I have another confession to make.
I like Jillian Michaels. Jillian is one of the trainers on The Biggest Loser and is currently producing her own show, Losing It. Controversial she may be, but she gets results.
On a recent episode of Losing It, Jillian said something that is also very apropos to violin study:
“You tell your body what you need it to do and it will do it. You have the capability. You have the potential….The only way to really fail is to give up.”
Being healthy is easy. We already know what to do. Unless you live in a cave, it’s hard to escape the constant droning from The People Who Know What Is Best For Us: Exercise! Eat Smaller Portions! More Veggies! Less Red Meat! No Empty Calories! Don’t Smoke! Find God! No Carbs! Low Carbs! Good Carbs! Moderation! Willpower! Yikes! We have way too many choices at our disposal, and way too many people getting rich off of our insecurities.
What our Keepers conveniently forget to mention is that, for many of us, the process is hard, no matter which one you choose. It’s hard to convince your body to do things that are good for it. It’s hard to give up (or moderate) steaks and Jack Daniels, chocolate chip cookies and tortilla chips with ranch dressing (ahem). Your body doesn’t naturally crave pain or stress, and it might even rebel for a couple of weeks, thinking you are depriving, starving or killing it. But if you don’t quit, it will eventually adjust and move up to the next level.
Likewise, violin playing is easy. Yes it is. I’ve heard many people — amateurs, parents, non-musicians, “music lovers” and violin teachers — comment on how difficult it is (or must be), but I disagree. Like with healthy living, it’s the process — the development of new habits and routines — that is hard. In order to make the product (the playing) easy, we break down the process into small, manageable bits. Even though our goal is to make all performance natural and effortless, experienced players can quickly forget how much work is involved, even if it doesn’t seem like work. After we’ve been playing for a while, we stop consciously thinking about all the individual commands that our body needs to learn in order to be successful. And our body adjusts and we move on to the next level as performers.
You tell your body what you need it to do. One thing I’ve learned from training is that I can do a lot more than I think I can. My body has the ability already to exceed what I’m asking it to do. We shortchange our ability and endurance, limit ourselves with the word “enough”: I’m not strong enough; I’m not thin enough; I’m not pretty enough; I’m not conditioned enough; I’m not smart enough. We think we’re being humble and self-effacing when we say things like that, but in reality we are telling ourselves that we are failures in a “nice” way.
The same is true with practicing. You tell your left hand and right hand what you need them to do. It really is as simple as that. They have no other choice but to respond. Your hands have the same ability as Itzhak Perlman’s. He doesn’t have some magical formula that makes him play better than the rest of us mortals. He doesn’t wave a magic wand, have a fairy godmother, or yell “Ala-ka-zam” at the top of his lungs. He doesn’t expect someone else to do the work for him. He learned how to do it the same way you do: by mastering the process.
And it will do it. As long as you focus on the act of doing, your body will reward you. If you tell your ring finger to plop down on the third finger tape, with the inside corner of the tip contacting the tape and with a nice relaxed base knuckle, your finger better do what it was told, or there is something wired wrong in your brain. If you tell your bow to seat on the string and travel steadily for four metronome clicks, it better do it because that is how your brain is wired. It may not be pretty or graceful. It may feel awkward. It may look strange. But your body will do what you tell it do, regardless of whether you are in the gym or the practice room.
You have the capability. You have the potential. Same principle, different phrasing. Your body already has both the capacity to do the work, and the potential to learn to work more efficiently. Exercise is simply training your body to use its resources in the most efficient manner possible. Violin practice involves training your body to execute commands in the most efficient musical way possible. The bow may travel for four clicks, but the steady part might take a few tries before it actually sounds even and your arm doesn’t shake from the effort to control the stroke. Your ring finger might not land with absolute precision every time at first, but working it slowly and with attention will improve its accuracy and efficiency.
The only way the really fail is to give up. Much of the drama on Biggest Loser and Losing It arises from emotional blocks and walls that were created by giving up. The ongoing plot in these shows, aside from the incredible amount of weight loss, is seeing the contestants re-engage with themselves and morph into new people, emerging triumphantly from the rubble of the emotional destruction.
Practice fail occurs when we settle for “good enough”, instead of continuing to review and refine both our commands and our execution. When you give up, you stall out where you’re at. You create your own walls. And they can be really hard to break down.
Sometimes it is difficult and painful to work through issues, to push through to the next level. The easy path would be to give up and pretend that everything is OK. But in the end, you will be a better person and a better violinist for having had the courage and perseverance to lose the excuses.