Back in May, I decided to take on the 100 consecutive days of practice challenge. We had been in quarantine mode for about six weeks, and it didn't seem like things were going to change any time soon. So, in the interest of keeping myself accountable to my clarinet (it is my job after all) I hunkered down with a practice journal and got to work. Two hundred days later I'm still going strong, and here is what I've learned.
Like distance running, I ran into a few mental and physical walls along the way. But once I was in that mindset of meeting a goal, not doing the thing was not an option. On some days when I might have convinced myself I needed to take a day off and recover from whatever clarinet-induced discomfort, I had to find a way to be productive without that. Because I pushed through with increased mindfulness of my body I learned a lot about where I hold tension as I play and the musical or postural alignment circumstances that trigger or exacerbate it. My goals for those days became developing strategies for anticipating and counteracting those physical tendencies. If I had taken those days off, it is likely that I would have perpetuated a recurring pattern of unhealthy habits. Instead I am a stronger, more conscious player than I was 200 days ago for having grappled with those physical limitations.
Some days I just didn't feel like playing. All manner of excuses pop into our minds on these days: "I'm tired." "I had a long day at work." "I don't feel good." All of these woes are easily justifiable when we don't want to do something: "I've been working really hard, I deserve a day off." "I can't be productive if I'm not mentally fresh." "I'll feel better if I just lie in bed for a while with a book." But I couldn't indulge in any of these justifications. I made a commitment to myself. When I was mentally fatigued or creatively absent, I found that was a great time to focus on how playing felt rather than how it sounded. I would even play with the television on. Instead of trying to learn new music or make decisions about phrasing, I'd pay attention to how I was breathing and supporting my air in long tones. I'd play scales and experiment with how little pressure I could use in my fingers, and I'd find out how much embouchure tension I could eliminate with better air support. Muscle memory tests to see how much of my audition material I could play by memory with distractions on were also beneficial, and helped me identify passages to spend more time on in my next session when I was feeling more engaged.
While not all 200 days were the most euphoric practice sessions ever (some were!) I learned to meet myself at the mental and physical level I was at each day, using the "off" days to find meaningful ways to accomplish something anyway and focus on aspects of my playing neglected in busier times. These days helped me build consistency, which made possible the awesome days when everything feels and sounds great. Over time the good days happened with increasing frequency, and the stamina I had established got me through many hours of recording with little to no fatigue. I was making it through my excerpt list with much more consistency, and I was able to produce recordings for projects at work with greater precision.
One of the most valuable lessons I have learned over these past 200 days is how much power we have over excuses. Prioritizing those things that are most important to us and consistently showing up for them and for ourselves is incredibly empowering, whether it be practicing, exercise, reading to your kid every day, or remembering to take care of yourself when you're constantly lifting up others. Some of our greatest progress and self-discovery comes from those times when we didn't want to do the thing at all but powered through and made it happen. I can't wait to see what I learn over the next 200 days.
Lilly Haley, D.M.
Lilly Haley, D.M.
Collaboration with colleagues is one of the most crucial aspects of cultivating musicianship, but traditional ensemble rehearsals are nearly impossible to replicate online. This time at home can be an opportunity to look for inspiration outside of the practice space. Researching the work of artists in other mediums is an effective tool for approaching our practice in more creative and rewarding ways.
Arnold Shoenberg, one of the fathers of atonal composition methods, was also an avid painter. He is pictured here with some of his self-portraits. Schoenberg shared a close relationship with painter Wassily Kandisnky, as each found meaning in the other's work that they strove to produce in their own mediums.
Striving to sustain my motivation in the current climate of self-isolation, I thought back to a paper I wrote several years ago comparing a painting by Wassily Kandinsky and Pierre Boulez’s Éclat for orchestra. Looking at the score of Éclat as someone unfamiliar with Boulez’s compositional language, you really don’t even know where to begin. Odd symbols, disparate chunks of music, and performance notes (in French) litter the page, and there is no discernable road map. The element of chance is an important component, so it never sounds the same way twice, making the score even more difficult to follow.
It wasn’t until my music theory professor took the class to the art department for a lecture on Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, two influential abstract painters, that Boulez started to make any sense to me. I started to think about the music in the abstract—in gestures, velocity, and contrast—and considered how those elements could translate visually to Kandinsky’s painting. The relationships between visual space and silence, articulation and use of line, intensity of color saturation and musical dynamics, shape and tempo, all enhanced the effect of both the painting and the composition to the extent that it seemed to me one could not exist independently of the other:
Six black lines run from the bottom left corner to the center of the painting. If the viewer imagines that these lines were not actually lines but a three dimensional shape, they begin to take on the form of a piano, and towards the center the first four lines from the left are cut off by a dark blue shape which looks like the arms of a pianist playing at the low end of the keyboard. This is quite a dramatic angle and viewpoint from which to observe the pianist, and the eyes seem to accelerate down the keyboard and collide with the figure just as Boulez’s opening piano cadenza crescendos and accelerates into Figure 1 where the other instruments begin their trills.
Try encouraging students to explore these types of relationships in their repertoire, or even incorporate some of their own creative outlets into their approach to music making. Inspiration can come from paintings, sculpture, fiber arts, science, photography, cooking, other genres of music, literature, anywhere! I have found these endeavors to be an excellent method of clearing out the musical autopilot areas of my brain and re-engaging them to produce art, not just notes.
This video is a documentary which includes interviews and a performance of Éclat with Boulez coaching the players. At minute 29:00 Boulez discusses inspiration he gleaned from the painter Paul Klee.
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