On playing at concerts

I am wondering what is happening to me in this last year, as I have helplessy seen myself becoming less and less involved in performing publicly with my orchestra.

I have many years experience with concerts and I lost quite early the panic right before walking on stage, and the stress on stage; until recently I enjoyed playing for the audience, let people feel the emotions of a given piece of music together with us and possibly the soul of the author.

A couple years ago something changed – something broke, I could say. I felt that my most enjoyable moments happened at the rehearsals, usually around the last one, then the concert felt like an unnecessary burden. Getting dressed, preparing everything to look good and be able to move silently on stage looked like acting, bad acting.

I talked about that with my drums teacher and he described how he feels instead. I could clearly understand how he feels the responsibility of playing well at concerts, how concerts are the necessary final step of a long preparation. But something in me is disillusioned. Even at concerts that I attend as part of the audience, the magic is gone. Still, I feel the musicians closer than before; I feel I am on stage too and we are not part of the show, because we are part of the backstage. I fell in the backstage and can’t (won’t?) get back to the limelight.

I don’t know if I will be happy to play at concerts again; I don’t really care now. What is important at the moment is that I understand what is the most important thing for me instead, get it to perfection and move on. It is maybe the attention to movement (see all posts about that!), the timeless practice of a small quirk, finding the sparkles of joy in other musicians’ concerts. For example, I totally love how relaxed and focused are the players of Combattimento Consort of Amsterdam, while playing Bach’s Christmas Oratorium:

Starting from the conductor, I see so much enthusiasm, closeness, confidence, flow, fun. There is even a moment when the conductor lets the string quartet play on their own, and simply listens to them. This is definitely how I would like to feel on stage.

On driving cars

White on white

Along with the changements that I notice in my approach to music, movement, personal relations, I am awaiting a changement in my reluctance to drive a car.

I obtained my driving license in Italy over 10 years ago and never driven afterwards, except when I lived in South Africa and there was no other mean of transportation available for me in the savanna. Getting back to drive was a fight against myself, where necessity silenced most of my fears. I still haven’t taken the wheel since my return to Europe, and feel scared, uneasy, ultimately angry with myself about that.

Learning to drive was in retrospective a constant tension with my instructor, who pushed me to try things first, and me asking for an explanation before asking the car to make any movement. I can say that I have learned to drive appropriately and safely enough, but I haven’t really internalised any of the routines, and for sure I don’t feel I could teach anyone to drive – because I can’t explain how it works.

My biggest curiosity was (and still is) to know how to get the car to move with the minimum strain possible (most visibly when switching gears, but also while turning and braking). I haven’t got/found any sufficient explanation yet, and I found the perfect coordination of movements between me and the car only twice, briefly, the space of a well-rounded turn. These moments are very vividly impressed in my mind. And curiously, they look very much like the few moments in which I felt completely at ease while playing: confidently riding the imaginary musical wave, enjoying the wind, looking with enthusiastic anticipation to the next wave – in short, in control of the situation.

This reminds me so much on how I learned to play drums: by doing, by example, by practicing and finding myself where the balance was. My analytical side of the brain always longed for expert advice, and I never bothered/dared to go on the path alone. I could get better by practice, but I never trusted practice without a clear objective. It would be like learning multiplication tables by throwing random numbers, without bothering to grasp the logic.

My gut feeling is that my parallel paths with music and horses will build up my overall confidence and improve the accuracy of my movements. I find the work on body perception especially promising. If I am scared of getting a car to move, it’s also because I have an unclear perception on how big it is, where its edges are; that could be a consequence of my incomplete body map. When I felt one with my car, I had a complete picture in my mind; I could know and control balance and movements with sufficient automatisation so that my mind could focus on the environment and the direction of movement.

I would like to practice driving the same way as I am re-learning drumming: focus on the movement, no real-life tests (no city drives; no concerts), enjoy the feedback, know what to improve. The logical step would be to take a car for a drive in the countryside, or a safe drive course (I have very high interest in such courses! I feel I would understand so much of what I need to know). Let’s see when that will happen…

 

On movement and mind

Last Friday I attended two lessons, one at a local riding school, the other as usual at my orchestra’s rehearsal theatre.

The first lesson was my first Feldenkrais and riding lesson, with Martina Schumacher and one of her horses, Lozano. The lesson focused on the mind’s image of the body. According to usage and perceived importance, each limb and part of the body have a more or less detailed image in our mind. That is not inherently bad, but if the consequence is the uneven usage of force, or unbalance, then it makes sense to examine how the body is mapped in our mind, notice which parts could deserve more attention, and what can be done to to reach a better balance and self-awareness.

Martina guided Lozano around the arena with me in the saddle, while she guided my focus on the perception of various parts of my body, my balance, my overall feeling. Martina could not see me, as she was leading the horse; but could know if I experienced tension by noticing how Lozano increased his pace. There was a quiet and fluid understanding between the three of us, on different channels: me and Martina only speaking, Martina and Lozano by their long-time osmosis, me and Lozano by our movements. I was amazed at how Lozano decoded the smallest changements in my posture and tension, and manifested them clearly by walking faster or by relaxing his gait and body. That mirroring is hard to find among humans and other animals, as far as I know, so I am grateful that this horse gave me such clear feedback.

At the end of the lesson, Martina brought Lozano in the centre of the arena and we shortly talked about how I felt during the ride. In the meanwhile, Lozano bent his neck and touched my left foot with his nose. Maybe he wanted to draw my attention to my left side?

I dismounted and talked a bit more with Martina. I am amazed at the fact that I didn’t feel the need to address my unbalance and unevenness until, well, today. How did I survive for thirty years, doing apparently quite well? Our body is amazingly resilient.

With all this in mind, I came back home for a while and prepared my gear for my drum lesson. Not surprisingly, I am taking drum lessons (again, after ten years) with a special focus on movements and body awareness, not on technical achievements anymore (even if the distinction is fuzzy, for instruments such as drums where movement is key). I take fun and pride in mastering simple exercises that require special attention to a movement, a set of movements, coordination, control; playing loud or softly, playing exactly what I have in mind, in terms of timing and sound. I have the privilege to have a terrific teacher, who spots all little bends, tensions, hesitations; honest, gentle and helpful as a doctor.

I felt that that day I had one single long lesson, and I am eager to make progress further along these two converging paths.

Thought #3 on music practice

Let me share another small thought on my journey at the drumset.

Preparing drum rudiments infographic

I am following Drumeo’s blog with avid interest and am very glad to Jared and its team for the free lessons from so many different drummers. Today I picked a one-hour long lesson on a topic I was not especially interested in, but as my habit, I watched it anyway (with the same spirit that I taste new food and read books – how I can decide beforehand that they are not interesting?). I noticed myself moving the focus on the content of the lesson to the way the drummer-lecturer talked, played, answered questions. I had a great hour watching that man totally at ease, shining with calm happiness.

After that lesson I played a bit on my exercise pad, not very much, but I have been more focused on my movements than other days, especially while playing a special metronome exercise that lets the metronome play for two bars, then keeps it silent for two bars, then play again. The difficulty is to keep the time when the metronome is silent, and land on the first beat of the metronome when it starts again. I noticed that if I took care of keeping the amplitude of movements regular, I was also able to meet accurately the metronome when it came back. That was the key. There is little contribution from any mental skill, just a round movement, that I calibrate when the metronome ticks. Of course the difficulty of the exercise can pose a challenge, therefore practice on the movement is required. But yes! What a change of perspective. I wasn’t often told that the movement generates the time/speed of a piece – or maybe I wasn’t able to understand, at that time.

So my focus now is to get that fluency in my movements. It derives that other things are less important. Playing at concerts, for example. There will be more about that on a future post.

 

On time visualisation

Last year I experimented a bit with visualisation of time, both past and future. I was not really happy with agendas: one page per day doesn’t give enough overview, one week per page misses the monthly overview, one month per page doesn’t allow to zoom over my occasionally very busy days. I don’t find electronic formats and programs especially useful either. Now my present setup is: online calendar with all appointments and monthly view, and a simple paper notebook where I use a page a day with all the things I plan to do that day. I also have a blackboard with colour chalks where I write down what I want to do that is not yet allocated in time, or I didn’t manage to do that day. I have cyclical checks of what is to be done in next weeks/months and fill my brain RAM accordingly.

(Do have a look at Pretty Pretty Planners, from Calvin Was Right. I find them so cute!)

Still, this setup misses an overview of the whole year. Therefore, two years ago we used the Berlin transportation yearly calendar: an A3 sheet, with one line per month and one yellow dot per day. We hanged it in our kitchen and marked each passing day with a cross.

For 2015 I wanted to have more content for each passed day, so I bought a plain A3 light cardboard sheet, completely black. I then replicated previous year’s layout and created a table, with a cell for each day and a row for each month. Every day I had fun drawing the most relevant event of they day, or simply the day number. It ended up as a very colourful picture of the whole year.

As last year I made a lot of changements in my life, I felt the need to see where I was and where I was going, with the broadest perspective possible: so I made a A3 calendar of my whole life. The inspiration came from Tim Urban of Wait but Why.

I don’t post pictures here as it would be too easy to grab content out of it; but the overall feeling I got when I filled it with my school milestones, the countries I lived in, the big events, the big decisions, and see where on that piece of paper was my today, was the same feeling you get when you see Earth from space. It looks meaningful, gracious, finite. And you see the space around it. There is no such perception when you struggle on its surface | with everyday battles. From space you don’t see the dust, the details, the disasters (except the very big ones), the anxiety of all life forms. I highly recommend to do a similar calendar, especially if you have already several years to fill, and take time in observing it, as if it was someone else’s life. I have come back to my everyday chores with much more perspective – and therefore serenity.

 

Book recommendation: “Refuse to choose!” from Barbara Sher

I want to start a series of reviews of the books I have read (yep! a series! I want to promise that publicly.) with a post about this book:

My friend Christoph posted a summary that I completely agree with, so I simply add my own observations.

This book is about finding ways to respect and cultivate various interests without feeling forced to stick with a job/career/hobby forever. Like Christoph, I was not happy with all details, but I found many good tips on how to successfully manage a various life.

I have experienced a very liberating moment when I managed to write down a complete list of the things I want to do in my life, and I can imagine myself doing with a reasonable detail. I was relieved to find that it’s not an endless list. This made me think that I can focus on those things and get them done, without that uncomfortable feeling that I’m missing something important.

I appreciated Barbara’s way of proposing different solutions for time/resources management, instead of the unique silver bullet. I can even try more than one, even if I have my preferences already; I could always find a better one.

The chapter on jobs has been very useful to me. I used to be very drastic and say: either I get the job I love 100%, either I accept a totally brainless job to save all vital energies for my hobbies – and get bread on the table. Many of the possibilities and compromises that Barbara presents at the end of the book looks so acceptable, partly because she presents them after giving all due space and dignity to interests that make life worth living.

After reading this book, I thought that if I read it one year ago I would not have been so lost and hopeless. But still – I find that my big life changes had a reason and that I can now build anew, with good tips coming in anytime.

Enjoy the reading, and if you wish to share your own comments, they are more than welcome!

Thought #2 on music practice

In my first post about my comeback to drumset there were more questions than answers. Today I watched a great lesson from Daniel Glass about history of drum kit independence, made available for free by Drumeo. Daniel goes through the history of American popular music, and explains how to make good use all this heritage in your own drumming (this is a minimalist summary. The lesson deserves to be watched fully and even more than once). And not last, he gives a glimpse of what an amazing drummer he is! Do watch and listen his solo at the end of the lesson (1:12:34):

I especially appreciated how clearly he explained how round,uninterrupted movements generate good music. The preparation of a note is even more important than the downward movement that hits the drum, which should happen by gravity as consequence of an appropriate lifting of the hand or foot. It sounds weird in words, especially in my words; but I understood what made me feel so tired after that first drum session. I didn’t know how to prepare the movements (or I forgot; some were my routine exercises long ago), so I had to adjust and compensate every gesture in order to make all notes at the right time. There was no flow, and a lot of unnecessary tension.

Now I got it! One more idea has been brought from unawareness to awareness. I realised once more how much my left-brain needs an explanation for itself before allowing the right-brain to play. It got a very good one, after which I enthusiastically thought: “Wow! That’s how I would like to play!” – something that I haven’t said for long time. I have been impressed and a little scared of how good other musicians were; but I couldn’t see how they arrived to such greatness, so I had no idea what to do myself, I felt bad, and turned to other more reassuring things. Now, with the help of my teacher and of lessons like this one, my priority is to find the key that makes an exercise alive.

As usual, I look forward for your own “a-ha!” moments about music! Do use comments and links to your own blogs. Happy drumming 🙂

On being helpful to children

As today I have been guest in a kindergarten classroom, I had a lot of time to observe children, busy with so many things that only a child can think of. So full of energy, so willing, so curious, so cheerful. So random and still so focused; so unfinished by grown-up standards, but so crystal clear in their intentions and expressions.

Why should that be a limited time of human life? How to keep the spirit of childhood alive, all life long, together with adult capabilities? This is for me an open question, but luckily I have live examples to study and follow (childhood as a state of mind? – stay tuned for another post…).

I have been thinking at what kind of help adults can give to children, to support their growth. I identified three big cornerstones: acceptance, strength and knowledge. I assume that there can be more, but I cannot think of less than these three.

First, I feel that I have to accept the child as it is, if I want to be helpful to him/her. Any shadow in this acceptance means that I would try to correct something that I consider wrong – and this will be harmful. I don’t hide that it’s very difficult. It’s so ingrained in us, that teaching means correcting. A good pupil is an obedient, predictable pupil, right? But there are treasures hidden behind the “good pupil” mask. Only by allowing the child to be spontaneous (i.e. noisy! bold! disobedient!) I can really know him/her and find ways to give support. Authority and understanding don’t share the same boundaries. From an authoritarian point of view, I would allow disobedience; but I could also be giving space to the child, because my goal is to understand him/her better. I am the only one to know if I am allowing disobedience because of my personal failure in making me respected.

Then comes strength. I have to be strong, to effectively support the child when he is afraid or unsure; my inner child cannot be afraid or unsure of the same things as the child I am in care of. The child will invariably spot it and will not trust him/herself in facing the difficulty alone. Wouldn’t you do the same, if a guide in a foreign country showed fear in entering a particular place?

Last but not really least, comes knowledge. I have to be capable in the tasks I show to the child, so that I know how much I have to rectify when the child tries to do them. With increasing experience, one leaves more and more space to trials and errors by the learner itself, because one trusts that he/she will find a good solution on his/her own – or to say, a good solution will become self-evident.

Thank you children for humbling me, cheerfully; thank you, children-adults, for showing me the way.

Drawing: observation exercise #1

Today I wish to give an insight of what I do before start copying a picture, or making a drawing. There is much of what I read in books and blogs, and I hope you will find something useful for your own drawings.

(Note: I drafted this post before Carol wrote hers: How to plan a drawing – well worth reading!)

I usually start with a picture I found particularly beautiful:

I chose it because I like horses very much, and also because it is already in black and white, so that I can copy it with a single, simple pencil. The picture come from the blog FantastykVoyage.

What I do first is to follow slowly with my eyes all the borders in the picture. I start with the most obvious and sharp – eyes, eyelids, nostrils, cheeks. These borders are the lines that you would draw if you made a comic or a very quick sketch.

IMG_20160208_102513

Then I try to find other borders, this time between different areas with the same shade. For example the black shadow of the nostril, the shadows of blood vessels, the different shines of the coat on the head. Try to forget that it is the picture of a horse. Focus only on the shapes. This first scan through the picture will help you later, when you will actually draw – you will remember the lines you observed.

A useful step is now to check proportions and establish a (mental) grid. Divide the picture with crosshairs or a finer grid. You can actually do it by superimposing a transparent sheet and draw the crosshairs with a felt pen; you can print the picture and draw the crosshairs directly over it. Don’t worry if you scribble on the printout, if it helps you get a better drawing as a result! This step will help you judging relative proportions of the shapes you will draw, and where they cross the grid or the borders of the picture.

IMG_20160208_102736

Sometimes I start drawing at this point: I draw all these borders, the ones from the subject itself and the ones from the shades. Sometimes I don’t, and wait for next observation step. Sometimes I grab a camera and take a picture, sometimes I don’t do anything at all, I am just happy to have found a great subject to observe.

Next step is observing which areas have the same shade. It is useful to have scanned the picture as a whole before starting with the actual drawing, because I find much harder to start shading the first area in my drawing and then have to calibrate all further fills one at a time – it makes much more sense for me to draw all borders (some only very lightly) and then fill all areas with the same shade in one go, then pick the next shade and fill all its areas. Imagine to paint one colour at a time. You can be helped by image editing software, that has tools for the selection of areas with same colour.

I had made an experiment with GIMP 2.8 and Posterize tool, that flattens the image to a given number of colours. In the case of a black and white picture, it uses black, white, and different greys. See Yalla’s picture with 2, 3, 4 and 5 levels. Nice observation exercise: find all areas with the same colour. It gets quite hard with over 5 levels but I assure it is rewarding and useful.

You can decide to start with the darker areas or the lighter, as you wish; if you don’t know yet, try both approaches.

Now choose a tool and a technique and start drawing: pencil, fine-pointed pen, charcoal, watercolour; lines, meshes, uniform shades, points… and have a great time drawing!

 

New felt pens

I have a slight preference for felt pens over pencils, here are some scribblings with the two I bought yesterday:

(More on my Flickr page)

I’m starting to really like drawing slowly. The line becomes apparently uncertain, but I have more time to actually think and plan where it is going, and the result is usually closer to what I had in mind (or the subject I am copying from reality). Even when I draw from memory, the slow pace makes me feel I am using tracing paper.

One thing that is usually not told, is how long does it need to make a drawing, any drawing that is not a sketch. A day? A week? More? It’s so easy to get frustrated when you seem not to go past the sketch phase, just because you don’t know how to plan for a more complex/big/detailed drawing. I’ll post about it as soon as I find something.