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.

what’s wrong with students these days?

It’s pretty amazing, really. I’ve been looking at the Facebook pages of my friends who teach. They teach regular school classes in public and private schools. They teach music classes in university settings. They teach music lessons privately in their own homes, at all different levels of student advancement. And they’re all complaining about their students. The common themes are inattentiveness, a sense of self-entitlement, lack of focus, no will power, no setting of goals for one’s self, lack of humility, and not studying/practicing. For sure, these problems were endemic from the days that Plato first set quill to papyrus, but there seems to be a growing chorus about the poor quality of people that are comprising these up and coming generations. So it was nice to read this quote from an interview with the hot cellist-of-the-moment Alisa Weilerstein:

“Of course like any kid I had many days when I didn’t feel like practicing. But what (my parents) told me was, ‘Well, this is what you want to do, you’re only hurting yourself if you don’t practice.’ In a way I made it easy for them because I was absolutely sure from the very beginning that I wanted to be a musician. I never wavered from that, not even in my teenage years at all, I was completely sure. So I knew deep down that even on days that I didn’t want to practice that I really was only hurting myself.”

Don’t kids these days want anything? Besides looking like and/or owning stuff like the evil and insufferable Kardashian spawn? When I set out to play something (and this goes way back to when I was first studying the violin, back in the dark ages), I want to sound good. I want to at least not make a fool out of myself and be humiliated in public. That’s the bare minimum. On top of that, I love music, and want to honor the work of the composer and present it as close to her conception of the piece as is possible given my current level of skill and expertise.

I know that I’m better than some violists, and I also know that there are many others who are far better than I am. That’s where humility comes in. I play in a very good orchestra. There are other orchestras that are quite a bit better on a regular basis – and I need to be cognizant of that fact. I’m not God’s gift to the viola, and my orchestra isn’t the Berlin Philharmonic. I (and we) are just doing the best we can and always striving to do better.

Got any thoughts on your students and what their attitudes are towards studying?

on excellence

There is a time (perhaps several times) in a musician’s life when he worries about whether he can sustain a suitably high level of performance. If one has an orchestral job, there are standards to be met, of course, but if you’re part of the string section ‘herd’, then it’s possible to slip quite a bit before you really catch yourself noticing it.

I’ve entered that phase where nothing can be taken for granted, technically speaking. I may be confident of a mature musical sense, but when the fingers and bow arm don’t necessarily answer the call, it can be disconcerting, indeed.

What makes this such a troubling thing for a professional musician is that I am pretty relentless in my self-criticism. If my colleagues are thinking “Charles is starting to lose his edge”, then imagine what I’m thinking!

We musicians are trained from our first lessons (if we had good teachers) to constantly strive to improve our playing every time we pick up our instruments. It becomes an obsession to realize that internal standard that we hear in our heads, that’s an amalgam of every great instrumentalist and singer we’ve ever heard, all wrapped into the single greatest [insert instrument played] ever. That’s what we want to achieve. What we get often falls far short of this. Is it any wonder that many musicians are neurotic and crazed most of the time?

If I could construct my ideal violist, they would have Michael Tree’s sound, Roberto Diaz’s intensity, Yuri Bashmet’s derring-do, and Tabea Zimmerman’s laser focus. There are many other violists who have other attributes that come from my inner ear’s sense of how a piece of music should go, but these are my top four, in general terms.

This leads to another problem that often dogs musicians from the point that they start to get really focused and intense in their study of the instrument, and for years after. It becomes very difficult, in the face of these overwhelming internal ideals, to actually differentiate them from what is actually coming out of one’s own instrument.

I’ve told many a student over the years that they needed to make a big crescendo over a particular phrase, say from ‘pp’ to ‘ff’. They would play something that very much sounded like ‘mf’ to ‘f’. I would again urge them to make a bigger crescendo, starting at a softer dynamic level. They might make larger movements of their body while playing the passage, but again, no major improvement. Then I would demonstrate what was coming out. A blank look would ensue. “That is what you are doing” I’d say. “Now, make a huge crescendo – one so huge that you feel like you’re barely touching the string at the beginning, going to where you feel like you’re going to saw your instrument in two at the end”. Then, and only then, would they really start to hear what they were playing, not what they were hearing in their head.

So, improving is always a constant struggle.

More thoughts on this subject coming soon.