Playing music in the present

Like every Friday in these last two months, I have been wondering whether to come back to my orchestra. I have been taking a break since last Christmas.

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Rehearsals in the school’s theatre

They are a lovely bunch of people who have fun when playing music together. When I joined, they accepted me with open arms, and they were my first group of friends I made in Berlin. The conductor instead seemed (at least in particular moments, near important concerts) more focused on results and concerts. Most musicians managed to ignore or absorb his prompts and the atmosphere remained usually calm and pleasant.

However, as I sometimes play the drums (mostly replacing the first drummer, rarely on my own initiative), I felt more exposed, because the conductor only recently (realised?) told me how he needs the drummer’s role to be: he/she should be his closest musician, because most of the orchestra tends to listen to the drummer instead of paying attention to him directly. I find this a clever idea; but I don’t feel able to fill that position. My dearest memories with the orchestra are the ones when I am in a pleasant harmony with my fellow players, like a jazz ensemble, mumbling music together, listening to each other – and these moments were invariably interrupted by the conductor, who desperately wanted my focus back on him, in order to regain control over the speed and dynamics of the whole orchestra. I felt woken up from a dream, sometimes too rudely (well, anyone woken up from a dream would see it as rude, I suppose).

I thought about that a lot and finally realised that the role he needs is not the role I have in mind for myself, and my attempts to walk in his direction both exhausted me and were objectively unsuccesful. Therefore I said I needed a break and left for now six months.

What I love is to play music in the present. That means to play music with attention and concentration, becoming aware of notes, of details, of my fellow musicians. The time for the future is before and after the playing session – not during it! – it is the selection of pieces for an upcoming concert, and the careful comments after the repetitions. But without playing in the present, there is no music, there is only a lot of stress when you realise how uncertain is the piece – and after playing, you can’t see the things who went well, because they are initially hard to spot, so few in the middle of a lot of mistakes and uncertainty. Everyone could say that the piece is not ready; but it takes a careful ear to spot the little improvements, that are the minimal, crucial building foundations for further work.

If I were a more skilled drummer, or a cooler-headed horse, I wouldn’t have suffered that much under the strain. But repetitions were my time for drums practice, not for judgment. I felt sometimes that a repetition was in fact as stressful as a concert. I still fear that, therefore I think I’ll skip rehearsals one more time tonight.

 

Being tough, being sensitive – no other option, really?

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Source: Flickr

I just listened to BBC Four Thought “Sensitive Souls” (and I have recently read Auf die leise Weise, i.e. the quiet way) and my mind wandered in several directions, like a wild animal walking around a part of forest and exploring it attentively, one corner after the other, following scents and interesting plants.

It seemed to me that the most common behavioural model is a line, with “tough” and “sensitive” at the extremes. That would be OK for me, in theory – but not when these words actually mean “bully” and “bullied”. I therefore tested the following translation, from:

  • “Toughen up! Don’t be so sensitive! You’ll never reach any goal while being sensitive!”

into

  • “Be the bully sometimes! Don’t always be the bullied one! You’ll never reach your goals if you keep letting others bully you!”

… and I realised that this translation awakened the horror I felt anytime someone urged me to toughen up. I didn’t want to swap sides. I didn’t want to be rude to others, just because these are (or appear to be) the rules of The Game. If these were the rules, I couldn’t force myself to play – even if that meant that I would automatically lose.

I don’t know what people telling me those words actually meant. What I know for myself is that I have been very close to shut down my sensitive side, because it made me hurt a lot and the only choice seemed to move along the line, away from the sensitive corner and right into toughness. I am thankful to my closest friends, that offered me (and still do!) a safe space where I could be as sensitive as I needed, and investigated with me new ways to protect myself without hurting others. They took me away from that line, showed me other paths, that we walk as a group.

I hope that readers who find themselves sensitive can count on such friendships and safe spaces, and can see a way for growth that doesn’t sacrifice any of their skills.

Encouraging independence in children – some thoughts

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I was reading another chapter from Montessori vom Anfang an, and was impressed by the authors’ observation that children need to learn independence very early on, but parents often find it hard to let them go – with unhappy results for both parts.

I stopped reading for a while and searched backwards in the text for how many times this concept was brought up. My impression was that children grow up so fast that parents have little time to get used to a given relationship with them. Children are born so helpless and dependent from their parents, then they learn to speak, move around, use objects, take decisions, interact with others: they change so fast! My heart understand parents who remember vividly their kids as babies and miss dearly those months. It must be so difficult to accept that your children will walk progressively away of your protecting arms, and there is no way to completely save them from suffering.

I must say that this is one big reason why I don’t feel ready to have children. I am afraid that I won’t let them grow as fast as they need; or worse, that I won’t see my bias. With children in kindergarten I have hope to become a good teacher, because I can treat them as people, like I try to do with everyone, but with that extra responsibility of my role. I am afraid to become a mum and become over-protective: “my children come first, no matter what”. Or, on the opposite, I am afraid to treat my child in a way that I find fair, but that others (that child included) don’t find affectionate enough.

Big thoughts… they make me worry quite a bit, but I am also glad that I think about these topics. I would love to hear your opinions in the comments!

Respect and communication without pressure: a horse’s owner perspective

I was discussing with a friend of mine over this post from Beautiful Mustang’s blog.We both understood that:

  • this horse reacts badly to pressure: putting even more pressure creates dangerous situations
  • lowering the communication down to whispers allows an efficient information flow

This makes me think of some non-Newtonian fluids, that react to pressure in a similar way: they are liquid and flowing at low pressures, but become solid when pressure rises. If you need them to flow, you have no alternative other than keep pressure low.

The parallel stops here, because fluids are inanimate and lack decision making processes – it is clear that the person that is using them for a given task has complete control over the situation. With a living creature there can be a divergence of goals and opinions, that create pressure from both sides. I absolutely refuse to increase the pressure until the other side surrenders; it’s a strategy that breaks objects, and scars animals and people for a very long time. I embrace the idea of perceiving when my pressure is creating resistance on the other side, and I aim to make the conscious decision to lower the pressure in order to let the other side come back to a flowing, more relaxed state.

We further reflected on the fact that this one can be a case of respecting an introverted being. I think it is even more: it is a case of respecting another opinion. Not just introverts deserve less pressure than others; everyone would benefit from being treated in a non-coercive way.

To finish with a picture, here is Leah, the whispering horse:

Source: Beautiful Mustang’s blog

Telling your story – content vs. presentation

When you explain something or tell a story, two things are needed to make it interesting for others: the contents and the presentation. (That is quite obvious.) What is not obvious to me is the tipping point – when presentation becomes the main interest of the story, and the content alone would be mildly uninteresting:

I found this video very well done, all the presentation tricks are there: great music! stunning camera angles! dinosaurs! adventure! space! charismatic wildlife! suspense! Then, rewatching it, I started to see more and more little mistakes in the text and the image manipulation, and I saw beyond the tricks, and there was only that shabby old car. I still smiled, because I appreciated the effort in making such a great presentation.

This other video is a similar feast of presentation, over a generally niche and behind-the-scenes topic – system administration on SUSE Linux servers. I couldn’t imagine how to make a cool video out of it – but there it is (and the text is a gem, for IT-savvies!):

On a different set of topics, a great example of successful presentation skills is spoken word. In this case, content is chosen by the speakers among issues of their lives and their surroundings, mostly on social and racial inequalities. This video from Guante introduced me to spoken word, and it became viral last year:

That’s a bold, clear, resounding, thought-provoking performance. It’s about acting, rhetorics in the good sense – not in the one that filters and bends content according to presentation requirements. But how much of the virality has been generated by the topic, and how much by the great presentation skills? I don’t know, it’s hard to evaluate, but the important thing is that this content gained a lot of attention. In this case, I see that a strong presentation is functional to the content, and the intention of the speaker.

What worries me is when significant content suffers from a mediocre presentation, and fails to gain the attention that it should deserve. I can’t accept that the presentation is a necessary tool for any content to be considered at all. Does it deserve to be ignored because it is not able to advertise itself?

With that in mind, I just finished reading a collection of life summaries by people on their deathbed: Dieser Mensch war ich. They were not filtered to pick up the cool ones, the ones with a message for others – no, they were all there: the sad ones, the ones of people who think they made mistakes, the ones of people who felt guilty and miserable. The language was plain, simple, unpolished, confused sometimes. The presentation was barely visible, I felt it was almost pure content. How many of these stories would not be discussed outside of this book, just because they look uninteresting, because they have no hooks to the usual presentation tropes? And on the contrary, how many plain stories make it to the news, overdecorated with presentation?

I have subscribed to a storytelling course, but with these doubts I can’t make use of it. I would feel desperate if I understand that people listen to me just because I am able to sell my story, not because my story has a value in itself.

The radar – a way of paying attention to others and being focused on your task

I have been visiting a Montessori preschool this week, and had my usual joy in observing without participating. I appreciated how the two teachers had all twenty children in mind, and moved from one to another to attentively guide them in a given exercise, gave ideas for further work, paid attention to all children who asked for a moment of it; and the children were calm and mainly focused on their occupations, called the teachers only seldom and always got an answer – even a “I’m busy now, but I come to you when I am done”. I found that profoundly calming, and a wise economy of communication (and noise. It was a smallish room with 20+ people in it, no way that everyone can talk simultaneously and be heard. Think of how restaurants can become incredibly loud!). If children grow in this two-way attention, they know that each call gets a feedback, so there is no need to call ten times in order to hope to be heard once – or worse, to make sure that the other person hasn’t forgotten you are there (how many children I have seen crying or calling their parents repetitively, without any more hope to be heard, but attempting to get attention by being annoying).

I reflected on that point on my way home. Some time ago I wrote a note about the ways of paying attention to someone else in the background, and be responsive when this person actually starts interacting. I experienced how some friends switch between full attention to me to full focus on something else, and I always felt as a nuisance when I interrupted them with the start of a conversation. There was no concept of background for them, there was no chance to me to pick the good time to chime in.

On the other extreme the radar process could take too much of the foreground space: I could pay attention to everything and get distracted by every new input. I find this exhausting, and disrespectful for the current task, that must pray that nothing pops up while it is being dealt with.

The sweet spot could be hard to reach and it depends much on how the inputs behave (some would like to get attention immediately, others would prefer to never disturb…), but I have seen people doing that with such a mastery that I am totally confident it can be done by everyone, with a bit of practice. My drum teacher can keep an eye on me when we play in the orchestra, such that he invariably spots if I’m lost, and we can debrief the concert afterwards with great accuracy. I strive to reach that ability when I will finally become a kindergarten teacher. I have experienced how relaxing it is to be in someone’s radar and to know you can ask for a moment of attention, so I definitely aspire of being that attentive kind of person for the children.

Doe Pair – by Carl Monopoli

Stereoscopic vision (lack thereof)

I am reading Oliver Sacks’ “The Mind’s Eye” and I first want to say that I am fascinated and soothed by how Sacks talks about some of his patients – with humanity and empathy. It is difficult for me to explain how reassuring it feels to always be treated as a human being, who deserves respect and consideration: physical and mental issues can bend your life in unbearable ways, but the person, the “you”, should remain out of their reach.

(It sounds easy to say, and I feel I am not entitled to talk about it because on so many levels I am healthy and functioning; but as I have experienced how temporary malfunctions have hit me hard, I feel guilty for having been so weak, ungrateful and doubtful about my recovering potential, when others face permanent changes in their bodily abilities and fight so bravely.)

Back to the book. I started Chapter 5 “Stereo Sue” with expectation and curiosity. Sue (Susan R. Barry) grew up stereoblind without relevant difficulties, but at the age of forty her sight process worsened in a way that she seeked professional help, started vision therapy and surprisingly acquired stereo vision at 48 years of age – against all odds, because it was (is still?) commonly considered that stereo vision must be acquired within the first 3 years of life.

I was so touched by her story that I kept reading page after page, speechless, breathless. I cried when she described her old way of seeing the world and her former issues, because I recognised my daily life. Stereo blindness is not a rare condition: many people (5 to 10% of the population, according to Sacks) have grown up without acquiring stereo vision but developed a bunch of alternative ways of estimating depth and distance of the people and objects around them, and most live normal lives.

I am unsure of what to do. I must say that my stereo blindness interferes with several activities (driving a car, playing ball games are extremely difficult for me, among other things) but enhances others (drawing from real life is easier: I see it flat already, and I even guess how hard it is to draw for people who see in 3D!). However, I would hate to see myself as “in need to be fixed” and that stereo vision would bring me “closer to normal”. I am aware that I am missing a piece of functionality that most have, and that most make good use of, but I also feel that it’s not that crucial for me to get it too. I would hate to get stereo vision to get a step closer to how others perceive the world, just because my way of seeing the world couldn’t be understood.

Sacks himself lost stereo vision  after an operation to his right eye, and considered it a net loss of functionality – that his perception of the world was changed for the bad and the false – I understand his conclusions, but they are not mine; I have always functioned differently, and that should have equal dignity. I was grateful to Sacks for his admiration for all the clever workarounds that Sue was putting in place – he admired her ability to use other senses and ways to compensate for an ability that most people give for granted.

I want to let these thoughts simmer for a while. I am for sure excited to discover that it’s possible for me to gain stereo vision, but I want to think well about the motivations that would lead me on that path. In the meanwhile I keep sketching.

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