I performed Paganini Caprice No. 5 yesterday in studio class, to a public audience, for the first time. The first time performing anything, but especially something as technically demanding as Paganini, is terrifying. The problem is that you don’t yet know what you don’t know. You don’t know where the memory slip will be, whether your hands will clam up or run away from you, you don’t know how you sound will project to a live audience.
But, at the risk of stating something obvious, it is impossible to perform multiple times without performing the first time. So I did.
My journey with Paganini has been a tumultuous one. I started working on it later in the summer than I should have, even with the knowledge that I needed it for my pre-screening grad admission tapes. Once in school, I practiced when I could between rehearsals, class, and lessons, but I would go days on end without touching the piece. When I eventually came back it was scratchy, gnarly, confusing, and I couldn’t play it fast enough to make it look easy enough to look hard (if you know what I mean). To me, Paganini felt insurmountable. It was a challenge that I wasn’t rising up to meet, one perhaps I couldn’t rise up to meet. The more frustrated I became, the less I practiced. It was a terrible spiral that was incredibly draining.
When the semester finished I took the break I knew I needed. I didn’t touch my violin for days. Most importantly, I didn’t think about Paganini. I walked barefoot on the trails near my house, read book after book, caught up with my best friends from home, and slept. I slept a lot. But I didn’t let myself think about Paganini.
By the time New Years day came around, I knew I was ready to start practicing again. My fingers yearned for the resonance of the fingerboard and the reaction of my bow to the strings. I wanted to practice.
But my desire to practice was coupled with a desire to practice well. To immerse myself in playing the proper way. To not neglect my instrument, to not neglect the music, and to not neglect myself.
My mind kept coming back to a profound passage I unearthed in Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook.
She says, “[Writing a poem] is a kind of possible love affair between something like the heart (that courageous but also shy factory of emotion) and the learned skills of the conscious mind. They make appointments with each other, and keep them, and something begins to happen. Or, they make appointments with each other but are casual and often fail to keep them: count on it, nothing happens.”
She goes on to say that that mysterious, cautious part of ourselves will not show itself to “anything less than a perfect seriousness.”
Mary Oliver wrote these words for maturing poets, but I believe they are just as valuable for maturing musicians, indeed for anyone who is attempting to do something extraordinary.
From experience, she knows that the cautious part of ourselves, “learns quickly what sort of courtship it is going to be. Say you promise to be at your desk in the evenings from seven to nine. It waits, it watches. If you are reliable there, it begins to show itself– soon it begins to arrive when you do. but if you are only there sometimes and are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all.”
By considering the meeting of the two parts of ourselves — the cautious and at the conscience– as tender, fleeting appointments, I developed a protective sort of sensibility. It is in the keeping of those appointments that the desire to grow, to flourish, to actually be great, to embody artistry, shows itself. It is not enough to want to practice, it is not enough even to practice casually. Checking my phone, thinking about my grocery list, and darting off to meet up with friends or make another cup off coffee is not commitment. And all the parts of myself see that. See, if I don’t guard the meetings of the best parts of myself, then nothing will happen. If I don’t seriously engage my conscience self to reliably meet my cautious self then I will never develop.
With Ms. Oliver’s advice in mind, I began practice in 2017 with the respect it deserved. I acknowledged several imperative appointments with myself that I plan to unwaveringly honor.
The first appointment is deep practice time from 8-12 every morning. You can be sure that on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday I will be in the music building practice rooms working on my craft. During this time I put my phone on airplane mode, plan my practice on a moleskin notebook, take time to stretch, meditate and read in breaks, and work incredibly hard. This is, bar none, the most sacred time of my day.
Another appointment, one I honored myself by meeting yesterday, is playing my music for others. I’m scheduling performance opportunities to play for at least one other person every day next week. By voluntarily committing myself to performances (especially terrifying ones) and then following through on them, I prepare myself for the performances (i.e. grad school auditions) I didn’t voluntarily commit myself to.
In the few short weeks since 2017 began I can already see the profound change that my seriousness has allowed. I’m now working through Paganini measure by measure with confidence. I’m playing Bach and Mendelssohn better than I have played before. I’m looking forward to auditions rather than fearing them. I feel better about my violin playing than I have in years.
I attribute this shift to Mary Oliver’s advice which transformed my mindset from one of obligation to one of fierce safeguarding. I am now loyal to the meeting of the most beautiful parts of myself in long moments of deep seriousness. In order to do the work I want to do, and be the person I want to be, I can’t afford to do otherwise.