Against Practice

| October 25, 2010

I’m getting ready to give a workshop for the Music & Music Education program at Teachers College, and I’ve been thinking lately about the paradoxes of practicing, teaching, and performing. One of the things that strikes me as particularly challenging for musicians and music educators, is the question of repetition. What are we doing when we repeat something? This is a question that runs through each of these often separated domains of practice, teaching and performing. We should thus not be surprised if many of the challenges that arise in these areas spring from the assumptions we make about it. But likewise, music provides a unique context for getting to the heart of the matter.

For every repetitive strain injury, suggestion repeated to a student for the thousandth time without being taken up, rote and mechanical practice session, or stage fright at the thought of not being able to measure up to a pre-existing piece, there is also the opportunity to draw on a sense of rhythm and variation, refrains, variations around a theme, interpretation and expressiveness, improvisation, and on and on…

Music moves us. It sweeps us up and takes us along. It evokes possibilities and experiences in us, and between us, that resonate as both strange and familiar at the same time. It is perhaps something like this that speaks to us enough to want to be a part of it: to listen to it, make it, perform it, to want to teach others, to hum a tune, or be in a band. To have it be a part of the cycles of our lives.

It can also thus torment us, get stuck in our heads, cause our throat to gasp and seize, shoot excruciating pain up an overtaxed arm, mount in a dull ache in our back or neck, wind us into a fright, insist we match something we are not, dictate a rhythm not our own, hold up an image of perfection that lives outside of us.

So what are we to do? How do we achieve the heights, Carnegie Hall? Every musician knows the answer.

But all too often that is simply a code word for pushing through, of sucking it up and waiting it out. A way of avoiding having to say the truer answer, which is “I don’t know.” This is particularly true for us educators, tasked with both knowing and transmitting, while often secretly befuddled about the actual process. Once more from the top…

If we are lucky, things will sort themselves out. Learning has a way of happening. More or less. Up until the point where it doesn’t. We may not even remember where it went astray, when we left aside our instrument, gave up on performing, or settled into a rut of interminable practice or teaching, going through the motions.

The problem however, may not be so much with ourselves, or our motivation, or the breakdown of our bodies, as with our notions of repetition. In Difference and Repetition, the philosopher Gilles Deleuze argues that part of our western heritage, passed on over the ages, is a notion of repetition that subordinates it to identity or sameness. We can only repeat what already is. This is easily enough seen expressed in both education and in music. In traditional education, the knowledge exists and the process of learning involved being able to match it. We repeat until we can repeat accurately and on demand. But it is the self-sameness of the idea that determines the accuracy of the repetitions. 2+2 always equals 4.

In music, the most obvious manifestation is perhaps the score. “Do you have the music?” is a telling phrase. And yet, the score itself is, we tend to casually presuppose, merely a repetition of the abstract and enduring piece itself, conceived by the composer. When we practice or perform we are repeating and giving expression to this ideal.

But, Deleuze suggests, what if we were to free repetition from its slavery to “the same”? What if repetition and difference had a life of their own? How would we conceive of education and music then?

It is no accident that I titled the workshop I will be giving this Wednesday “Music Embodied.” Submitting ourselves to an external ideal often leaves us feeling out of touch with our own sensations, and divorced from the rich wealth of learning that we can resource if we learn how to attend to the differences and variations that we find in ourselves. Moshe Feldenkrais, founder of the Feldenkrais Method of movement education, famously said:

we can’t do what we want, if we don’t know what we are doing.

In learning to attend to the differences and repetitions of our sensations, we can move from practicing preconceived things, to exploring the expressive possibilities that are at the heart of music making. On Wednesday we will explore ways of engaging ourselves, initiating movement without jumping to conclusions, repeating without fixing, and learning without correcting, that allow our own fierce intelligence and natural affinity for music to come through, challenging us to find ways to learn and thrive without having to tough out the practice.

Paradoxically, in order to find the rhythm we have to learn to stop repeating ourselves.

For more information on the free workshop, click here.