From The Integrated String Player

A Method Toward Nothing

How to do nothing?

First, let’s acknowledge that there’s a paradox in the very concept of nothing. Since it’s a word, an idea, a state of body and mind, a way of living, an indescribable philosophical conundrum, and much else besides, “nothing” is also “something.” But don’t let yourself get stuck into trying to solve the paradox of nothing. You’ll go cross-eyed or even psychotic trying to intellectualize nothing.

Don’t think too much about it. Instead, practice it.

We’ll pick an example. Train yourself to be in the immediate vicinity of your instrument case, without opening the case altogether. Or stand next to your cello and don’t touch it for a while—a few seconds, a few minutes, or longer.

It might be a little harder than you think.

One voice in your head (the little devil of habit) says, “Go on! Practice! Play through that hard passage again and again! You want to nail the audition, don’t you? Go on! Use more pressure! Use more bow! Don’t stop now! You should be on top of it!” Another voice in your head (the little angel of freedom) has a quieter voice: “Stand there for a moment. Enjoy your body, the room, the view out of the window. Feel the space. The space is bigger than you, and if you just pay attention to it, you might expand your own inner space. Listen to the silence in the room, or to the ticking clock, or to the passersby laughing outside your window. Watch, listen, feel, breathe, wait, let go.”

The little devil: “You have no choice but to practice!”

The little angel: “You can choose what you want to do, how you want to react to the situation, how you want to spend your time. It’s OK to practice and OK not to practice, at least for a while, and maybe even for a good long time. You’ll practice differently and better once you finally pick up the instrument.”

The little devil: “You should practice. If you don’t, you’re bad.”

The little angel: “Let go of good and bad for now.”

Habit, which is doing, talks loudly and fights dirty. Freedom, which is non-doing, talks softly or not at all; inner freedom comes from silence and tends back toward it. If you enter the state of doing nothing, it’s possible that your mind will have fewer words than usual, as if the inner voices stop talking.

You probably don’t really know this, but for years and years you’ve touched and held your instrument in such a way that you were always ready to play, or readying yourself to play, or dreading the practice, rehearsal, or concert, or fidgeting, or tightening, or blanking out, or—something. There was always energy passing from you to the instrument: psychic energy, if you wish to call it so, or psychophysical energy if you prefer, or physical energy if you like it better, or energy pure and simple.

Hold your instrument with no expectations, no judgments, no memories, no goals, no tasks, no feelings, no thoughts. Hold your violin in a new position: for instance, keep your palms open, facing upward somewhere near your belly, and let the violin lay on it, like a little present you’re hoping an important person will accept from you. No fingers trying to hold on to anything, no habits of violin technique, no Kreutzer études bubbling up underneath; nothing. You’re holding the violin as if it weren’t a violin at all, and as if you weren’t a violinist at all. Your arms are neither tense nor relaxed; or perhaps they’re holding that light and precious object with minimum effort and maximum trust. Stay with it for a minute, more, or less, as you wish—but not playing and not readying yourself to play. Just be.

It’s possible that you’ll have some sort of personal moment: a sudden insight regarding your relationship with the violin, the desire to laugh or cry, the feeling that you’re about to pass out. Perhaps nothing out of the ordinary will happen. But let’s assume that holding the violin in a strange new position, with open mind and heart, will feel very different from habit. Doing nothing can feel very strange, and the things that follow from doing nothing can also look, feel, and sound very strange, to yourself and to others watching or listening to you. Doing nothing is very different from habit, and—logically enough—we tend not to be able to recognize what isn’t habitual, or analyze it, verbalize it, reproduce it, share it with other people, and so on.

Habit manifests itself in multiple media: in sensorial feelings, words, thoughts, images, memories, intellectual arguments, and also clothes, sounds, interpretations, ways of reacting to scores, ways of sight-reading. When you do nothing, the entire mass of habit dissolves, and you’re left with no tools you recognize. The thoughts and feelings and emotions of doing nothing are NEW, and the words you used to use to talk about the OLD aren’t always practical. So, you might find yourself speechless in the middle of doing nothing and having strange new sensations.

There you are, holding the violin and doing nothing. Dwell in that feeling, and ponder what it’d be like to perform in concert with the same feeling—the feeling that you do nothing and things happen not because of what you do but as if through you. Now stop pondering that, and go back to doing nothing.

Catch yourself “wanting to warm up,” wanting to place the instrument in what you think is a secure position, wanting to do finger exercises, wanting to play the audition repertory. Catch yourself rushing from doing nothing toward doing something. Most often you’ll be doing something already before you ever notice that you aren’t doing nothing anymore. The passage from one to the other will happen “underground,” not in sight of your conscious mind. Habit works that way. Here’s one way of organizing this meditation:

  1. Do nothing. Then catch yourself in the middle of doing something.
  2.  Do nothing. Then catch yourself at the moment you start doing something.
  3. Do nothing. Then catch yourself at the moment your desires prepare you to start doing something.
  4.  Do nothing.

It’ll take practice. But when you get the hang of it . . . well, it’s indescribable. But here is Georges Braque, the great painter, talking about it.

I have made a great discovery. I no longer believe in anything. Objects don’t exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them or between them and myself. When one reaches this harmony, one reaches a sort of intellectual non-existence. Life then becomes a perpetual revelation. That is true poetry. (Georges Braque: The Power of Mystery (7 December 1957), an interview with John Richardson, as quoted in Braque: The Late Works (1997), by John Golding.)

Look at a score that you’ve owned for years or decades. Suppose you’re a violinist, and you own a copy of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for violin solo. You’ve studied most of the sonatas and partitas, performed several in public, used them in auditions, taught them to others. You’ve listened to dozens of performances of these pieces over the decades. Your score is marked up with bowings, fingerings, comments, scribbles. Some markings are now incomprehensible to your eyes. Others you can read perfectly well, but you’ve grown to disagree with them—awkward fingerings, dynamic markings of dubious aesthetic merit. The score is charged with memories, hopes, successes and failures, love, hate, jealousy, and many other emotions. The score holds “Bach” and “you” side by side. The challenge is for you to be in the physical presence of the score without reacting to it—without wanting something, wanting to be in a memory of a performance or a lesson you took or give, wanting to play the first chord of the first partita in tune, wanting to vent against a student who mangles the pieces week after week, wanting to love the pieces.

Doing nothing requires not only that you put aside negative reactions and emotions, but positive ones as well. The idea is to put aside all reactions and emotions, and achieve a sort of neutral space in body and mind that becomes the starting point to new reactions and emotions. If the reactions and emotions are truly new, you can’t know them in advance. You might fill yourself with unconditional love after you “empty your vessel,” but to “keep the love that is already there” prevents the vessel from being filled with a greater love that might take the place of the old.

Turn the metronome on. It doesn’t matter to what setting, but let’s say at 60 beats per minute. Stand near the metronome, and do nothing. Don’t prepare to play, don’t prepare to be a good soul and diligently work with the metronome, don’t prepare to hate the damn thing, don’t start wishing to turn it off or throw it out of the window. You start with a habitual relationship with the metronome, with a lot of baggage—and, if you’re a normal human being, a fair amount of resentment. One day you might develop a new and wonderful relationship with the metronome, but before you can get there, you might need an intermediate step in which you have no relationship with the metronome. Nothing.

Habit >> nothing >> freedom

  1. Hold the instrument in play position without doing anything.
  2. Look at an open score without doing anything.
  3. Listen to the metronome without doing anything.
  4. Hold the instrument in playing position, look at the score, and listen to the metronome without doing anything.

Now there are a lot of triggers “all around you,” though more accurately they are “all inside you.” It becomes crucially urgent for you to do nothing, otherwise these multiple triggers might kill you. Do nothing, do some more nothing, and then carry on doing nothing. From that nothingness, you can make fresh decisions—your own fresh decisions, not someone else’s, not your teacher’s, not your memory’s, not your habit’s. And your decisions can be anything you want: playing exactly as you have always played, not playing at all, ignoring the metronome, fighting the metronome, accepting the metronome’s offer of friendship, and so on.

©Pedro de Alcantara, 2015