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Practicing thoughts

Is classical music only for perfectionists?

I'm trying to think of a situation where the answer might be "no." Okay, I thought of a few. Amateur pianists and amateur choirs.

Okay, and it expands out from there... maybe there are lots of situations where classical music rewards non-perfectionists.

I count myself as one of these perfectionists. What I mean by "perfectionist" is that it suits my temperament to focus on a very small thing and make it shine.

In my lessons when I was young, my teacher used to ask how old I was, and then tell me to repeat a passage the same number of times as my age. I used to hold back from telling her when I had a birthday because I wouldn't want to repeat something nine times instead of ten. When did it shift to where things are now, where I will play a passage ten times in twenty seconds hungrily, as automatically as, like, chewing gum? I'm interested in fixing the problem with it, so the repetitions flow like water and don't even strike me as monotonous or even repetitive. It is no more repetitive than day and night falling in the same place while a plant grows. There is a node of something, energy or technique or foundation or something, that doesn't have a persistent existence but pulses into existence through each repetition, and, like motion-picture film, changes slightly each time. Heartbeats and breaths are this way - in between our breaths and heartbeats, we coast towards death until buoyed into the next moment by whatever thing in our bodies pulses.

Now my own students sigh and shift their weight and eye the door when I ask them to repeat a passage nine or ten times. If I didn't remember my own impatience at their age, I would be mystified at theirs. Because I do remember it, I'm mystified at the process that changed it.

Of course repetition isn't truly repetitive. You are seeking improvement, so each repetition differs from the last - if not externally with the sound, then internally with your spiritual configuration. Your focus is more honed, you are trying something different that ended up with the same result, you are listening for a hint. It's an exciting process, and one which draws you deeply into that thing called Presence which has become so precious these days. When I examine what makes it not only possible, but interesting, to repeat a passage so many times, it's because I want the thing to live. I want to animate it. How do I get my students to want their music to become as natural as talking, for it to become a vehicle for something beyond its own sonic qualities? How did I start wanting that?

It's precisely the same process as living, anyway. You have this viola made of wood and horsehair, with an unlikely and complex mechanism for creating sound. You learn the mechanism and therefore to navigate the thing through the demands of the sheet music. It is the same as having our complex and unlikely body, with all of its material demands that preoccupy so much energy and focus just to stay alive into the next day. Once you acclimate to those demands, once they become quotidian and predictable instead of insurmountable and overwhelming, then there's space for something else. You can be there. You can be in your sound, or in your life - you can learn to animate matter so fluently that there is room for you in the matter.

This is actually possible in music. You can get to a point where you can play that tricky triplet passage smooth, accurate, vigorous, with your eyes closed, full of your own energy and expression. Music is a smaller situation than Life, and it's closed. There are a limited number of variables, and you can directly experience your own mastery, your own breakthroughs, the transcendence of form. When you have visceral access to that experience, it resonates into your wider life with its constant, complex, shifting demands, and gives you power to discover ways to be yourself in it.

I guess classical music has developed with an awareness of this. The harder the technique requirements, the higher you get from the transcendence. I guess there is a challenge built into classical music - something that calls you to be attentive, to care about how you sound. It's presumed that you're interested in that high. A second presumption is that you have time to freeze, or can find time to freeze. That's effectively what we are simulating when we put ourselves in a practice room and repeat evanescent passages for hours - we are simulating a single moment over and over again, but ever richer; we are pretending that time does not spill forward horizontally, but that certain moments can stack like soil layers; we enrich a single moment deeply, deeply, deeply. How luxurious it is to be able to do it, and how spiritually enriching! For the entire world! If one person in a community can focus deeply, that must touch everyone else...

Other forms of music are not structured around these presumptions. That isn't to say that practicing, repetition, excellence, and formal transcendence belong only to classical music. But in traditional music, it is not taken for granted that you have the luxury of freezing time. And the music itself has built-in resilience - a momentary technical lapse will quite often not prevent the flow of vitality or disrupt the listener. There is still a focus on transcendence, but the focus is on providing a community access point to it, rather than furthering the horizon of what is possible to transcend.

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