Making it New Every Time: Redefining Practicing, Part 4

Buddhists speak often of “beginner’s mind” and how refreshing it can be to one’s practice. I say it’s just as true for music as it is for Zen.

Say you’ve pounded out that sonata for hours and hours until your skull is literally ringing with it; you’ve stretched your vocal cords to a yoga-like level of dexterity on that Mozart aria; your embouchure is dangerously near collapse, and even though the notes are all blurring on the page, you’ve darn-near memorized every single one of them.

But more than all of this, you come to this familiar piece of music with a mixture of thoughts that sound a bit like this in your head:

“Ok, here we go again.”

“Gotta really get that high B flat this time.”

“Oh, THIS part.”

“I bet I can do those runs in my sleep by now.”

“Here’s that tricky bit.”

“Lord Almighty, what was the composer thinking?”

“I think I’ll just skip the repeats this time.”

“Hey, I wonder what’s on The Simpsons tonight?”

And by the time you get to thinking of The Simpsons, you’re already on the tenth bar of your piece. And you’re rushing the tempo just a hair. And whatever muscles you employ to make sounds are running on autopilot, like a bespectacled secretary at a typewriter.

And then you screw up, darn it! NOW your brain turns on the searchlight, and you have to regroup….

Is it a matter of focus? Just not enough concentration? That’s what it seems to be, you say, and you go back to a comfortable starting spot in the music, and rinse and repeat.

But what about this: What if you are concentrating too hard?


Think about it: When this piece was brand new to you–better yet, when your entire music PRACTICE was new to you–the canvas of your mind was empty. Anything was possible. The only thing there was to discover and learn was EVERYTHING. There’s a delicious feeling that comes when you’re faced with the start of a new adventure in any skill. When you bring nothing with you and have everything before you… What’s out there? You take your first step forward, feel your way through the first few notes; and you may trip over yourself, but you forgive yourself for that–it’s so much easier to do in the beginning process, isn’t it?–and you keep on discovering more and more of the Everything that’s put before you.

That’s beginner’s mind.

Now, the real challenge is to cultivate this mindset every time you come to this same piece. Actually, it’s not so much a “cultivation” as it is a clearing out, which comes with constant…practice. And when you do this, notice the improvement in your performance: Do you sing or play with more fluidity and mastery? Do you recover faster and easier from slip-ups? Do you enjoy yourself more, and do your listeners feel that?

Music practice is not just about practicing the music, but being in practice with an attitude, a mode of integrity, a way of life. It all comes out in the performance, whether we intend it or not. I remember when Yo-Yo Ma visited Bowling Green State years ago and had a masterclass with the cello students. He emphasized to them the importance of connecting with individual audience members during performance–play to this person, now to that person. And when I saw the man himself play in concert, oh boy–there was no wall between him and anybody in the audience. It was like the music was a spontaneous conversation; he was constantly making it new. At the afterglow, he had that same openness and freshness with people in conversation–you could not but love the man upon meeting him. His mode of being on stage was evident everywhere else in his life.

And so that practice never stops, even after a whiz-bang, killing-it performance. The Buddha said that in order to achieve Enlightenment, he chopped wood and carried water. After his Enlightenment? He chopped wood and carried water. That’s being in practice.

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