Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

Having spent many hours entombed in a practice room, I am all too familiar with the concept of working in solitary confinement. In music, you do all the tough stuff alone. Sure, you have lessons weekly, but the other six days and twenty-three hours you slog away at it, hopefully (and sometimes miraculously) productively, but for better or for worse...alone.

Practicing alone means you must become the surrogate teacher, which means you must practice with critical eyes and ears, and correct yourself when things go wrong. You have to have the will to make yourself go over a passage again and again and again -- not until you get it right, but until you know you'll never get it wrong. Being both teacher and student is difficult enough, but having to alternate personalities in the blink of an eye (or the clunk of a note) is one of the biggest challenges musicians face. 

Interestingly, I'm entirely OK with that entire scenario.  Practice is our hard work, and despite the criticism we must both inflict and endure, any professional musician knows it is absolutely necessary.

For better or for worse, in most facets of life, I suspect the majority of people have the self-criticism drill down cold.  Praise, however, is a different matter entirely.  Self-praise doesn't fix problems, solidify technique or make you a better person just because you say so.  The only reward for nonstop personal back-patting is sore arms.  So I tend not to do it all that often.  Whether it be music or work or parenting or what have you, I prefer to let my actions do the talking, and, it's my full expectation that if all goes well, I'll hear about it.

The problem is, not everybody plays according to my rule book, and there are times when the atta-boys are nowhere to be found.  I'm always open to a hearty handshake, a "good job" or a virtual high-five, but sometimes they aren't to be had.  And then what?  The answer to that isn't so easy.  It doesn't matter if you are a professional musician, a diligent worker bee, a student, an employee or a parent.  The fact is, in this world, there are many times when you have to be your own marching band, pep rally and cheerleader rolled into one.  Nobody is ever going to do for you all that you need precisely when you need it.  You must do for yourself, and as long as you can keep it in perspective, it's just fine.  But there is always that other side: the side that thrives on pleasing others, the side that wants to make a difference in this world, be it through work, or education or parenting.  That side waits like a dog in front of an empty food dish for any sort of scrap of encouragement.  You can be the strongest, most self-assured person on the planet, but there is nothing harder, frustrating and demoralizing than spinning 25 plates in the air and looking up to discover half the people have left to get popcorn, and the other half are asking why you aren't doing 26.

As a teacher I know there is more than enough time to criticize and correct.  After all, it's how we all learn.  But as a person I know there should always be time to praise.  Even with the most inexperienced student, there is always something good to say.  Remembering to take the time to say "good job" in a personal, sincere manner is just as important and twice as valuable as being another body in the crowd of a standing ovation.  It might not seem like much, but just a few kind words makes all those lonely hours totally worth it.

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