Part of the change in my relationship to music is a growing knowledge of the physicality of musical expression. The awakening of my senses and a growing awareness of my mortality has definitely deepened my appreciation of music even as it has heightened my sensitivity to the aches and pains felt when I practice—aches and pains I could more easily ignore when I was younger.
And indeed, music is an extraordinarily physical art. Commonly, musicians spend more time doing exercises or working through sticky passages than they do performing or even playing whole pieces. As I discovered when I was fourteen, this process is neither aesthetically nor intellectually stimulating. It is generally just boring and repetitive. And yet practice is the means through which an artist grows in his or her ability to participate fully and find meaning in artistic expression. Playing the violin, I develop a relationship with my instrument—my hands, arms, neck, fingers become an extension of the instrument and the instrument a vehicle of expression intimately melded with my body. My shoulders, arms and hands “know” my instrument in an almost unconscious way. And this physical knowledge of the instrument, along with the physical basis in technique—acquired through years of scales, arpeggios, and bowing exercises—have a deeply subtle relationship to my knowledge of the music. Being able to play a difficult passage correctly, of course, is not the same thing as being able to interpret it. But the two are caught up with each other and grow on each other.
Though practicing is boring and repetitive, I learn a great deal about myself while doing it. Some time ago Susan, my teacher, noticed that my bow arm was stiff. I was tensing up while I played, she said. This awkwardness was extremely difficult to fix because it had been relegated to habit and was an automatic and largely unconscious response. But it proved extremely rewarding to work on it. As I practiced, I discovered there was a relationship between the tension in my bow arm, my breathing, and the way I shifted my weight from my left side to my right side while drawing the bow. I also learned there was a relationship between relaxation, pressure relayed through the bow arm, and the quality of sound I was able to produce. I had had no idea that my movements were so interconnected, or that this rich tone had been—as it were—inside me all the time, waiting to get out.
Susan is not the only person who has helped lead me to such realizations. My experience as a musician has been enhanced by many people, both present and past, dead and alive, composers, players, conductors, music teachers, and others who have in various ways touched me through some kind of shared involvement with and through music. Music, indeed, is a thoroughly social activity. It involves many complex conventions and expectations that are essential to make it meaningful and orderly. There are rules regarding stopping and starting. There are conventions about keeping time, and about the meaning of specific notations for tempo, dynamics, expression, and interpretation. Though apparently peripheral to music making, personal interactions and agreement about social conventions are central to the expressive quality of the music produced. Just as athletic teams at times “click” and individual members find themselves drawn into something greater than themselves, distinctly felt but hard to describe, similarly, members of musical groups at times feel deeply connected in the shared experience of making music. There is a strong sense of togetherness that enhances the playing. At other times, the opposite occurs. There is no felt connection between the people and it shows in the quality of the music making. Like the proverbial wedding rehearsal jitters, dress rehearsals are notoriously difficult social encounters. Such rehearsals are often very rough leaving participants doubtful regarding their ability to do well in performance. Usually the performance exceeds the expectations of all involved, a testimony to the power of intangible social factors that click in and draw out be best in the individuals and their social relationships.
In this sense, it is not just “practicing” music which makes it meaningful, but—broadly speaking—the “practice” of music: all of the different ways in which music is rehearsed, performed, studied, heard. If my involvement in music has taught me anything, it is that full enjoyment and meaningful participation requires that one learn to balance joy and sadness, boredom and excitement, hard work and play, social and solitary activities, order and risky abandon. The process is inexhaustible and the learning can last a lifetime.
What, then, can we conclude from this brief snapshot of my experience growing up with music? Music is one of those domains of experience that becomes increasingly rich, complex, and meaningful as one takes the time and makes the sacrifices necessary to learn about it. Often other areas of our life—relationships, leisure activities, other involvements—suffer because of the time we invest in something we find meaningful. We live it, breathe it, learn about it, and are deeply absorbed in exploring its many dimensions. This gives us great pleasure and enriches our life but it also contributes to its tendency to get messy and difficult. It takes time to train our bodies—the ears, eyes, hands, sense organs—to express ourselves in a meaningful way. Mind, body, and spirit are drawn together intimately when we are deeply absorbed in creative expression. This developing relationship with the body—its training, working with its limits–is an important part of the discipline through which meaning is embodied. It is also the relationship within which we “grow up” or mature in our understanding and enjoyment of a meaningful activity. It is through the body that we experience both the constraint, frustration, sadness, and limitation, as well as the joy, exultation, pride, and satisfaction of creative expression. Full participation in a meaningful domain invariably requires the awakening of the body, and a growing appreciation of the relationship between mind, body, and spirit. The embodiment of meaning is done through “practice.” Practice always involves time, effort, discipline, and the comparison of oneself against some ideal or standard of excellence. The embodiment of a practice involves a process of learning to work with limits. Pushing against limits—limits of form, limits of endurance, limits of understanding, limits of expression—is at the heart of the learning process that creates meaning in a practice.
These general principles can be applied in considering how we “grow up” in relationship to any meaningful domain of involvement. In my own life I have found that they apply not only to music, but to my marriage, my involvement in yoga and meditation, my life as a writer, any my practice as a psychotherapist. They are also highly relevant as we think about the process of “growing up” in relation to the world within which we live. The earth is the “body” within which we live. It constrains us and provides us an almost infinite range of avenues for expression. As we live within the world and its constraints we become more and more aware of both its limits and possibilities. It is calling upon us to put in the time and practice the kind of awareness that is embodied in the arts—a growing sensitivity to the constraints of our instrument and a willingness to work within those constraints with sensitivity and awareness to create a meaningful world.
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- Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D.
© 2004 – 2012, essay and portrait, Rob Rossel, All rights reserved
Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D. ~ is Senior Consulting Editor to Into the Bardo, life coach and grief counselor living and practicing in Los Altos Hills California. He is a Buddhist and a long-time practitioner of self-relations psychotherapy and Ericksonian hypnotherapy. With an abiding interest in music, art, yoga, nature, shamanism, and mind-body practices, Rob has sought for many years to find ways to apply meditation and mindfulness in his spiritual practice and his life. Rob is a father, and grandfather. He plays violin and viola. We are grateful for his many tender contributions to this site.