“Have you practiced your cello yet?” It’s a question, but growing up it was the answer to my questions about watching T.V., playing at a friend’s house, having a sleepover, you name it. Some days I responded with a groan, other’s a happy “Yep! Can I go now?” It took a while, but over the years I grew to love practicing. I struggled through those junior high years when I wasn’t allowed to quit, and as I improved my technique and my sound smoothed out and became full, my practice sessions stretched into the hours. Even though my cello practice changed over the years and has waned almost completely, it has marked my life forever. The lessons I learned from playing the cello keep coming back to me in other ways.
Lesson 1: Discipline
Put your butt in the chair and do it. Play your scales and etudes, repeat. Write your 500 words of the day. Draw something and mix your paint. Unroll your yoga mat and lay on it until you are ready to do some sun salutations. Breathe during all of the above.
Lesson 2: Focus
Pay close attention to what you’re doing; how else will you recognize when the art happens? Tune out the background noise and voices of doubt. At first this focus will be on finding the correct pitch or selecting the perfect word, but eventually you will forget about the individual notes you are playing and the story will pour out of you.
Lesson 3: Repetition
Do it every day. Develop cello calluses on your fingertips and wear them with pride. Play the difficult sections of your piece over and over and over. “So, you want to be a writer and a painter?” I ask myself. “Then write and paint every day. Then you will be a writer and a painter.” (Yes, I talk to myself sometimes.) So, you want to play music? You want to be a fill-in-the-blank? Well then sit down, dig in, and repeat.
I no longer have a daily cello practice, but I do have a writing practice, a painting practice, and I would like to revive my yoga practice. Having a practice is a little different now that I have two 16 month-old girls running around, but the same lessons still apply: Discipline to keep working on my personal goals despite sleep deprivation and a million baby-related distractions, focusing on one thing at a time, and regular, if not daily practice. Most days there is time for one, maybe two practices during a nap time or after night-night, in between cooking and paying bills and showering.
I read somewhere that at work you should always dress like your boss. Dress like the person you want to become and you will be that person. Same with decorating your house. Surround yourself with the furniture and artwork of the person you want to be and you will be that person. Same with your practice, whatever it is that you choose. A friend once gave me a card with this quote from Van Gogh. “If you hear a voice within you say, ‘you can’t paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” Creating the life you want is all about the practice.
Last week I saw this Ira Glass video where he talks about being an artist and pushing through those times when you are making stuff that you know isn’t good – films, radio, music, etc. It is only by making that stuff that you improve and make the work you know you are capable of creating. I had been thinking about this idea of having a practice and the video inspired me to keep going.
Whatever the practice, I’m finding that the concepts are the same as those I learned growing up with my cello. With gratitude, I offer up a big shout out to my cello standing in the corner, my parents who gave it to me, and the teachers that pushed me. Thanks for teaching me so much more than how to pull a bow across some strings.