Thursday, June 14, 2007

Pie It's Not; or, Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Why, oh why, just when we seem to be making progress, do we suddenly BOMB?

Yesterday's oboe lesson was so WEAK. I don't know what happened. I've been practicing DAILY. Scales, long tones, method book, and, dare I say it, "repertoire," embryonic though the latter may be. Practices have been going ok, with only a few bumps in the road due to fatigue, lack of technique, lack of know-how, what-have-you. Yesterday I was not fatigued. I was not nervous. I was having fun. 'My teacher was good-natured and laid back, as usual. And I just BOMBED. Couldn't even get through D major. Tone was horrible. Took 10 minutes of back-tracking and re-warming-up to regain my "sound." I was totally inconsistent. I kept making mistakes. I sputtered. What is UP with that?

I have a neurobiological theory, of course. I think when we learn a new skill and begin to practice it, our brains start rearranging little functions and electrical discharge patterns. Neurons adjust to new bursts of neurotransmitter, new connections. But I think there's a shifty phase when they're not quite comfortable with their new assignments. In the building process, with the "scaffolding still up" and some exposed parts here and there, I think some misfirings occur, and we have one of those dreaded bad days that supposedly everybody has. [Speaking of building: even during last week's barn-raising there was a major snafu that needed some re-working to resolve: the center post was actually off-center, so one of the major spans came up short!] I think eventually the activity patterns become established and coordinated, more orchestral, and the brain itself acquires new architectural elements, like a cathedral with a new wing. I guess I need to remember that every work-in-progress has to pass through major imperfections & ups & downs to get to a "more perfect" place.

If only it really were easy as pie. My family is very appreciative of my apple pie. My son calls it "Paradise Pie" because he says eating it is like being in paradise. When he was asked in school last November to write down instructions for how to make a turkey dinner, he wrote on his paper, "My family doesn't like turkey. We have ham and chicken at Thanksgiving." So his teacher asked him to make a list of instructions for any Thanksgiving dish, and he wrote,

How to Make a Pie.
Get 7 apples.
Bake a pie.
Eat it.

Love it! Wish I could apply that to music: pick up oboe, blow through reed, play music. Simple, right? If only!

And it's not like I can use an "oboe simulator" to learn. In medicine some of the best learning experiences I had were at our residency program's medical simulator. We could practice managing some pretty hair-raising scenarios and social psychology quandaries in the sim. I think it's the wave of the future for medical education and crisis management training. But to make music, I can't imagine there being an effective equivalent. The only way to be a musician is to keep TRYING to be a musician. I get so embarrassed when loving family members call me a "musician" - I feel so unworthy of the word right now!

Tonight I could only practice for a short time because it was close to the kids' bedtime by the time I got started. My son came up the stairs because he heard my scales. I said sheepishly, apologetically, that I wasn't that good. Like the supportive son that he is, he said, "I think you are, and you practice every day, so that makes you good." Sweet boy! My daughter soon joined us, and likewise said encouraging things that had more to do with her affection for her mother than her mother's abilities, but hey, no complaints here.

At the end of yesterday's lesson I asked Kyoko to play a portion of the Raymonda adagio I love, which I had transcribed clumsily onto some music paper a couple of nights before. I don't think I've ever heard it sound so beautiful. Wow. She has the perfect, rich tone and gentle vibrato for the piece. It sounded so gorgeous I could barely breathe. *Sigh* Something to aspire to...


Unknown said...

Practice? Learning? You climb, you reach a plateau... you internalise, climb again, reach a plateau... and objectivity is hardly the strong suit of the beginner, or indeed any of us when we are insecure (or overly cocky for that matter!). Meaning, with art, our job is to produce and let others do the judging.

Only thing is of course (now remembering your earlier entry), most people seem to need to be told by other people -- 'authorities' preferably --that something is worthwhile before they stop and pay attention.

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Elaine Fine said...

Learning to play any instrument takes a long time. It's almost as if the scales that you practiced last week won't really "take" until three months from now, and they will only "take" if you keep practicing them every day for an amount of time that you can't measure (a lifetime).

Of course as an oboist your chances of making the kind of sound that you want to make has a lot to do with your reed, and reedmaking is another skill that depends on the kind of experience you wrote about in your post about talent.

Still, I belive that impatience is a kind of virtue in music for adult beginners because we (and I consider myself an adult beginner, having started many new instruments as an adult) have high ideals and the intelligence to figure out how to reach them.

T. said...

Elaine, thanks for your supportive words of wisdom. I guess I just gotta keep at it! :)

Lee said...

Elaine has an interesting point about impatience. If I only knew how to be patient with my impatience!

AATF Eastern Massachusetts said...

"Lord, teach me patience... and do it right now!"

T. said...


That prayer just about somes me up!

T. said...

Oops, I meant "sums!"