The Limitations/Gifts of Amateurs

   My former piano teacher, Elaine Bliss, writes:  “ever since your last blog, I have been  thinking about and composing a great pedagogical lecture about the art and techniques of practicing. About listening, discovering sounds, finding surprising new connections, revealed shapes of line, heard ‘silences’ between notes, unspoken ,ongoing messages to body about openness, receptivity to gradual magnification of inner voices/feelings.  All of that has to do with the sculpture of the music which comes carefully, thoughtfully, lovingly, arduously, while preparing the materials—the notes, fingerings, tonal /dynamic relationships, pedaling, underlying fundamental rhythm.  How to say these things as a prelude to the question of time of hours spent in practice that you brought up in your discussion?  The number of hours is just something that happens as necessary to achieve results. And many times, there aren’t enough.  And maybe never will be if the ends established by the performer are either not understood or not possible to achieve by  that particular performer. It is not the number of hours, but what what the musical goal is——–when that is clear, the  hours take charge.”

I love what you say, Elaine, but suspect that your insight stems, not just from your own innate talent, but from your many years of formal musical study. I am afraid that, for me, the  notes, fingerings, and fundamental rhythm of a piece still take precedence over the “sculpture of the music” that you speak of “which comes carefully, thoughtfully, lovingly, arduously, while preparing the materials.”  Perhaps, as you say, it is a matter of not having enough hours to work on it.  And, too often, I tend to take a teacher’s lead on the rest, without actually working that “sculpture” out for myself.  Maybe someday. It’s a slow process, as you say.

Stefanie, my current teacher, recently posted a link to a blog post on the site Musicovation: “On Amateurs” by Emily Hogstad, who writes, “Adult amateur musicians are almost universally embarrassed to play in front of other people. An adult who has just come to classical violin (or just returned to it) will invariably apologize for how they sound. Self-deprecating jokes – with an edge of desperation – proliferate. I can relate. If I’m ever complimented on my playing, I’ll smile graciously, but in the back of my head I’ll invariably think: honey, go to Minneapolis, watch a program of their Sibelius, and get back to me on how good you think I am.”

 She goes on to speculate about why: “Maybe the attitude comes from increasing levels of specialization not just in music, but in all fields. Maybe it’s because the boundaries of the musical world have grown so dramatically, from Bach to Xenakis, that you need to spend your whole life studying to start to do any of it justice. The proliferation of professional musicians? The way that classical music itself often attracts people who are obsessive and self-critical perfectionists?”

She nevertheless believes that listening to professional musicians is important because”we amateurs can’t do what they’re doing. Our shortcomings make the full glory of their achievement possible, and special.”  Again, I think of Elaine who recommends Vladimir Ashkenazy’s recording of the Rachmaninov Variations on a Theme of Corelli that I am preparing for my recital next year. I will listen to it eventually; but not until I have enough of it “under my fingers” that I won’t be too discouraged by the distance between what he can do with it and what I will be able to do.

Hogstad closes with this encouragement: “If you can draw out a sound from your instrument that is occasionally halfway beautiful, you are capable of instilling joy. Even amateurs. Especially amateurs. Take advantage of that fact. So if you’re an amateur, I want to hear how you play. More than that, I want you to be proud of how you play. Unapologetically so. I want to congratulate you for caring enough about yourself and the art that speaks to you to take the time out of your busy day to do something as demanding as playing a musical instrument.”

Thanks, Emily.

I have just started a remarkable novel, The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham. One of the characters, Tyler, is a 43-year-old composer and musician who now plays at a bar two nights a week.  His brother describes him as “Tyler, with his fierce concentration and his athletic ease and his singular gift for music (who knew, at the beginning, just how gifted you’ve got to be?).” Tyler is trying to write a wedding song for his long-term girlfriend, who is dying. As he works on the song, he keeps undercutting himself, thinking about the song the way he wants it to be: “he can imagine it, and as time goes by he lives with growning unease in the region between what he can create and what he can envision.”

But perhaps we all do that; some of us just beat ourselves up more than others when we can’t achieve what we envision.

Lora Keller, in response to my last posting which was partly about Madeline L’Engle’s journals, sends this link to the article “Madeline L’Engle on Creativity, Hope, Getting Unstuck, and How Studying Science Enriches Art” by Maria Popova, who writes, of L’Engle,

“Like Einstein, whose mythology holds that he came up with his greatest physics breakthroughs during his violin breaks, L’Engle turns to music to overcome creative block in her writing, tickling the timid intuitive self into reengaging with the intellectual when the latter is on overdrive:

Playing the piano is for me a way of getting unstuck. If I’m stuck in life or in what I’m writing, if I can I sit down and play the piano. What it does is break the barrier that comes between the conscious and the subconscious mind. The conscious mind wants to take over and refuses to let the subconscious mind work, the intuition. So if I can play the piano, that will break the block, and my intuition will be free to give things up to my mind, my intellect. So it’s not just a hobby. It’s a joy.

“Indeed, this cross-pollination of different faculties is central to what makes L’Engle’s writing so bewitching. She applied it not only to different aspects of the self, but also to different domains of knowledge. To write her most beloved book, A Wrinkle in Time, she drew on quantum mechanics and particle physics; she infused A Wind in the Door with cellular biology; in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, she fused ancient Celtic religions with relativity theory.”

Popova goes on to say, “Indeed, [L’Engle’s] greatest gift is the assurance that strength — creative strength, moral strength — is gained not despite the presence of adversity but because of it. Compared to the greatest failures of humanity, the personal failures and rejections and fractures of the spirit we encounter on a much more microscopic level in our daily lives may be less dramatic and consequential, but they often feel no less disheartening. L’Engle’s own creative journey was paved with them — A Wrinkle in Time was so unlike anything else that it was rejected by every major publisher for more than two years, until one finally took a chance on what would become one of the greatest children’s books of all time. …. [L’Engle] aims to remind the reader of the world’s ‘grim realities’ but to frame them in a way that makes the possibility of overcoming them feel equally real, using storytelling as a “way to keep people from falling away from one another.”

How much we need such storytelling in times of darkness– either what we see as our own personal failures (another rejection this week) or the world’s (the Taliban’s killing of schoolchildren in Pakistan).

Passages from the I Ching (Richard Wilhhelm translation) come to me in light of all this: from Limitation (60): “unlimited possibilities are not suited to man [sic]; if they existed, his life would only dissolve in the boundless. To become strong, a man’s life needs the limitations ordained by duty and voluntarily accepted;” from Modesty (15): “A superior man of modesty and merit/Carries things to conclusion. Good fortune;” and The Creative (1): “The Creative works sublime success,/Furthering through perseverance. …Furthering is correlated with justice, which creates the conditions in which each receives that which accords with his being, that which is due him and which constitutes his happiness.”

The image for Limitation in the I Ching is a lake. It says, “A lake is something limited. Water is inexhaustible. A lake can contain only a definite amount of the infinite quantity of water; this is its peculiarity. In human life too the individual achieves significance through discrimination and the setting of limits.”

Dr. Edward Slingerland also refers to Chinese philosophy of wu wei in his recent book, Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity. “Our culture is very good at pushing people to work hard or acquire particular technical skills. But in many domains actual success requires the ability to transcend our training and relax completely into what we are doing, or simply forget ourselves as agents.”

So, to come full circle, Elaine, probably you are right. Eventually, like L’Engle, we need to “relax” into our training and to trust it to produce something of value.

Perhaps, come to think of it, that is precisely what we amateurs are particularly capable of doing.

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