I was thinking about how setting a goal shapes the way one takes to reach it.
Let me pick an example with music, my most familiar environment. Let’s say my orchestra plans to play a given difficult piece for next concert. That goal will influence all rehearsals, filling them with a detailed plan, that includes the progressive steps to the full execution of that piece: separate rehearsals per section, focus on getting to play to the required speed, focus on expression, and finally playing the piece properly from start to finish.
When difficulties arise during rehearsals and it starts to look like we are not progressing as fast as we thought, it’s time to find shortcuts. We simplify our parts, play a little slower than required, remove details. This is where I start to diverge from how one is expected to work. I rarely think about the goal directly, it is for me more of a part of the landscape that I sometimes remember to look at, but my interest is on my immediate surroundings, on the atmosphere at the current rehearsal, on what I can do right now. I’m relieved that someone else is responsible for keeping the boat sailing straight towards the goal, because I just couldn’t! My work is more of a fractal exploration, without direction, with the focus on how I walk, and no eye on the time – in this mindset, shortcuts simply make no sense. I observe and I accidentally also take part to the rehearsal. This is where I’m not offering any grip to the usual motivation talks which sound like “Don’t you feel the pressure, the urge to reach the goal?”. No, I don’t. It doesn’t mean I explicitely avoid it, but simply that it will be the side effect of me having the space to wander at will. I first had to prove that my random exploration takes me to the goal anyway, before I was given the trust to be left free alongside the bridled horses, apparently aimless, for the surprise of some.
I felt that this can be a good parallel with how one works with animals, for example during horse riding. I sometimes get the feeling that the rider has a goal in mind and gets to the point where the test approaches and they start looking for shortcuts, but that is where+why the horse loses connection – because the horse doesn’t seem to think in terms of goals, and the proposed shortcuts look like forced steps that take attention further away from the flow of observation, of being in the present. This gearing up tends to make things work both worse and slower, it requires even more shortcuts, and that brings the opposite of the desired effect! It takes a lot of trust to stop this vicious cycle when the deadline is approaching, but re-focusing on the present seems to me one of the few respectful and efficient ways out.
I hope that makes sense! Let me know if that resonates with you, I’m curious to read about your experiences with deadlines, goals and shortcuts.
I was at a concert in Philharmonie last night, sitting in the audience. After many concerts where I have been on the stage, it was a strange sensation. Once again I felt out of place sitting among the listeners, even if I could never have been playing with such a brilliant team of musicians; but on a personal level I felt near to them. I saw them exchanging glances before an especially hard passage, syncing tempo and movements, laughing sincerely when they enjoyed the music they were creating, finishing a piece and immediately rearranging the instruments for the next one. I think it’s because I’ve been on the stage and in the backstage for so long that I can pierce through the wall of what the musicians offer the public as a final product, and get a glance on how they build it.
This made me think about a further point. I keep saying that I prefer to see rehearsals than concerts or shows. What I mean is that, having been playing music myself, I give high value on the way a piece is slowly assembled rather than on the single execution at the concert. It’s obviously a necessary goal, but it has almost no value for me if it’s the only part of the way I can access, because one can see a tiny fraction of the heap of small steps that were required to get there.
The yoga class I have been attending since January is becoming really interesting for me. I have been a very sport-averse person until recently, and I have been using my body with the bare minimum of awareness possible. Through this yoga lessons I have finally started to notice that: 1- my body is actually able to do more than sit and walk; 2- practicing a physical activity like yoga requires more than simple strength, flexibility and endurance, and this means: concentration, balance, awareness of posture and alignment, memory (for longer sequences, and the details of each posture), coordination, perception of effort so that it doesn’t harm any part of the body.
At first it was a new activity for me and I was trying to follow the teacher’s instructions, but was often distracted by tension in some part of the body, or had to focus on keeping balance and could not think of anything else. Now I start to notice how I can guide my attention to each part of the body and check if it’s in the right position, if there is the right amount of tension in the muscles and ligaments of that part, then go on to the next one. Sometimes it happens that I feel the overall tension of the body as a whole, that there is a good amount of strength in every part of it, nowhere too much, and I take it as the sign that I’m doing the posture correctly. And it’s so rewarding!
This kind of experience is quite far from my initial learning process with music (and a bunch of other things in life), where usually the opposite worked fine: especially with the drums, I have previously been able to make (temporary) progress by producing a lot of tension on the arm(s) or wrist(s) or finger(s) and therefore produce the sounds at the desired speed and intensity. However, it’s a dead end, because tension is both damaging to the body on the long term, and it is a sign that some technical challenge is being forced through instead of properly processed – and that means that progress actually stops there. Jared Falk mentioned something along these lines in the beginning of a longer video on Drumeo, and I’m glad that there is a convergence among the various disciplines I am practising, so I can reuse the mindset everywhere 🙂
Last week I played as a guest percussionist in a symphonic wind orchestra, and my concert experience was overall good. On the positive side, I managed to play almost all my notes and I didn’t have issues with tubular bells, which I practiced only at the day of the concert. Here is a first-person view of the percussion section, right before the sound check:
It was a somewhat difficult concert, because I knew some pieces too little, and I had to pay a lot of attention just to follow what others were playing. Only the first piece was clear to me enough that I could really enjoy it. I think that the required level of attention is what makes the concert feel energizing, easy or exhausting. If I have to keep my attention on high alert for the whole ten minutes of the piece (or worse the whole concert), and moreover I make mistakes, my energy levels plummet down. I think it’s a quite common experience among musicians, and that my limited amount of rehearsals played a big role. However, for my next concerts I want to be more aware of how ready I am, aim at reasonable goals and not at perfection, and manage my energy so that I have enough left for the day of the concert (sometimes I put 130% in the last rehearsal and go to the concert with almost no energy). The thing is also that I need to communicate my current energy/skills availability in a positive way, not in a way that make me appear lazy. Most of the times when I say that a piece is too hard or that I can’t do something, I end up being pushed even more. I’m working on it, and will update you about my progress, maybe my experience will help others too 🙂
It’s a few days I plan to post on my blog and can’t find the quiet half an hour to write a good post. The reason is that I’m preparing a concert with a new orchestra, as guest percussionist. I had two weeks to get acquainted with the pieces we will play, and I spent the whole weekend with the orchestra in a musical retreat in Brandenburg – catching up was definitely not easy, moreover I had to learn to properly play tubular bells and xylophone, and these pieces are the most difficult I had played yet (or at least it feels like it!). As I joined the rehearsals so late, I’m listening to recordings of the pieces while reading my parts, and I’m adding a LOT of annotations:
What I usually add are colors for the different instruments I have to play (it’s quicker than reading the tiny names on the score!) and annotations about the instruments that play right before me – that saves me from counting the empty bars, and prepares me better to the moment when I have to jump in. These annotations are especially necessary, as I have not been playing with the full orchestra often enough, and it happens very often that I don’t know who is supposed to play, and at which point of the piece we are. I’ll be watching the conductor closely, but I’ll definitely not getting cues all the time; for sure I’ll keep an ear for my fellow percussionists, as we studied our parts together and know them well. Let’s hope for the best 🙂
Wateau, a luthier specialised in guitars, moved in my extended neighborhood around a year ago. Since then, I have been quite curious about his work, and finally had the chance to visit his worshop thanks to the European Artistic Crafts Days.
I was the first visitor to come for the open day, and Mathieu guided me through the workshop, explaining the functioning of odd tools and giving me information about guitar construction techniques. Then a few clients arrived and while he was performing a few fixes and tuning of their instruments I looked around, searching a good subject for a sketch.
I finally decided to draw the press that Mathieu built himself, and that is used to bend the wood of the sides of a guitar. I somehow didn’t save the picture of that tool, but only the one of the drawing:
The press works by appling heat to flexible metal plates, between which the soaked wood is placed, and by progressively bending the wood in the shape of a half-guitar template (that is a removable part of this tool).
It took around 20 minutes to sketch it, including a quite long phase of observation. It is definitely an odd machine with a lot of parts and it was quite difficult to choose where to start! But Mathieu has been patient and let me sit on one of the tall chairs while he cut wood parts for guitar necks and cleaned one of his workstations. It was pleasant to share a silent moment with each one focused on independent things. I found it remarkable, because it is usually the result of a longer acquaintance, but I’m experiencing it more and more often with like-minded people whom I just met. I plan to ask him to pay another visit, so that I can sketch a few more subjects, and enjoy the atmosphere of the workshop. Stay tuned for more craftsy posts!
Last Friday I started learning the trombone! My teacher is a musician from my orchestra, with whom I talked about learning a brass instrument at the beginning of last year; as my Montessori diploma course is now over, I have all my Fridays free again and I have again time and energy to dedicate to something new and challenging.
Why the trombone? Well, around ten years ago I started learning the baritone horn, but had to set it aside after a few months to focus on my high school studies. It was a cumbersome and quite heavy instrument, but with a mellow tone, and with the satisfying quality of making my own breath loud and musical. With the other instruments I play, the connection with the breathing is only indirect, so this is the first reason I have started to practice a wind instrument. Another important reason for me is that the position of the notes is not on a line, like on the piano – you go left, they become lower, you go right, they become higher, and each note is only in one place – but they are grouped differently, they repeat themselves along the instrument:
Recalling a bit of the technique I learned with the euphonium, I was able to play most notes right away. The challenges ahead include developing lip muscles, produce a consistent airflow for at least a full piece, develop speed and precision in finding the notes on the slide. I like how all these goals sound achievable. I’m aware that I won’t become a professional trombonist overnight, but I know I can trace my progress and I can ask my teacher if I feel I am getting stuck.
And besides, the trombone is especially good at being funny:
I read this morning this post from Simone Perotti [IT], focused on the similarities between his experiences as writer and as seaman in the Mediterranean Sea. He finds that the sea is setting the rules, and the seaman has to submit to them if he wants to make safe progress on his route. The author is in a similar condition, in the vast sea of language. Fighting the rules of the sea would put the seaman in peril of his life; fighting the rules of language would make the author not understandable.
I liked that post. I felt no inferiority in his words, at least not an unhappy one. Obeying to the sea gives him clear goals and a reduced set of possible actions. This limited freedom has the positive, surprising aspect that it frees the mind from computing too many future scenarios. Isn’t it the case of many sports too? Or jobs? In most cases there is no complete freedom of choice. Still, lots of people are ready to accept the rules of a given activity and have a really great time practicing it. It makes me think of Jost Nickel‘s lesson on Drumeo, where he explains how he builds a new groove. He elaborated three rules, and sticks to them. He defines that “being creative through limitations”. Of course, he adds that you are always free to drop the rules when you realise that you explored all possibilities and you feel bored.
My final consideration is that freedom mentioned by Simone and Jost is not in the single actions themselves, but on a higher level: either the setting of the rules (for the drums), or even higher, the decision to do that activity instead of any other (for the seaman and the author, and the drummer too). When I think about my perception of freedom, I realised I focused on the obeying part and surely appeared more submissive than I would have liked to. I’m glad I read Simone’s post and realised the bigger picture.
Autumn keeps being my favourite season, with its flamboyant colours, and its connection with school’s start. As a kid, I loved the beginning of school, with all the new books, pens, pencils, the lofty mountain of knowledge ready to be presented to me. The last weeks of summer holidays were filled with expectation and impatience. Even now I welcome the freshening of the air, the discolouring of leaves, the arrival of rain and mist with that same joy.
At the end of October I’ll start again with drum lessons, after a break that lasted a whole year. It’s hard for me to wait for these few more days, because my teacher has that blessed ability to spot what I can already do (no matter how minimal it is! Sometimes it’s just showing up at the lesson, while I’d rather be sleeping on the couch) and then suggests what to build on top of it, letting me learn new skills one step at a time. Others focus on what I can’t do, and urge me to improve moved by guilt, by the obligation to make the best use of my potential. He is currently one of the very few voices in my surroundings that underlines my strengths, in an honest way that I am quick to believe (while some encouragements are too far-fetched to be credible, even if they are totally well-meant), and that concretely motivates me. We don’t talk about that explicitely, but he surely sees how our time together transforms my mood and lets me grow as musician, and I’m sure we both find reward in our common enthusiasm.
It was my first concert after my year away, and it felt great. The two last rehearsals had been for me a bit borderline for concentration – there were both things that ran very well, and practicing more was boring, but also things that didn’t work well, and there was clearly no time to fix them. So overall I was in a right balance of relaxed and focused when I walked on the stage for the concert. It was also interesting to see how the calm of the musicians calmed down Mariano, the conductor.
I enjoyed playing with my fellow musicians so much! We are such a closely-knit group that we support each other, know who has difficult parts, and cheer the soloists as much as the audience, if not more. I didn’t feel like performing yesterday, the fun of being together was stronger than the stage fright. I took this picture at the soundcheck (sorry for the bad quality) – I love how some are concentrated, some relaxed while waiting for their cue, and in the middle Thorsten smiles. This picture sums us up so well 🙂