Nothing to Show For It

I did a yoga DVD this afternoon. The instructor said at the end, of savasana (corpse pose), that it was one of the most challenging asanas. That's the kind of statement that's practically begging you to roll your eyes - I mean, how hard could it be to lay down on your back and relax, especially after a tough workout? But I know she's right.

As a music teacher, I see that my students have the same challenge. "You're trying too hard," I say. "Let it be as easy as playing one note [I got that from Kenny Werner]."

But to try not to try - you can't. You just have to let go, and then you're not holding on to anything so you panic and grab tighter. But if you keep coming back to it, you'll make progress.

Look for tiny increments of progress. Set micro-goals. Slower is faster. Don't use momentum. Clearly, this is an issue I have a lot to say about.

And where will all this careful, easy, mindful practice get you? Perhaps nowhere anyone else will ever be able to see. Perhaps you will literally have nothing to show for it.

What if there's no way to make your mark? (Tybee Island Sunset, November 2010)A slightly stronger pinky finger. A throat that clenches almost imperceptibly less on the high notes. The ability to play a cadenza with just a bit more surefootedness than you had last year.

Of course, meanwhile, your brother/friend/teacher/enemy can do it all and more, and better, while hungover on two hours of sleep.

It's almost enough to make you give up. For some, it is enough.

I've been thinking about writing an ebook about piano - like, Seven Ways to Be More Awesomer At Piano or something - so I googled a few "learn piano"-related phrases.

Yikes! It was like being solicited by a prostitute when you're looking for true love. Promises of "100s of times faster than other courses" and blinking ads and long-form sales letters. Not the right marketplace for my message of slow and systematic and taking a year to learn to uncurl your left pinky.

The worst part was the realization that those websites with their comprehensive courses in two easy payments of $39 are better than anything I've ever come up with, and it's possible that I will never create anything to rival them in scope, marketability, or even quality. But after a few minutes of feeling like a character in a Sofia Coppola film, I got my shit together and felt okay about just being me again.

Just being me: as in, I don't actually need to accomplish anything visible in order to be myself. I can make all kinds of little changes that you'll never see and never value, and that's okay.

Tybee Island Sunrise, November 2010The reason I was doing yoga in the first place is because I hurt my foot during a run on Christmas Day, and I can't run. I love the way running feels, but I especially love the way I can measure things - how many miles away from home I can get, how fast I go, how much better I did than last week. Now that I'm not running, I have nothing to measure except my perception of how much strength, speed, and conditioning I am losing.

Yoga is the opposite and the antidote: don't measure, don't analyze, don't compare - just keep breathing and observe. It's just you and your body and your breath - and you are whole and complete as you'll ever be.

Today, for a moment, in savasana, I got it - just for a second, I felt the way it would feel to surrender completely and dissolve into the earth, like the actual corpse I will someday become. The knowledge moved me to tears: I don't need anything else but what I have, and I don't need to be anything else but what I am, ever.

Slower is faster (whether swimming or getting shot at)

I believe very strongly that the principles which make you successful in one area can and will apply to other disciplines. This makes teaching music lessons very satisfying, because I'm sharing strategies and habits of mind that are useful beyond the instrument.

One example of a skill that is relevant in every aspect of life is learning to slow down. Slowing down leads you to reconsider saying things you'll regret in an argument. It helps you prevent injury in athletic training. Slowing down reduces your risk of death on the highway. It prevents you from spilling your coffee all over your laptop. You'll also trim the time it takes to learn a new piece of music. Slower is actually faster in the long run.

When practicing music, a slower pace/speed/tempo gives you the mental space to work on technique, expression, fingering, rhythm, and melodic accuracy all at the same time.

The right "slow" is different for everyone and might change day-to-day, regardless of what the metronome or clock says. However, using an external means of marking time can help you to slow down if you use it to pace yourself rather than push yourself.

A brutal rule of thumb: If you're still messing up, you're still going too fast. You'll know when you're going slow enough because you'll feel totally in control of everything your body is doing. It's like that scene in the Matrix where Neo can see the bullets coming at him and thus, avoid them. True slowness is mental, not necessarily physical.

For some people (regardless of age) it takes many failed attempts at a specific task before they are willing or able to dial down the tempo to what is truly comfortable. Heart rate, stress level, room temperature, distractions, and good old ego can get in the way. Slow is a feeling, and it takes practice to go inside yourself and find that quiet, calm place.

I recently took up swimming again after over a decade away from the sport. I'm in pretty good shape from walking and running, but lap swimming is a totally different physical experience. I assumed I wouldn't be very good at it at first, and I was right. But I thought if I took things slowly, I would succeed.

The first time out, at the Piedmont Park pool on Monday, I swam one lap of the crawl and then found myself huffing and puffing at the side of the pool. Another lap, and more huffing and puffing. Another lap, and I was done. I was going slowly in the macro sense - I didn't try to push myself past the point of fatigue, because there's always tomorrow. However, in the micro sense, I was basically sprinting across the pool and didn't know how to slow down.

I consulted my favorite coach, the Internet, and learned why I was having this problem: the crawl is the fastest swim stroke! Paradoxically, if I want to learn to swim faster and better, I cannot do the crawl because it will exhaust me too quickly. I reasoned that working on slower strokes will allow me to build up endurance over the course of a few weeks, and then the crawl will not be as intense.

So, this morning I took the bus to the MLK Natatorium before dawn. I dropped into the water and swam ten laps doing the breaststroke, backstroke, and elementary backstroke. No clinging to the side huffing and puffing - I built the recovery into the swim, and it worked! Twenty minutes of continuous swimming, and, most importantly, enough mental and physical energy left to come back tomorrow and do it again.

Culturally, we are all speeded up: kids in a million activities, quick cuts in advertisements, blah blah blah. Playing music goes against that trend. It takes awhile to learn an instrument, it takes awhile to learn a given piece of music, and it takes awhile to sit in that chair and slow yourself down enough to string two notes together correctly. It is worth it. There are benefits that come from learning to slow down instead of muscling through, and they show up in unexpected places: the track, the pool, an urban roof-top showdown.