The Long and the Short of It

I’ve been working on a book titled THE INTEGRATED STRING PLAYER. It’s an ambitious project, in length and scope. Once printed, the book will probably be about 350 pages long, and it'll include several dozen music examples. In addition, there’ll be a dedicated website with 80 video clips and 10 audio clips.

Ostensibly, the book is about musical techniques for violinists, cellists, and other string players, but it contains many concepts and tools that might be of interest not only to all musicians but also to non-musicians. If you’ve been receiving my newsletters for a while, you may have read a couple of excerpts from it. Here they are:

Before Everything Else, Do Nothing

Moving Identity

Writing music down is a complex art. There are hundreds of rules about key signatures, time signatures, clefs, instrumentation, note values and relationships, flats and sharps, dynamics, beams and stems, and so on. Musicians learn these rules partly by technical training, partly by trial and error. The rules are so complex that most musicians have blind spots, gaps, and misunderstandings. And behind our blind spots and gaps, there lurk fears and anxieties.

To set the music examples on the book, I used a program called Sibelius (named after a great Finnish composer). It’s like word processing for music scores.

In order to use the program, you have to have a decent understanding of music rules, of course; plus, you have to have a decent understanding of the software itself. Given how complex music is, the software is necessarily complex, too. It doesn’t matter how user-friendly the thing is—you still need to learn a million things to be able to use it properly. The whole endeavor is complexity, multiplied.

The Sibelius manual is 800 pages long.

To describe one of the exercises in the book, I needed to create a page of music with an intricate graphic design. How long did it take me to do it?

Hours, minutes, and seconds, measured by the clock, would seem to make time a linear and straightforward matter. The clock makes time appear objective. Everybody knows what five minutes means! The only problem is that the clock and your mind work in different ways. The clock’s predictable objectivity doesn’t correspond to how life feels to you.

The page I created is about an exercise I learned from one of my cello teachers, Mr. Aldo Parisot, around 1981 or 1982. I’ve been practicing the exercise ever since, and over the decades I’ve also taught it to dozens of players. It’s a wonderful exercise that really helps a string player coordinate his or her left hand at the instrument. So, I’ve spent 35 years practicing, teaching, describing, and annotating the exercise, which I call The Cat’s Leap.

I bought my Sibelius software around 2005. At first I was quite intimidated and discouraged by how much work there seemed to be in learning how to use it. I’d open the program, fiddle with it a little, and give up. Postponement and avoidance, guilt and shame, woo hoo! But about two years ago I started using the program more regularly and more intelligently. It’s indeed a complex program—there’s no way around it—but it happens to be exceedingly useful. I’ve spent 11 years circling around Sibelius and finding ways of dealing with it (or, more precisely, dealing with my postponement and avoidance, which isn't really about Sibelius).

I think I spent ten, 12, or 15 hours all counted on the page in question. But most of the time, I was studying Sibelius and its workings. The hours spent on the page will make future score-setting endeavors go much faster for me.

How long did it take me to write the book? How long did it take me to record my 80 video clips? How long did it take me to revise and edit them? How long did it take me to record my 10 audio clips? How long—

Well, you get the idea. How long do things take?

The time that it takes to do something is also the time that it takes for you to learn to do it.

I’m turning 58 this year. It takes me a second to type three words at the computer, but it has taken me 58 years to get to the point here & now, where it takes me a second to type three words at the computer. 58 years, 35 years, 11 years, 15 hours, a minute, a second—they’re all happening at the same time. The real clock is a kaleidoscope, a spiral, a labyrinth, a ziggurat, a mirage; time has a thousand interlocking dimensions, and your life is as long as it is short.

It feels really good to learn things, and it feels really good to spend time learning things. And time spent learning is immeasurable.

Mr. Parisot, by the way, is 95 years old and going strong, still teaching at Yale and conducting his cello ensemble, still a rambunctious little boy. He's the Cat's Leap, personified!

©2016, Pedro de Alcantara




Isn’t it strange that you can practice law, practice the piano, have a spiritual practice, and practice for your wedding?

Maybe it’s just a play on words. Or maybe the word “practice” itself is rich in meaning, and therefore useful to us. It comes to us from Greek, via Latin.

Greek praktikos "fit for action, fit for business; business-like, practical; active, effective, vigorous," from praktos "done; to be done," verbal adjective of prassein, prattein "to do, act, effect, accomplish."

To act, to accomplish; effective, vigorous. And “not theory.” Not in your head, not in a book, not a dogma, not dead. Practice must be a doing, even if you practice it in a Zen-like non-doing manner.

For our purposes, we’ll define it as something that you do regularly, in a committed and organized manner, leading to an increase in awareness and presence. It exists in a thousand forms, including the professional set of skills learned and performed with a particular frame of mind (to practice law), the creative set of skills borne of exercising specific gestures over weeks, months, and years (to practice the piano), and the quest for connection with the ineffable through prayer, meditation, song, and sacrifice (to have a spiritual practice).

How to practice practice, so to speak? Walking works beautifully for many people. Decide to walk every day—perhaps to and from work. Or perhaps as a break from work: a walk in the park, or pacing the rooftop terrace of your office building and thinking about life over a hundred rounds of a very short walk, back and forth, back and forth. Walking the dog is a practice.

You can get serious and take the Road to Santiago, the pilgrimage first established in the 9th century. Walk from somewhere in Western Europe all the way to Santiago de Compostella in northwestern Spain.

Or decide to walk barefoot, full-time or part-time. My friend John does it full-time, and he’s, like, oh man, so alive! Inspired by John, I started walking barefoot part-time three years ago. There have been whole days in which I stayed barefoot, including in winter, out in the rain, or riding public transportation. It’s an exercise in awareness and in not-worrying-about-what-people-would-say. And it happens to be extremely pleasurable.

Another practice is committing to a time and a place, and going there on a regular basis. It could be the street market every Sunday, for instance. Plan your meals, interact with the fruit sellers, watch people, taste fresh foods, enjoy life.

Or go to Starbucks frequently and use it as an office, for creative work or for office work. You can go to the same café many times in a row, or to a different café each time. Both have merits. The main thing is to go and be there, doing something again and again over weeks and months. You’ll meet people at your Starbucks office, make friends, become attached to the place and its neighborhood. And you’ll get your work done. How different is it from going to a corporate job and sitting in a cubicle looking at a computer screen? Perhaps it’s the same thing; or perhaps the cubicle can become the same thing—that is, a practice—provided that you find the attitude that transforms a constraint, imposed by circumstances, into a commitment you choose to make, with the result of your becoming alert and present.

Spiritual practice takes a thousand shapes. Here’s one: going to church every week, or perhaps most days, or perhaps every day, or perhaps twice a day. One of my devout friends calls the institution of the church a vessel for his spirituality.

My friend considers that there is no spirituality without a vessel. Dwelling in the vessel is a practice, whether the vessel is material (a building) or symbolic (a paradigm and an institution). Perhaps it’s the practice that matters, rather than the vessel. Or perhaps the vessel counts for something. All I know is that entering temples, cathedrals, chapels, and basilicas, in Paris and in my travels, is always transformative. I wonder what would happen if I did it every day, without exception.

A lifetime commitment to the church is, of course, a very formal and deep practice. Other spiritual practices are more informal. Some formalists pooh-pooh the informalists. But that's OK; the informalists pooh-pooh the pooh-pooh.

You can practice a simple exercise, returning to it often and over a span of years. In sports there are many such exercises: the golf swing, the free throw in basketball, the rope skipping of a boxer. Here’s a kind of warm-up stretch. Sit on the floor, with legs bent; bring the soles of your feet together, and hold your feet with your hands; try to lower your knees until they touch the floor; now lean your trunk forward. Do it once or twice, and it comes across as an uncomfortable and possibly useless exercise. But do this one stretch every day for twenty-five years, and you might discover all sorts of dimensions, to the exercise and to yourself as you respond to the exercise.

The form of your practice—yoga, Tai Chi, tango—might be very important . . . or not. After all, every form has its enlightened practitioners and its zombies. Shadow boxing could be as integrative as an ancestral martial art. Air guitar? You bet. “Star Wars” lightsaber play-acting? Of course. The main thing is to commit to the practice and to do it with all your heart.

And then there’s the practice of a creative skill, whether you do it professionally or for pleasure alone. A drawing a day, for instance—fast or slow, as you wish; take thirty seconds or thirty minutes. Choosing pencils, sharpening them, leafing through a sketchbook, translating the swirling images of a street corner into arm and hand gestures that make marks on paper . . . if you think about it, the act is by no means banal. It’s transformative in many ways. Do it steadily over days and months, and something will get reorganized inside yourself: the way you look at the world, the way you absorb and interpret information, the way you pay attention.

The practice is primary, the skill secondary; or, to put it differently, it’s only by practicing that you gain the skill. You might want to say, “But I don’t know how to draw!” Sure, sure. That’s why you practice, you dummkopf!

A smartphone and an Instagram account, and—hey, presto! You can practice photography. Publish crappy photos of pizza slices if that’s your thing. Or develop the art of perceiving, thinking, and deciding. Photography is the reason or excuse (or vessel) to open up your mind and heart.

Walking, going to the market, stopping at Starbucks, visiting a monument, taking photos with your smartphone . . . Is there any difference between practice and life?

Nah. Life is an Integrated Practice.

© 2016, Pedro de Alcantara