learning is hard – and you control how hard it is

I’ve had some learning to do these past few weeks, and more to come. A large part of being a professional musician is having someone come to you and say “play this”. Now, if you’re supposed to hold your viola like a viol, and bow between your left hand and the scroll, then you just have to learn how to do that. The same goes for doing right hand tremolo with thimbles on your fingers and playing a melody with your left hand. Or playing tuned wine glasses with your bow, or a large tam tam with same. As you may have guessed, all of these techniques are featured in George Crumb’s Black Angels for electric string quartet, which I’m performing with the Pyxis Quartet later this month.

A movement from Crumb’s Black Angels quartet. [click to enlarge]

Now suppose that you’re a perfectionist, and you’re also prone to being down on yourself, and you have major league imposter syndrome (raising hand). That makes the learning process doubly difficult. Because I look at a movement of such a piece, and I think, “I should be able to play this, because I am somewhat accomplished”. I then attempt to play the passage, fall flat on my face, and then say “I suck, I am the worst violist in the world, and everyone else can play this perfectly.” I expect to get from zero to 100 instantly, and that is just not the way the world works! So, after an initial (sometimes extended) period of this idiocy, I stop, take things apart, and work methodically to figure out how to do each technique in each passage. Sometimes this is mind-numbingly slow work. When I was working on John Zorn’s The Alchemist (one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever played) I would spend an hour working on just one or two bars, figuring out just how to choreograph fingers and bow, just so I could get through those bars at barely half of the performance tempo.

The place when the panic really sets in is when I haven’t allowed enough time to prepare before the first rehearsal. Sometimes this is just unavoidable – life intervenes in the best laid practice plans more often than not. I try to tell myself that I’ll work to get as much of it under my fingers as I can, and that the others in my ensemble are likely feeling the same way. Sometimes that’s true, and other times I’m the weakest link in a particular rehearsal. One thing that helps me a lot in these sorts of situations is spending at least as much time doing score study and part marking as I do just learning notes. That way, even if I’m only approximating what’s on the page, I know pretty well what I should be doing, what the other voices should be doing, and how I might fit with those voices.

Excerpt from Black Angels. [click to enlarge]

The main point is that only you know how you learn best, and only you can control how you structure and nurture that learning process. Negative self-talk and impatience only serve to short-circuit the process and lead to a downward spiral of shame and recrimination.

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