Practicing Practice ticing ing Prctcng aii PRACTicing pracTICING
As a child I was lucky to have teachers and parents who cared enough to notice my intellectual and personal strengths and weaknesses. I will never forget the short rhymed sentence written in beautiful calligraphy that each of us students received in third grade around Christmas time. Mine read: “Rebecca brings a poem each day and so the spelling words are here to stay”. At the time I was captured often by poetic inspiration while in class and would be asked to recite aloud my new composition. But my spelling was borderline. As the little verse indicates, the challenge for me was and has always been, moving beyond that fire of initial inspiration to the work of editing and refining, systematic and careful work that develops natural abilities to a higher level.
While my love for the stage and my precocious emotional depth made the cello an obvious expression for my creative talent, the fact that progressing on a musical instrument required all those skills and abilities that I lacked in my personality and work must have been the reason that I kept returning for more. The act of practicing shaped and defined my personality and my life, contributing a set of skills that I was not born with. While still sometimes a crucible for my impatience and wandering mind, if once I was martyred by my art, now I feel it stands at the center of my well being. The beautiful focused time slowly earned my love, with a million moments of total emptiness and peace, puzzles and miniscule details unwound and broken down then put together more whole than before. My thoughts slowly changed over time from primarily ones of frustration and overwhelm, to curiosity and gratitude for the endless journey of musicianship. Always in the center of my life has been a still core that holds all the loose ends of my world together. My hands moving over the instrument provide a point of reference, a center of the universe, a backdrop for all scenes, countries, mental and physical states of being, seasons and hours. As a teenager in a large and loud family, I could retreat to my room to discover Bach. In the dizzy aftershock of arriving in Bangkok after days of travel, I savored the feel of the humidity soaked steel strings under my hands. I have played with a fever, a migraine, after discovering my sister in law had breast cancer, after a fight with my husband, a ten mile hike, at a friends funeral, five weddings, for my dying grandfather and numerous babies.
This last year as a full time professor, I learned about short segments of efficient and spot practicing between lessons and meetings, often while exhausted, and with little mental energy. This was one point of reference that told me my life needed to change. Lately I have been discovering the other end of the spectrum; long hours of luxurious musical exploration between expeditions to go strawberry picking, or hiking to waterfalls plunging down verdant mountainsides. Ahhh, New England in the summer! Memorizing my music, each small phrase at a time, I find my ears are listening to details I never noticed before. I carve out a phrase numerous times, repeat a shift, discover a particularly luminous sound, and suddenly another hour has passed. I ambitiously told myself that I would work up to six hours of practicing in order to build up the mental and physical stamina needed to record my album, believing that this would be a tedious struggle to achieve, but I have begun to discover that after enough hours the mind stops wandering all over the map and begins to be totally fascinated by the task at hand. By hour five fifteen minutes passes in a moment. As I have found with regular exercise, the mind and body begin to crave what they are used to, and suddenly any less than 4-6 hours feels strange and unfulfilling.
It is hard to sense how much progress I am making. I am reaching the concrete daily and weekly goals set, but more importantly, I feel the music slipping deeper and deeper into my visceral experience, and it is becoming akin to walking a well-worn path through various landscapes, eyes closed, bare feet. Each day I remove more stones out of the way, cut back branches, shovel the snow. And each day there is a little less to tend to, though there are always those spider webs that reappear between branches. But still, it is hard to tell. I am too busy becoming acquainted with each and every inch of this landscape to really be bothered with the idea of progress.
On the other hand, I do have the daily visitation of a phantom microphone haunting my practice sessions. It helps me to remain honest in my intonation and sound. Next week this will be more than imagination when I pull out my little zoom recorder and get a birds eye view of my pieces. Meanwhile, I will keep moving down this meditative path we call practicing, with a capacity for patience and care that has taken me 20 years of practicing to develop.