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This Beautiful Kind of Madness

September 16, 2013

When I first met mDSCN2026y wife I told her that I practiced my pieces until I could do them ten times in a row without errors. Later, when we had been living together for a couple of years she overheard me tell someone at a party that I did them 25 times in a row. She asked about the discrepancy and I told her that to own up to the full amount of work I do at such an early stage of our relationship would have scared her off.  It is a peculiar compulsive behavior this being a musician.

Learning a piece of music means converting a complex task into an easy one because easy tasks are performed better in stressful situations.  As we learn our body relaxes a little and uses less energy. There is an old Confucian story about the master chef who used his knife so well that he never needed to sharpen it. As we move we make a “sensorimotor map” – we internalize all of the muscle movements and resistance needed to make a new movement. With repetition, this model becomes more detailed and the movements more refined. As our skill grows the amount of movement decreases.

This work continues to take place even after one reaches a stable point of learning. Once the movements are set – we continue to grow if we are attentive. This is a little bit like the 80-20 rule where the final twenty percent of work takes eighty percent of the time. As we continue to mindfully go through the motions, we decrease the amount of metabolic power needed to complete the task. This is something we can feel from the inside but may not be observable to the outside eye. I remember a t’ai chi teacher telling me not to copy his movements – but to follow his instructions – because his movements were too subtle to observe.

In decreasing the amount of energy and brainpower used to perform a task, we free up capacity that we can use to infuse the music with feeling. Practice is about thinking while performing is about feeling. If the amount of energy needed is toDSCN2027o great, the stressful situation inhibits our letting go, and we stumble. The work we must do is enormous and most of it happens after we can play the piece at a reasonable level.

Some of these ideas come from the following piece:

One day the Nasrudin invited his friends over for dinner for a meal with roasted quails. When the quails were cooked, Nasrudin placed them in his old, big, tin serving platter and put the lid on to prevent them from getting cold. He brought the covered platter to the dinner table and went back to the kitchen to bring other things. While he was in the kitchen, his guests replaced the platter with another one that contained live quails.

When Nasrudin was ready to serve the dinner, he opened the lid of the platter and the quails flew out and about. Watching the birds in astonishment, he said looking up `Merciful Creator, it is very well that you gave life to these cooked birds, but how are you going to reimburse me for the butter, salt and tomato paste I used?’


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  1. Great entry William. Inspiring, it makes me want to practice more.

  2. so happy alan – was reading that article on “over-preparing” and it felt like soometing i have been trying to teach…

  3. I’m waiting for you to tell me that you actually play each piece through 50 times… I really enjoyed reading this entry and it gave me lots to think about

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