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.