I got this phrase from a book I’ve been slowly working my way through, called Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World. I came to it because I’ve been really stressed out recently – January was a rough month, to say the least, and I followed it up in February with an audition for the Unit Leader Course and the Navy advancement exam the following week.
It resulted in an astoundingly horrendous performance for my audition. Sure, people will say it was fine, they got what they needed to put together my application for the course, blah blah blah, but for me it amounted to a giant step backward in the mental work I’ve done.
First of all, I did no mental preparation for this in-house audition. I now know that was a big mistake. It’s actually probably been about a year that I’ve consistently done mental work, so I’m refocusing on the the thing that I had the hardest time with: focus.
But I also realized that I had to start getting control over the thoughts inside my head as I get busy with collaterals in my ongoing pursuit of ninja status on my clarinet. This book I linked above is free for Amazon Prime readers, and I’m kinda surprised – it’s a real gem.
Can you stretch without striving?
This came from the body movement meditation. Can you stretch without striving?
Can you push your limits without straining? Can you find the soft edge of your abilities and nudge them gently, stopping just short of causing unnecessary tension and strain?
I’ve been playing around, literally, with these concepts the last week or so, and I find I enjoy my practicing and I’m making better strides. The best athletes know which muscles to contract to execute their movements while keeping everything else relaxed. In order for one muscle to contract and create movement, the opposite muscle needs to relax; if they both try to contract, movement is impossible. Breathing is impossible. Technique is impossible.
The first one I’ve come to tackle is my throat. When I get nervous, or when I get desperate to get better NOW, I tighten my throat. I did this for years – still do – and for the longest time didn’t even know what a relaxed throat felt like. I figured it out by learning how to swim freestyle, of all things, but when you have years and years of a bad habit, it’s hard to undo. There’s all kinds of emotional baggage attached to your bad habits, but here’s the thing: you are not your habits. So let them go. Honestly, it was a little scary. A tight throat is all I know. But what happens if I don’t tighten my throat? Oh wait, I use my diaphragm, and wow what a difference!
So how do I now stretch without striving?
I apply it to my daily scales. I’m slowly trying to make my technique faster (it’s not that fast, on the grand scale of clarinetists), but I do it by picking a tempo that is slow enough that I can concentrate on keeping my throat relaxed and my fingers relaxed but snappy. And then I’ll do another round bumped up 20 beats. And then maybe, in a few weeks, I’ll feel so comfortable and it’ll be so automatic that I’ll bump the baseline up another 10 beats, and then do another round 20 beats faster, always focusing on making my faster round as relaxed and even as my slower round. That’s just a suggestion.
My other one is mastering the flutter tongue and the clarinet glissando, two things that I should have mastered a long time ago but didn’t.
I was one of those people who couldn’t roll their rrrrrs. Was. I actually taught myself how to do it, after a week of walking around like a dufus and asking a lot of bewildered people how they roll their rrrrrrs. So I at least take pride in being evidence that it’s not genetic.
But put the clarinet in my mouth and flutter? That one took me another two weeks, and I’m only now at the point where I can succeed in making it happen 10 times in a row. That’s not with a metronome, that’s not on any note other than open G. But I went from zero to 10, and now that I can do it 10 times, my knee-jerk reaction is to try all the things I can find with a flutter, only to be disappointed that I can’t even remotely do it in context. And so I take a step back and know that if I relax, take a deep breath, and focus on how it feels to do it correctly, I will do it correctly, and soon it’ll become second nature, just like rolling my rrrrrs did after a lifetime of being unable.
The key in all of this is to take my challenge and make sure I only go as fast as I can execute with relaxation. Any faster, anything that puts unnecessary tension in my playing, means it’s time to take a step back.
I’m turning my practice time into my own little meditation, and I have to say I like it.