Monthly Archives: June 2016

The Practice of Patience

My piano practicing fills several hours most days.

For all of my piano years I believed that if I played the same music and the same notes enough times it would become perfect. Though most of the piece improved I continued to stumble in the same places, day after day, week after week. It just needs more time I would tell myself. I believed that practice makes perfect, but it never really worked for me.

Someone said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent.” No wonder the mistakes continued. I had practiced them over and over until they became permanent. Not intentionally. But it’s what happened.

Dr. B has taught me that if I want correct playing I have to practice correct playing.  Begin at a snail’s pace, he suggests — whatever tempo is necessary to play every note correctly. In his studio, right notes take precedence over speed. Speed will eventually take care of itself he says.

Seven notes in Beethoven’s opus 109 have plagued me for weeks. Early on, Dr. B confirmed my fingering and suggested I slow drill until I mastered it. I did the drill. Still, I could only play it correctly on the fourth try. Never on the first try. Two weeks ago at my lesson we worked on those seven notes again. This time we started with two notes in the middle of the sequence, playing them in every octave on the piano. Then we added one more note and repeated the exercise.  We continued, adding one note at a time, until I could play all seven. Then he said, “If you will practice this passage exactly like this for two weeks you’ll have it.” DSC00192

I did what he said. Every day, the same slow, add-a-note drill. I practiced only right notes. Two weeks later I played it perfectly at my lesson. His method works. The right notes are now permanent.

My example is about music because it’s much of my life. But I believe the same slow deliberate step-by-step drill can apply to other things in our life. We need to stop, slow down, and practice getting the little things right before we rush to the finish line.

  • in your writing, study the metaphors of other authors, then use their patterns to create your own. Practice writing better sentences.
  • in your exercise, start with weights or reps that are relatively easy, then gradually add a little more, allowing your body time to practice at each weight.
  • in your art, experiment with your paints, learn how they behave, work on something small. Save the big canvas for later — after you’ve had a lot of practice.
  • in your kitchen, learn to make one item well, and then another, and then another — before you cook an entire dinner for company.

I continue to learn this lesson, this discipline, over and over. I often need reminders to slow down, get it right. But I’m impatient. I want to play the entire piece at the right speed — usually before I’m ready. Don’t many of us do the same thing?  We’re so anxious to reach the finish line, that we shorten or ignore the preparation process.  Then the finish is not what we’d hoped for because we refused to slow down, do the work, and perfect the small things.

Slow down. Do the work. Claim a better finish.

Until next Tuesday . . .

 

 

 

 

What did you make today?

I borrowed my title from Austin Kleon. He reports that his young son asked him, “What did you make today, Papa?” Austin’s a different kind of creative than I am, but no matter. I think his son asked a question worth pondering.

For me this question means more than mere production, more than our cultural  obsession with busyness, and more than status acquired by achievement.

The question is not “what did I do today,” but rather “what did I make today?

Let’s take the original question one step further:  What did I create today?  What did I do that hasn’t been done before?  What did I do that was uniquely me?

My list of what I did today is a no-brainer: I read a book, went swimming, cleaned the kitchen, unloaded the dishwasher, watered the garden, ran errands, made the bed. The “doing” list is always easy and long.  But what I made today, or what I created today, is a more difficult question. Maybe it’s because creativity is a convoluted, non-linear process. There’s no neat check-list of how to get from nothing to creation. And we don’t often think in terms of the creativity of our days.

And there’s one more problem: we think creatives are famous artists, famous musicians, famous writers, famous architects. Creative is not a word that describes me. It’s only for others. At least that’s what we often think.

Like Austin, some days I don’t create anything — because I’m tired, because I get caught up in doing, because there are too many distractions, or because other things demand my attention. Sometimes I get bogged down in wishful thinking — wishing I was doing the creative things that wander through my mind, begging for implementation.

As I search the last few weeks for my moments of creativity, I discover that some of them are quite small, not anything that would grab your attention. Here’s my list:

  • I’m composing my own variation on a familiar classical tune.
  • I created dinner with all the accompanying aromas for a friend.
  • I collaborated with a friend to create a party we’ll host in a few weeks.
  • I’m writing a new blog post every week, just for you.
  • I created a safe space in a conversation for sharing souls.

I wish I could say that I create something every day, but that’s not exactly how it works for me. But if I begin to see my days as times of creativity, I suspect I’ll discover I create more than I realize. The same is probably true of you, as well.

Ask yourself the same questions we began with:

  • what did I make today?
  • what did I create today?
  • what did I do today that was uniquely me?
  • how will I be creative tomorrow or next week or . . .

Until next Tuesday . . .

 

 

 

How do you count?

Friends and acquaintances often remark that I travel a lot — that I’m gone all the time — that I’m never home.

I always take issue with their assessment.  I’m actually home a lot, I say.  I’ve been home all week — practicing, writing, reading, doing household chores.

With the exception of last month, when two long trips happened back-to-back, I’m home most of the time.

But I’ve come to understand that I have a creative system for travel counting. For example, I don’t count a 100-mile afternoon trip when I return that evening.  I don’t count a trip to a nearby town, just to check it out.  I don’t count meeting a friend for dinner when we’ve both driven 50 miles to a central meeting place. I don’t count delivering my taxes to my accountant who happens to be 90 miles away.  You see, I only count the big trips — anything more than a weekend.  Anything less doesn’t get counted.

It’s helpful, and often an eye-opener, to look at our counting systems.  We count those things that support our personal perceptions.

When I play the piano, I know all the difficult pages, the impossible passages, the parts I believe I will never get.  I don’t count the measures I can already play well, the pieces that I can play from memory, or the amount of music I’ve learned this year.  I can’t seem to get past the current compositions I’m struggling with — and the mistakes, the lack of perfection.

Likewise, when someone compliments us on our stitchery, we are quick to point out the errors, the missed stitches, the places where we got it wrong, and how much we have yet to do.

And we forget all the positives that have been said to us but remember in great detail the negatives we’ve heard from parents, siblings, coworkers, teachers and bosses.  We drop the positives like a hot potato, but carry the negatives around, often for a lifetime.

We can recount our cooking failures much quicker than we can tell about our culinary successes.

Maybe it’s the negatives, the mistakes, that are the things we really believe. Of course we’re not good enough. Of course there are others who can do it better. Of course. Of course!!

I played a piece for my mentor the other day. I’ve been working on it for months and this was the first time I played it for anyone.  Was it perfect?  Absolutely not.  Were there mistakes? Lots of them. She acknowledged that I made it all the way to the end (positive).  Then she said she heard no dynamic changes throughout the piece (negative).

How to proceed?  (1) I can count a failure: I was missing the all-important dynamics. (2) I can count a positive: I can now play what was impossible; I just have to fix the dynamics.

It’s all in how I count.  Mistakes or progress. Struggles or improvement opportunities. Flaws or good spots.

Feeling like you’re not good enough?  Feeling like you’ll never accomplish your goals? Check your counting system.

Perhaps you’re counting the wrong things.

Until next Tuesday . . .

 

 

 

 

Rootedness

I was gone for ten days in early May. Though I’m not a worrier, I confess I was concerned about my recently landscaped back yard, my pots of herbs, and my gorgeous blue and yellow pansies that had been blooming since March. I watered heavily before I left but I was certain I’d return to a botanical graveyard.

Much to my surprise, the pansies were still blooming when I got home. In fact they were as lovely as ever. The mint nearly died, as well. I cut it back and hoped the little green nubbins would grow. The little pot of cilantro was the only casualty.

I nearly drowned my plants for four days. Then I left again for an undetermined amount of time. The two friends who were willing to water both have upper body joint issues that would be aggravated by hose dragging. So I left my garden untended, for who knew how long.

In situations like this, I often think, “What’s the worst that could happen — in my back yard?” All my plants will die. Then I forged a plan — just in case: I’ll buy new plants when I return.

A garden without water was beyond my control. If everything died, so be it.  Anything better than the worst outcome would be like icing on the cake.

Once I had a plan, I put my garden out of my daily thoughts. No reason to worry or fret or lose sleep over something I can’t do anything about.

Thirteen days later I returned home and rushed to my backyard garden.  Unpacking the car could wait til later.

The pansies were still blooming. The mint was two inches high and thriving. And . . . the hydrangeas were in full bloom — two bushes loaded with peppermint pink flowers. What a “Welcome Home” sight they were. Double icing on my cake with raspberry filling. That’s how happy I was!!

That night I watered for a long time, giving each plant a much-needed shower from my hose. I wanted them to experience my gratitude for their survival during three weeks of drought. They must have sent their roots deep in search of water and nourishment.

We need deep roots for our survival.  In the midst of trying times. When life is chaotic. When we have reason to expect the worst. When disappointments overwhelm.

Even then there can be moments of kindness. A shining star in the dark. A note of music in the noise. A touch in the loneliness. A smile with the tears.

A flower in your garden when you expected everything to be dead.

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Until next Tuesday . . .