This month marks the five-year anniversary of Musical Me. I conceived of beginning to play the violin and of chronicling my musical pursuit via this blog whole-cloth on a dreary Monday afternoon in October 2013 as I mourned a dead cat and too much wasted time in my life. The writing and my playing were twin pursuits hatched from the same egg. I believed my writing in a public forum would hold me accountable to playing, which I thought would help wake up a defunct part of my brain. By writing a story for anyone who stumbles upon it to read about my musical re-awakening, I’d be harder pressed to fail at either part of the project.
Writing has long been a skill I’ve worked to hone. One thing I’m aware of that separates successful writers from unsuccessful ones is that the successful ones do a lot of it. While I’ve always known I can string words together into sentences better than some, I’ve also known that if I ever hope to seriously pursue writing I need to do more of it. For a while, this blog helped me toward that goal. At first, I posted fifteen to twenty times per month, up to a record twenty-one posts in September 2014. But since then, my blog output has fallen steadily, currently standing at two or three posts per month. While I still enjoy keeping this blog and have no plans to stop, for me, writing has never become a practice.
Practice has two meanings, interrelated but quite different. One is doing something repeatedly over time to gain proficiency at it. The other is doing something consciously over time with the belief that doing the thing somehow makes the practitioner into a better human. In the former, there’s an output goal – success is measured by the product. In the latter, there’s an input goal – did I do the thing today? And then, only over stretches of time, practitioners can start to evaluate a much bigger question – does the thing feed me? How?
While almost everyone can relate to practice in the first sense of the word, from my observations of our species I know that most people do not engage in a conscious practice of the second type. This notion of conscious engagement is essential to the project of practice as a tool for self-improvement – in fact, conscious engagement itself is really all that’s required. Approached with intent, almost any activity can be a practice. While there are many pursuits commonly understood as such (examples include meditation, yoga, martial arts, the daily devotional readings of the religious), music is not generally lumped into these categories. Indeed, I think it’s safe to say that for many if not most players, music is not a practice. Most experiences of music are rooted in performance, simple enjoyment, or even vocation. All are completely worthy goals, but they are not really what playing the violin is all about for me.
Five years into beginning, playing the violin is now a part of me. My weekly lessons anchor me. I aim to practice five days a week, and I almost always manage four or five. Generally I practice for an hour, sometimes more, almost never less. I practice on days I don’t feel like it; I return to my instrument with joy and anticipation when I’ve been away traveling for a few days. The day-to-day practice is, itself, why I play the violin at all.
By doing this thing, I’ve certainly improved in my ability to play the instrument. No surprise there. I can see a steady progress in my skill level over the years. There are few, if any, moments of inspiration I can point to as lightning bolts; that’s just not the way it happens. But the sounds coming from my violin have, over time, improved. My teacher has helped me to find concrete things to work on along the way – vibrato, relaxing the bow arm, the angle of my left hand vis-à-vis the fingerboard. Sometimes I focus on them, sometimes I don’t. But always, I practice.
Disciplined practices become parts of the practitioner in ways other activities do not. As the years go by, our practices become filters through which we process our world. Since our processing and perception of our world is, in fact, the only thing we can ever really know about our world, those perceptions are what our world becomes. This realization has helped me see that my practices allow me to create the world I want to live in.
This way of seeing things was not why I began the two pursuits that have become my practices. I’ve been practicing the martial art of Seido Karate for close to fifteen years; I started training primarily to add a supplemental fitness activity to my running and to meet some new people in a new town. I’ve been practicing the violin for five years; as I wrote above, I primarily wanted a way to fill some time productively – why not wake up the musical part of my brain that I’d let atrophy? I also always harbored a tinge of regret at quitting when I was twelve years old.
Regardless of my motivations in the beginning, it didn’t take long for both activities to rise to the level of practice. Karate laid the groundwork for my musical practice – my martial art is rooted in a culture that nearly fetishizes practice. Karate as a primer on the concept of a practice enabled me to see the benefits of all serious sustained pursuits.
The benefits of engaging with practices are hard to overstate. Over these past five years, I have experienced a deep fulfillment upon seeing relationships between my karate, my music, and my highest ideals develop. In my karate training, my partnerships and my own limits and successes help me experience and embrace all the wonderful complexities of the breadth of humanity. In playing the violin, aspiring to do justice to the creativity of humanity’s greatest composers helps me understand how achingly rare and beautiful the heights of human artistic achievement can be.
Practices grind and forge. They polish, scratch, and digest. They create and reveal realities for practitioners that hew tightly unto our lived experiences. The human condition is built of triumphs and sorrows, of aches and ecstasy, of beauty and grime. Real practice never makes perfect – perfection has nothing to do with being human. But making music has, for me, become a definitive part of the project.
Thanks for reading.