Lenna Pierce

Some Thoughts on “The Art of Practicing” by Madeline Bruser


Recently I was talking with two friends of mine—one of them four years old and the other aged six. The subject was music lessons: specifically, the question of why a person should have to endure them. I tried out all the usual explanations that have been put out by the piano teaching industry. Music makes you smarter, music helps you learn fractions, music helps you learn fine motor skills (I think I said, ‘how to move your fingers really well’). None of these rang true to the two small girls. Eventually I tried out a slightly more plausible explanation. ‘Music teaches you about different feelings.’

This one sounded more believable but it quickly fell apart upon closer inspection. An historical parade of drug addled, suicidal musicians danced past my eyes in the manner of a jazz funeral. I didn’t tell the girls about the parade but I continued to puzzle over the question in my mind for days. I’ve got an answer now that I’ve worked out to my own satisfaction and we’ll see what you make of it. The real reason is that learning music makes you brave.

Two kinds of bravery are required. The first is the bravery that allows you to ride a powerful wave of adrenaline, gracefully, in front of an audience without losing hold of the feeling you came there to express. The second kind of bravery is the courage to begin by playing a piece badly, spending so much time with your own clumsiness that eventually you are graceful.

These skills are not divorced from real life. Take the present moment, politically speaking. Born aloft on a wave of intense emotion, we are attending rallies. Do we also have the courage to take up a daily political practice? What would that look like? Should we stretch, sit upright in our chairs, breathe deeply and then call our senators every day? Where would we find the will to do so?

The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music From the Heart is a classic in the world of classical music. Written by a zen practitioner, it aims to perfect the experience of preparing music. So many musicians, like their activist counterparts, become addicted to the adrenaline of public performance, but neglect the humdrum daily practice that makes it powerful. Madeline Bruser’s method involves ten points for improving practice.

  1. Stretch: yes, by all means, stretch. Musicians, it is well known, are susceptible to carpal tunnel syndrome, but what about a pulled hamstring from a long march on Washington? What about picketer’s shoulder? What about frown fatigue where your face hurts from reading the news? Bubble your lips and roll your head all around—hopefully the news hasn’t already caused you to do this involuntarily.
  2. Settling in: The most meditative step, a grounding exercise. Take ten slow deep breaths, as slowly and deeply as possible, and focus your attention on your immediate environment. What do you hear, what do you see? Hopefully, not a Nazi. (You might notice that your normal breathing has become irregular due to the noxious cloud of fear which has descended upon the nation. Try to even out your breathing if you can: there’s no point in torturing yourself, that’s their job.)
  3. Tune into your heart: “Summoning your heart’s power is the final preparatory step for practicing...whatever state you’re in, this step allows you to penetrate the heart’s protective shield and enter the world of intense warmth and vitality.” In other words, allow yourself to feel. What feelings do you need to express? Is it the longing for a basic social safety net? Let your habitual shell of ironic detachment crack open. Remember how angry you were when you first learned how little this society cares about you and the people you love? That was the correct response. Hold onto that feeling.
  4. Use your body in a comfortable and natural way: While creating political change, do not allow yourself to be sexualized without your consent, nor neutered. Be both considerate and open to the possibility of joy. “Working with the production of musical sound [social change] involves pleasure and sometimes pain . . . We hear a lush, passionate section in a piece of Chopin [speech by our friend] and feel a rush of warm energy spreading through the body. The more we hear it the more we want to hear it again, until we feel saturated. It’s a love affair.”
  5. “You can cultivate spontaneity by paying attention to what you want to practice and by working in a way that interests you. This is step five: Follow your curiosity as you practice.” Probably you became an activist due to a thirst for knowledge. ‘How is the world run?’ you asked yourself. ‘How could it be better?’ Don’t let the bitter taste put you off your thirst for knowledge. Chocolate, beer, pan-fried greens: you love these bitter things.
  6. Recognize the three styles of struggle: 1) Overstated passion. “Train yourself to become aware of the range of tricks we all play on ourselves when we get overheated in the flames of passion.” 2) Avoidance. “We avoid dealing with music [social injustice] not only when we deliberately play it cool but also when we simply fail to notice the richness and detail in a composition [oppression].” See ironic detachment, above. And 3) Aggression. “Sometimes our aggression comes out in passages [situations] in which we feel technically insecure [completely helpless].” Emotionality, Detachment, Aggression: when faced with these instincts, we should ask ourselves whether they are serving us well.
  7. “Wanting a smooth, finished performance [political theory], we try to avoid the discomfort of being bewildered and out of control when we practice . . . But the uncomfortable moment of uncertainty is charged with vital energy that can transform us . . . This is Step Seven: Drop your attitudes and be simple.”
  8. Apply Three Listening Techniques: 1) Sing the Notes and Lines [be thoughtful and truthful in what you say]. 2) Place your attention on the vibrations [be empathetic and tuned into the people around you]. 3) Place your attention on each sound as it resonates in the space around you [consider the larger context of your actions].
  9. Organize notes into groups, phrases, and textures. Organize your friends around specific issues they have in common. Emphasize common ground.
  10. Place your attention on the sensations of touch and movement: Activism should be a force that brings people together. Be compassionate in how you practice.

Having breathed, having contemplated, having streeeeetched these ideas, I do feel a bit more ready to practice.

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