Tag Archives: practice makes perfect

Running the Recital Marathon

It can be done. (Photo by Paul Sableman)

I’m not a fan of sports metaphors, so you’ll have to excuse this extremely obvious comparison. But I started running recently and spent the weekend seriously contemplating the concept of the Marathon. And during that contemplation, I was surprised to find myself simultaneously reflecting on my experience preparing for my first recital years ago.

After crossing the finish line at the Scarecrow Scamper 5K this Saturday, I was surprised to feel like I could keep running; I have reached some level of endurance that I’ve never experienced in my life. As I wandered over to the water table to grab a drink and a complimentary apple, I ran into a friend who’d also run the 5K. “You should run with us!” she said, referring to “us” as a group of women who meet at ungodly hours of the morning with the goal of running an actual 26.2 in the spring.

This led to a conversation about the Marathon concept itself. I asked her if she’d done one before and what it felt like. I started doing a mental inventory of friends and acquaintances of mine who have completely the feat. And then I started thinking, well, if so-and-so can do it, could I? If 60-year-olds can do it, could I? If the average Joe can do it, could I?

Then I started feeling a sense of dread. If I possibly could do it—if my body were really strong enough and capable of developing the strength and endurance necessary—does it mean that I should do it? I was feeling a very specific sense of fear that I’ve felt before: the fear of one’s own potential.

Recognizing one’s potential is a precursor to taking action. Recognizing potential leads to developing a sense of confidence, courage, and faith that you can accomplish something you have never done before.

“Well, think about it, and if you want to, come join us on Tuesday morning. I’ll send you the schedule. And there’s no pressure to do the marathon—you could just train with us and see how you feel.”

I got an email with the following schedule:

Marathon ScheduleMarathon Schedule 2I remember drawing up a similar schedule when preparing for my first recital. It had a countdown of weeks to the final performance, lessons with my private teacher and accompanist booked on the calendar, a breakdown of what to practice on certain days, and a smaller breakdown of how many hours or minutes to spend on each piece during each of those practice sessions. I knew that without that steady, regular practice, I’d likely crash and burn on performance day. NOTHING can replace a consistent effort when it comes to preparing for a performance, especially when the music is hard and the music is new.

Music takes time to learn. You get to know the notes on the page, the bowings, the fingerings. You start slowly developing muscle memory as your fingers and arms internally program patterns, shifts, and connections. As a bass player, I know that playing my instrument actually requires substantial muscle strength. If I haven’t played in a while my hand and thumb muscles cramp up. My shoulders ache. My back is sore. My triceps feel the weight of the bow. It’s amazing how even exercising outside of playing the bass can help my playing. Yoga does wonders for my back and shoulders, both of which support my form when I play my instrument.

This morning I actually went to run for the first time with the “Marathon Moms,” as I’ll refer to them. I was both encouraged and discouraged. Encouraged that I ran another 5K in distance feeling like I could keep running when I got home, but discouraged by my slow speed and the fact that I’d never run more than 4 miles—how could I do 26.2?

I’m not sure. But I’ll keep training and we’ll just see what happens.

I think that last sentiment is an attitude that many musicians also feel. Like, “Yes, I can play, and I can play pretty well. I’ll keep practicing and keep playing. Maybe someday I’ll play a real formal recital—maybe someday. But for now I’ll learn a few pieces and we’ll see what happens.”

We’ll see what happens. What does that even mean? Who sees what happens? You? The people around you?

I have an opinion—and I’d love your thoughts on this—but I feel that musicians have some obligation to perform for other people. Practice done in secret is great; there are definitely significant benefits to any individual involvement in music. It’s good for the brain, it can be relaxing, it’s an enjoyable experience. What do you think? At what point should (or is “should” the wrong word here?) a musician take their playing ability out of the practice room and into the performance sphere? Is it selfish to keep your talent and musical abilities to yourself?

I’m not really sure.

When I chatted with my husband about the idea of training for the Marathon, he made an interesting comment. “You’d have to be obsessed,” he said. “People who do marathons are kind of obsessive.

“I don’t think so,” I replied. “Like, I play the bass, but I’m not necessarily obsessed with the bass. I did a recital and, yeah, it required a lot of diligent practice, but I wouldn’t say I was obsessed with the idea.” He gave made a face that said, “Okay, I can see that.”

“But,” I said, “I do know a lot of bass players who are TOTALLY obsessed—like all they do is think about the bass and play the bass and talk about the bass and live to practice. But you don’t have to be obsessed like that to give a recital.”

“But if you trained for an actual marathon, it would take a lot of time. Like, it’d be a pretty big time commitment.”

And he’s absolutely right. Not just time to run, but time to think about it. Time to mentally be absorbed by the challenge.

So there you have it. There are so many similarities between the Recital and the Marathon. Both require

  • a plan of attack
  • preparation that begins far in advance
  • a scheduled race/performance day
  • dedication to complete the task
  • TIME to develop strength, endurance, and capability
  • Constantly renewed motivation to pull your instrument out of the case/running shoes out of the closet
  • [ideally] a huge group of fans to cheer you on!

It’s frightening to face your own potential. But if you never face it, never try, you’ll never know. You may be left with regrets. You may be left saying, “I could have done that,” because you never did it. You never opened the door to that possibility. You look back at that door and wonder what was behind it and if it’s still there.

So do you want it enough? Do you want it enough to [note obligatory Nike reference]

JUST DO IT

?

Finishing my first 10K ever! What a strange, exhausting, rewarding feeling.
Finishing my first 10K ever. Yeah!

Healthy Obsessions: Embracing Your Passions Leads to Success

Einstein: Obsessive Physicist

 

The successful theoretical chemist Henry Eyring once said to his son while working on complex mathematical equation, “We were working a problem just like this a week ago. You don’t seem to understand it much better. Isn’t this what you think about all the time?”

As the young man responded negatively, his father asked, “When you walk down the street, when you’re in the shower, when you don’t have to be thinking about anything else, isn’t this what you think about?”

Again, negative. The boy didn’t think about complex mathematics and physics in his spare time. His father, who had hoped all of his children would become successful scientists then said, “Hal, I think you’d better get out of physics. You ought to find something that you love so much that when you don’t have to think about anything, that’s what you think about.”

 

“Obsession”: A Bad Word?

In today’s world, the word “obsession” has been increasingly weighed down with negative connotations. When you think of an obsessed individual, you may picture a boy playing video games 18 hours per day, a woman who has spent $12 million on plastic surgery, or someone who washes their hands 100 times a day. You may view the characteristic of obsessiveness as a psychological disorder worth treating, avoiding, and fearing.

In truth, however, most of the greatest contributions to the society of man have been made by artists, scientists, inventors, mathematicians, writers, entrepreneuers, business professionals, and the like who have achieved greatness as a result of what may be labeled today as “unhealthy obsessive behavior.” The greatest classical composers and performers are those who have given their entire lives to their art. Thousands of hours of passionate thought and practice have led these self-made prodigies to such levels of success.

Einstein: The Passionate Violinist

Practice: Pleasure or Torture?

I remember as a student in my university’s school of music that I struggled to practice my bass three hours a day based on the curriculum requirement. Over time, I began to dread practicing, gazing out the window of my tiny practice room wishing to be anywhere else or doing anything else. Preferably, I would rather be hanging out with my friends, writing (my “other” passion), or playing and writing songs on the guitar.

As I showed up at my weekly lesson with my bass professor, he sensed my weariness and began to probe me with questions, like the scientist had his son. He wanted to find out how passionate I was about playing the bass, if it was something I truly loved to do, and if I dreamed and ate and breathed “bass” all the time.

Practice, of course, isn’t always “fun,” he said, but he wondered if I had the internal direction or desire I’d need to become the player he hoped I’d become. He asked if I loved to practice as much as he did when he was in school, painting a portrait of himself as a young student (with hair back then) who just couldn’t get enough of anything related to the bass. I just didn’t. I expressed to him my conflicting interests in other things, especially writing, and after some thought, he very sadly, but genuinely proposed that I reconsider my choice to major in music, encouraging me to do what I was most passionate about.

Well, I did finish my music degree and still perform classically. But I also endured a fifth year of college to complete an English minor and take as many writing classes as I could. And since I graduated, I admit, I’ve spent much, much more time writing that I have practicing. And while I feel most myself when I’m playing classical music and take every gig I can get, it’s writing that I think about in my spare time, when I shower, and when I walk down the street.

 

Embracing Your Obsessions

The word “obsession” and the word “passion” are practically synonymous. But notice when someone says, “I have a passion for music,” it doesn’t sound like a psychological disorder, but  like a wonderful thing—and it is! In order to become a truly great musician, yes, you have to practice your brains out, but you also have to love it enough to practice your brains out when you could be doing other things. You’ll find yourself practicing and listening to classical music because you truly, deeply, love it to the point of obsession.

Allowing yourself to embrace your passions and be “obsessed” with what you love takes a lot of courage. It means setting aside other activities you may enjoy doing to do what you love doing even more. It means letting yourself be crazy enough to spend hours at a time learning or creating something that thrills you to no end. It means doing something you feel you “shouldn’t” be doing if you were a rational person.

So no matter what you’re passionate about, whether it be your violin, your children, or the novel on your nightstand, don’t be afraid—for once in your life—to be a little obsessed. Live a little. Be a little crazy. You may be surprised to see how far it takes you.