No, this isn't an article about crawling around the fingerboard of our instrument, yet I hope readers will find value in my recent ruminations about perspective and subtlety, and ways to apply these ideas to their life and in the practice room.
Listen to many people rattle off a list of new year's resolutions, and we recognize that our society is anything but subtle, especially about change. We want everything now - more, better, faster, and quickly become despondent when we fail to make the strides we expect, whether that's with our health goals or our violin playing. Similarly, we often expect that diets, exercise programs, and the instruction we receive in our lessons needs to be dramatic in order to be meaningful.
While hiking the little trail near my house recently, I came across a small dead tree that's been hanging across the trail for a few years. Its trunk bends into a perfect rainbow, with its "pot of gold" (aka what's left of its branches) unfortunately hanging right onto the little footpath. I'm used to having to step off the trail to get around it, however, that day I noticed that its branches were suddenly hanging to the left of the path. For the first time, I could easily get by on the trail.
Now this might seem like a ridiculous start to a story. Who cares about an annoying tree that probably should have been cut down years ago?! The point is not the tree, but that I noticed this change in the landscape, and it caused me to pause.
I often notice subtle changes in my environment. To become a violinist, we need to innately possess or develop the ability to recognize infinitesimal changes in pitch when it comes to the left hand, and minuscule shifts in pressure, speed, angle, position, and tilt when it comes to the bow. Wrap this up with an acute awareness of our posture and overall movements, and it's safe to say that bowed string players might be better than most at sensing changes. My knack for recognizing small differences seems to extend beyond the violin though. I used to love "Where's Waldo" books and those puzzles where you're supposed to find everything that's different between two seemingly identical pictures. As a baby, a favorite pastime of mine was reportedly finding and inspecting the tiniest specks of things in the carpet, fuzzies or dirt my parents could barely even see. To this day, my optometrist doesn't have an eye test that my up-close vision can't pass.
I often notice changes around town, like a business that has changed the color of their trim, or the font of a sign. And out in nature I've startled a friend by grabbing them moments before they were about to step on some camouflaged creature on the trail - a lizard, slug, spider, or snake. When my partner loses his keys or glasses, I can often tell him the odd place around the house where he left them.
So when I could suddenly walk by this spot on the trail unhindered, I had to stop and see if I could ascertain what had caused the shift. With the sun directly overhead and filtering through slightly overcast skies, at first all I saw was a clump along the apex of the bowed trunk. I'd never seen it there before and regardless, it seemed like a strange spot for a tight mass of leaves! Had someone climbed up and tied something to the tree?
I took a few steps back and my eyes readjusted to the change in light. Suddenly I recognized that these weren't leaves, but feathers! I gasped and stepped back a few more feet upon noticing two small "horns," a face, and realized that no more then ten feet from me sat a fluffy great horned owl.
I said hello and it sat there, perfectly motionless and silent, scrutinizing me with a grumpy, how-dare-you-wake-me-up gaze. I apologized for waking it up and walked several more strides up the trail to give it space. When I turned around, the change of perspective allowed me to notice that this mass of feathers actually had four horny tufts. This was not a single portly owl, but a couple, cuddling up together against a gray day. Now with two faces staring me down, I took in the sight for another minute or so, then turned to leave, my heart fluttering with excitement. I might as well have seen a unicorn. The weight of the birds had displaced the hang of the tree just enough for me to notice a change and witness this unexpected magic.
Greek mythology's "wise owl" symbolism aside, for the remainder of my hike I couldn't help but reflect on how valuable 1) recognizing and celebrating subtle shifts, and 2) changing our perspective, can be for our progress in music, and perhaps our continued celebration of life in general.
In 2003 I took part in a month-long chamber music festival on the Adriatic coast of Italy. As I described to everyone who asked, we stayed and played in the region "right above the heel of the boot." The weeks involved rehearsals, sight-seeing, traditional meals stretching late into the evenings, and later on, performances in historic cloisters and cathedrals.
I also got the chance to have a few one-on-one lessons with celebrated violin professors from around the world. Especially after overhearing the rapid fire suggestions and resulting progress seemingly going on in other students' lessons while I walked the hallways, I was eager to hear these teachers recommendations for interpretation, and maybe get some help with some of the more advanced techniques I was encountering in the pieces we were slated to perform.
At the first lesson, one of the instructors asked me to play a scale, which I assumed would serve the same purpose it always had in lessons with my teachers back home - a standard warm-up and tune-up before the segue to more involved topics and pieces. But this professor would not let it go! She gave this simple scale, and what felt like my whole right to existence as a violinist, a thorough audit. Thankfully, soon enough the lesson came to a close. I was desperate to leave, yet successfully hid the existential crisis brewing inside me while I thanked her for her time. Obviously it seemed that she'd uncovered playing issues that must be so fundamental that most people would probably throw in the towel on their careers. Meanwhile, she seemed very matter-of-fact about her conclusion that I'd get a lot of mileage from moving my bow hand index finger up the stick and back towards my palm about one millimeter in each direction. It felt like fortune cookie advice at the time. Had I really traveled all the way to Italy for something so basic and surely too subtle to really make that much difference?
Twenty years later, I've thought about that moment in that one lesson dozens of times. I had nothing to lose by taking her advice, and it turned out that shortly thereafter I realized that her subtle bow hand adjustment made all the difference for how easily and smoothly I could play near the frog. ALL THE WAY TO THE FROG! It opened up some additional flexibility I needed, and from there I saw how I could develop more strength in my pinkie. Previously, the balance had never functioned quite right. With this, my confidence entered a new phase. Besides the technical improvements, it was a breakthrough to recognize that such a small shift could create magic.
There's a reason we're drawn to stories of hidden or lost treasure. If treasure was just laying about in the open it wouldn't be that special. We'd probably just call it leaves, or weeds, or even trash. How many magical moments do we miss, simply because we're distracted by our search for dramatic, obvious changes? Climactic changes happen too, but it's like people who go gambling or buy lottery tickets instead of investing. They could win big, but chances are they will lose big sooner than later. Meanwhile, they lose out on the chance to work towards a more assured sense of financial security. We've also all known people who pick up and move across the country in hopes of a fresh start. We may have done it ourselves. While everything is hopeful and new at first, many are soon back to where they started, perhaps with a new job or relationship, but the same issues that plagued them where they used to live. Moving may of course still be in someone's best interest, but it's not a surefire fix. We often have to look deeper. Get more subtle. Ask ourselves, what's really going on?
Similarly, musicians often get frustrated, and may even consider quitting, when they reach what they perceive as a plateau, often also accompanied by tension and stress becoming physical and it becoming uncomfortable to even play. When we stop making the huge strides so common and so easy to become acclimated to in the earlier stages of study, practice may become forced and making time for it tedious. Some may take on harder pieces, attempting to bust through and claim a new big win. Others simply let music gradually slip out of their lives.
Instead, when we're frustrated or feeling disconnected from our instrument, when we need to reignite our passion for music, what if we take a moment to take in our surroundings, including what besides our music practice might be going on in our lives? How are we feeling physically, mentally, emotionally? Are we striking a balance between our obligations, needs, and dreams? Are we nourishing ourselves in healthy ways, including food, sleep, friendships? Are we taking time for activities that inspire us and make us feel like magic is possible again, like attending a music performance, hiking to a mountaintop, volunteering with a community group, or listening to the wisdom of an elder? Are we breathing? Our music practice does not exist in a vacuum, separate from the rest of our lives.
Then, what if we shift our perspective? If we're frustrated by our intonation, maybe we spend some time exploring tone instead? Maybe we slow everything down, scan our body for unnecessary tensions, and enjoy making single notes beautiful - a meditation? Despite what the presence of sheet music might lead us to mistakingly believe, music is a listening art, entirely in the moment after all. What do we want to express? If we've been reading sheet music, maybe we spend some time improvising on whatever notes and rhythms come to us, connecting our movements and instrument to music that is entirely spontaneous.
And finally, we should always embrace a return to the basics, including even how we stand, sit, or hold our instrument or bow. Understanding changes. Bodies change. Sometimes a revisit or reset of fundamental principles and techniques reveals the missing puzzle pieces we need to get back on track.
Over the following two weeks or so, I returned to that same spot in the forest a handful of times, and found the owls sitting on the same tree or in the general vicinity on a few more occasions. Once I also saw a third owl and after getting a better look at them from a variety of vantage points and hearing their cry, I've come to believe that they are juvenile owls, probably siblings starting to explore their independence. The last few times I went I didn't see them, though they are probably still out there somewhere, hiding among the trees. As for the small dead tree, becoming an owl perch for a few weeks seems to have permanently shifted its trajectory off the trail. We never know when we might uncover hidden treasures, waiting silently and patiently for us to notice their subtle clues. We must be alert and ready to make the shift.
For related articles, see:
Music Lessons, Plateau’s, and Progress, July 2014