Slowing Down To My Own Speed

I had the privilege of participating in a teaching call on mindfulness meditation and its potential to help musicians presented by Madeline Bruser, pianist, teacher and author of the book, The Art Of Practicing: A Guide To Making Music from the Heart, and of the e-zine Fearless Performing.

One of the things she said about the meditation practice is that “it slows you down to your own speed.”

I suspect my “own speed” is more suitable for life in a medieval monastery than in 21st century civilization. I don’t do “fast” easily or well. I don’t run. I don’t sprint. I walk. I don’t play jigs. I don’t play reels. I play slow airs. I suspect a serious deficiency of fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Yet much of my music life is spent trying to do “fast” and “faster.” Trying to sight-read faster. Trying to move my fingers on my recorder faster. Trying to close and replace my fingers on the next harp strings faster. Trying to play faster. Trying to learn a tune faster. Trying to keep up with ensemble directors whose “moderate” tempos equate to racing a fire truck to a burning building for my 11th century sensibilities.

What brings me joy is slow, contemplative playing, playing that allows me to listen to the sound of each string as I release its tension, playing that bathes me in chordal harmony while I swim in the current of melody and feel the vibrations from the harp body enter my own. But in my practice sessions, I too often bypass joy in my hurry to master the fingerings of a tricky passage or get a piece up to performance tempo. I may end my practice time pleased that another small goal can be marked as “met,” or that I can cross off another measure I have to master for the piece I’m learning. But accomplishment does not equal joy.

I tried ten minutes of sitting practice before playing at the hospice unit yesterday. While sitting, focusing on my exhalations, my thoughts return to “planning” again and again. Yet there are small moments of space between the thoughts where there is just breathing, and my eyes enjoying the rare morning sunshine creating patterns of light on the reds and blues of the oriental rug at my feet. When the timer tells me ten minutes is over, the nagging hints of anxiety and the unsettled quivering in my stomach that still visit when I am preparing to play for others are gone.

My drive to the hospital is peaceful, and by the time I’ve unpacked my harp and bench I feel settled and ready to play. All the beds on the unit are filled. The nurses are working at warp speed, answering call bells, administering medications, checking vitals, answering families’ questions. On this morning, it’s not family members who stop to speak, it’s the nurses, who thank me for playing as they pass by on the way to patients’ rooms. And in this time and place, slow and peaceful music, music that echos the rhythmic beating of a peaceful heart, is fast enough.

I would like to be comfortable playing at faster tempos. I would like to have the option to play a wide range of tempos and be successful at them all. As I type that sentence, what comes to mind is something my first yoga teacher said over and over – that in yoga, for every pose, we start with gratitude from exactly where we are, no matter how far from the desired end result we may be, and allow the posture to emerge over time as we breathe and gradually release and strengthen into it.

I have hints from my first morning of sitting practice that “slowing down to my own speed” is the same thing. That if I can first live and be grounded in my own speed, and start with gratitude from exactly where I am today, I will allow all my desired end results, be it playing faster or sight-reading or learning repertoire to emerge over time. If each day I make time for joy, make time for wallowing in the magic of resonating wood and strings, accomplishment will emerge on its own.

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8 thoughts on “Slowing Down To My Own Speed

  1. This really resonate with me as well! The past few months, I haven’t really had the time to practice (well, time wise, I had the time but mental energy level wise, I didn’t). Your post was just in time to convince me to feeling guilty about not practising more when I did find a few minutes to play and just enjoy the notes and the experience of creating music.
    Thank you for sharing!

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    1. You are welcome! Even five minutes at the harp doing scales calms my soul and adds a bit of beauty to the world. Grab the moments at the harp you can and love them!

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  2. Have shared one of your comments with a few friends and even started myself a notes page on FB with your wondering thoughts/writings/inspirations!

    I especially loved when you said “in yoga, for every pose, we start with gratitude from exactly where we are, no matter how far from the desired end result we may be, and allow the posture to emerge over time as we breathe and gradually release and strengthen into it.”

    I’m just trying to walk every day and this statement works great for me as I build up time and stamina!

    Thanks, dear friend!

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    1. Hi Cathy! I think my yoga teacher’s wisdom can be used in all situations where “where we are” does not match “where we want to be”. If only I could have remembered her words when I was so blown out of the water by the harp class! I am pleased and honored that my writing is striking a chord with you. Thanks for letting me know. Keep getting stronger, a little bit at a time!

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  3. I’m so moved to read your beautiful words expressing how the meditation teaching call has already helped you. Thank you, Janet, for this deeply rewarding response to what I taught from my heart. You are truly on the right track, and I am deeply pleased. And your words will help others too. It was great having you on the call. Very best wishes to you.

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    1. Madeline, thank you both for sharing your wisdom with the teaching call, and for your comment today. Your comment about slowing down to your own speed so resonates with me. My beginning sitting practice sessions make me feel like I have seen a tiny glint of light sparkling from a hidden treasure chest….I want to uncover it and see more of what is inside. And I already know that the tempo will be perfect. I look forward to your next call.

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  4. This is one of my favorite musings of your’s. it resonates with me too. Thank you for putting this into words. Loved it!

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    1. Thank you, Nanci. I am glad to hear that this piece resonates with you as well. I suspect that starting the harp as a more than in the middle adult adds to my natural tendency to focus on all the things I still need to learn. I have to remember that my love for the harp is my motivation to do all the hard work to learn how to play it, and that i need to give myself time and space to just enjoy the harp magic.

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