Sticking With It

pablo-casals-practicingI’ve been looking forward to this post for a while. Up to now, all my posts in this series have focused in one way or another on doing less. The casual observer might get the impression that I am advocating a way of being and acting that includes no commitment to goals or to improvement, a sort of anything-goes / take it easy / do whatever you like / it’s all good / whatever comes naturally philosophy with no sense of purpose or forward momentum.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. What I am talking about here is the approach that allowed me to make my own impossible possible: to recover from chronic hand pain which for years made me feel like I would never be able to play my instrument again. It took me close to a decade of patient commitment to transform myself from a lost, confused, and pretty-much disabled recent college grad, to a serious student of movement, then a serious student of music, and finally a professional musician and Feldenkrais teacher. Many times I was tempted to give up, or just grit my teeth and push through (which, I quickly realized again and again, would amount to pretty much the same thing), but I am now very glad I kept with it.

The theme of this fourth week of the Omer is netzach (נצח): literally meaning “eternity” as a divine attribute, we humans can see it as our relationship with time, our ability to stick with an intention, and our capacity for commitment and determination. As with each of the attributes we’ve explored, our capacity in this regard can serve us well or get in our way; it all depends on how we manifest it.

Practice, Practice, Practice….  But How?

If you’re a musician you are probably already thinking of the old joke about the fellow who asks a New York City cop how to get to Carnegie Hall, and reflecting on the many, many hours you have spent in the practice room. But of course, hours alone do not make the musician. As my teacher Larry Goldfarb likes to say: practice does not make perfect, it merely makes permanent. Real learning comes from the quality of our practicing, as much as from the quantity.

Here is advice from Moshe Feldenkrais on acquiring skill through repetition, taken from his 1944 book Judo: The Art of Defence and Attack (p.27):

… hurry leads to confusion. Real speed is obtained when all the separate movements of your limbs are fused into one harmonious, smooth and graceful motion. This is acquired by repetition … in an impassive mood with a relaxed mind and body. A relaxed body does not, however, mean keeping your muscles absolutely loose; it only means that they should not be stiffened unnecessarily all the time. They are stiffened as much as necessary for the action itself at the very moment it is done.

Discover it yourself

Today’s exercise is very simple, but it requires patience and commitment. It is also quite possibly one of the most effective and important lessons you will find on this blog:

  1. Choose one or two very simple movements to explore. For instance, you could lie on your back and explore rolling your head from side to side, moving your knees from side to side, or perhaps just moving your eyes. If you’re not comfortable on your back, choose a similarly simple movement in another position in which you are comfortable.
  2. Spend ten to twenty minutes exploring this simple movement. As you do this, uncompromisingly insist on these five things:
    1. Your comfort. If you are not comfortable, you won’t learn anything of significance. Take breaks or modify what you’re doing if you experience any pain or discomfort, or choose a different position or a different movement all together.
    2. The ease of your breath. When you notice that you are holding your breath, pause, then slowly stop holding your breath. Notice what part of you relaxes, then pay special attention to that area as you continue the movement.
    3. The quality of the movement. Make the movement so slow and soft you can feel every bit of resistance, every bit of extra effort, every hiccup, zig or zag. Don’t ignore or push through any of it, but instead make the movement smaller and softer until a way through presents itself to you.
    4. The quality of your attention. Take a break whenever you realize your mind has wandered.
    5. Your attitude towards yourself and the exercise. Remain curious and patient. Notice if you furrow your brow in determined concentration. Don’t watch the clock: you’ll know when you’ve accomplished something worthwhile, and when you’ve done enough. Set an alarm if you have somewhere to go, so you don’t distract yourself by looking at the clock.

Once you’ve gotten the hang of doing this with a simple movement, you can apply it to a more complex one, such as rolling to sit. With practice, you will find yourself applying this approach to any challenge you face.

If you are a musician, you can start by applying this approach to producing long tones, easy scales, or an abstract bit of technique.


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