiences. Instead I think that it’s better to think that nothing will ever be completely resolved in your playing–but perhaps, nor should we want it to be.
This philosophy is not so dissimilar to the Buddhist thought that life (and hence our music-making, too) is a series of things falling apart and then coming back together again. The Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön writes:
We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
What I love about this philosophy is that the falling apart moments in our practice could be an unexpected catalyst for exploring different ways of being with our instrument more than the times everything actually clicks into place. The falling apart moments are the times when we reach for something superior to try in that moment: a new technique, a new sound, a new colour, a new tempo, a new breath choice. When things finally do come together again, it’s always in a way that is unexpected and not at all like you might have dreamt. Something new will arise from the rubble of your playing. Perhaps it will be better. Perhaps not.
Maybe today you’re in a place where you feel as if parts of your playing are falling apart. Maybe it was last month, Maybe it was yesterday. The thing I know for sure is this: Keep showing up to your work regardless and the magic will eventually return. Hold out. Keep steady. Stop the ‘shoulds’. Rest and take a break to seek pleasure in non-musical things. Have faith. Things will come together again.
So, what happened to my two students mentioned above? For now, at least, Alice has sorted out her tone, its sounding lovely and resonant these days– more sparkly than she had imagined it could be. Benny is still not worried if he sounds like poo in his practice, and with dedicated work on his technique will certainly be having more days where it’s not.
Of course, tomorrow this might not be the case and they might be back to square one, ground zero. But I don’t think that is something to lament, but to be openly celebrated.
Many thanks to Mystic Mama for the gorgeous photos used above.