Being Present

Late last month I went to visit some friends in Minneapolis. Before I left town I posted an innocent straightforward question about bowing variations on the discussion board; when I came back, I logged in to see what my fellow fiddlers had to say. I was expecting an answer or two. As of this writing, there are twenty-seven. Granted, they contradict each other – but still, they were all thought-provoking. Surprisingly, the main thing I’ve taken away from the discussion is not how to practice bowing variations, but rather something deeper: I need to be more present when I practice. I need to pay more attention to what I’m doing. I have a feeling that if I am and if I do, those bowing variations will fall into place. Or at the very least be easier.

Earlier today I remembered that back in March 2009 Laurie Niles talked with James Ehnes about focusing during practicing. So this afternoon I clicked back for a much-needed reread. Ehnes was the guy who just about singlehandedly made me take this violin stuff seriously, and I remember reading this interview when it was first posted (actually more than once *cough*). The bit about focusing during practice really stuck out to me. I remember admiring the sentiment, and finding it to be very wise, and well worth listening to. But apparently my admiration is occurring on some far distant mental plane, because you know what? I’m not listening.

In modern Internet parlance: D:

I’ll describe a bit of my thoughts as I read. Bold is Ehnes. Italic is me.

Sometimes, when people learn a piece, they’re very focused.

*thinks back to the early days of learning Bruch a year ago* Mm-hmm. They have to be.

They have to be.


They have to be, they’re first getting it in the hands. Then when they are actually in the preparation-for-performance phase, they get into this sort of a trance-like run-through phase. They’ll run it through, every day. I gotta run it through, gotta run it through… The mind starts to get a little bit on autopilot.

Old news, Mr. Ehnes. I should be able to haul out a metaphorical fingernail file to use to while away the time as I read these words. I have, after all, played for twelve years, and this is kinda sorta one of those basic things that a person learns early on.


I can’t help but think of all the times during my recent “practice sessions” where I’ve run through Bruch “for fun.” In the hallway at orchestra rehearsal. In the front hall in front of a mirror. In the bathroom in front of a mirror. In the bedroom in front of a mirror. In the bedroom not in front of a mirror. Anywhere in the house, for no reason whatsoever besides the fact that life is short and stressful and invariably depressing and sometimes a girl just needs to hammer through some gritty wangsty Germanic Romantic-era quadruple stopped chords, you know?, and does it really matter if they always sound muted and smothered?, because I mean, unlike some people, I really love the Bruch, and I respect it, I really do, and someday obviously I’ll get to those quadruple stops, and actually work on them, and do some bowing exercises, and fingering exercises, or whatever the heck kind of exercises one does to improve quadruple stops, and all of them will ring nice and clear someday, and I’m sure I’ll be able to play them on command flawlessly and they will be lovely and beautiful and – what were we talking about? Focusing? Right.

Laurie then asked Ehnes: “How do you make the focus happen?”

Yes, James. How do you make the focus happen? Tell us.

*takes a deep breath*

*prepares for massive life-changing earth-shattering revelation*

Just stop, start from where you last knew you had your focus, and really pay attention, really listen.


Is there anything in the world that sounds easier? Is there anything in the world that’s more difficult?

Maybe he has a shortcut…

*scrolls down to see if he mentions a shortcut*

People who practice well can get more done in an hour than people who practice poorly can get done in a lifetime.

Yes, I agree with this. But what you’ve just described is hard. And I’m not so keen on hard. You’re a frigging violin god. Can you spare a shortcut for a mortal?

The focus during practice sessions is so important.

*muttering* There is no shortcut, is there?

Too many young people get caught up in “time,” logging the hours.

FOR SHAME, young people. FOR SHAME. I’ve never been concerned about “time” or “logging the hours” or felt pride because I’ve played two or three hours in an afternoon without a goal or knowing if I’ve achieved it. Never ever ever done that. Especially recently. Never. *shifty eyes*

If people can have a particular goal in mind, and if reaching that goal can take on more important than just logging the hours, then I think real progress can start to happen. Of course, you want to make sure that the student is spending enough time to build up stamina, and build up that level of concentration. But when you are dealing with advanced students, if they’re saying, “Now I’m 16, now I’m getting serious about getting into the conservatory so now I need to practice X number of hours a day…” Well, maybe you should think of it in terms of, “I want to learn this piece and this piece, by this time,” that might be a more valuable way of looking at it.

*deep breath* Okay. This is familiar. Buri has said this before. Multiple times. He talks about this about as often as he discusses prunes. Maybe more often. And if Buri and Ehnes say it, then as far as I’m concerned, it’s Violinistic Gospel.


You know…


I should work on this.

Now I’m looking back and cringing, thinking of all the times I’ve played through Bruch in a distracted totally half-*ssed manner, using it as a brainless emotional release valve way before it should have been used as such. Granted, 2011 has been Emily’s Year From The Deepest Innermost Pits of Hell (TM), and everything and everybody in my life is shifting and evolving and changing, and I’ve never been so distracted in my life, and oh, did I mention that I’ve had a crappy craptastic year of crappiness? And so I acknowledge that a little distraction is warranted. But…still. It’s a little dispiriting I didn’t even have a clue this was happening. It’s terrifying, really. What else have I been doing on auto-pilot? What else am I doing without realizing? Will I catch myself in time?

I need to shift my perspective. Recalibrate. I do this with my violin-playing every year or so, and it always helps. I need to go through my practice routine and see what stays and what goes. Scales: I need to figure out what I’m doing with them. They need a purpose; they deserve more than to be my precursory warm-up exercise. Kreutzer: I don’t need to learn how to play Kreutzer, I need to learn why I’m playing Kreutzer. What is each etude helping with? If I don’t know, then why the hell am I playing them? Bruch: if I choose to keep working on this (and I may ultimately decide to set it aside for a while), I’ll need to print out new music and really start afresh, isolating the tricky sections and working diligently with the metronome. In short: less what, more why. Less what, more why. Less what, more why.

In other words, I need to Be Present.

Who needs therapy when you play the violin?

(Or should that be, if you play the violin, then you really should be in therapy?)


Filed under My Writing

2 responses to “Being Present

  1. Pingback: A Goal | Song of the Lark

  2. Robert Keith

    Hey Emily, your blog really nailed it!   My piano teacher always use to say to me, ” Robert, how can I hear the music you play if you don’t  hear the music you play.  Anybody can grin out notes”.   That stayed with me.  Developing ones listening skills is most important.

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