Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The P Word

Over the last few years I’ve encountered something that I am never sure how to deal with. It started at the 2009 Zion flute school and has continued ever since. It happens whenever I’m around other flute players that teach. It is always there lurking in the background, but it is something we don’t talk about...

When I first encountered this I was at a loss for words. Or perhaps a better way to say it, is that I was a loss for a specific word. It was the unspoken word. When it came up in discussions with other teachers they all said the same thing, “I don’t say the P word.”

Naturally, I was curious about this because I was also beginning to think that I was crossing a forbidden line whenever I said the P word out loud. So I inquired why they didn’t say it. The answers were all very similar. Basically they would all say:

“The P word scares people.”

“Really?," I would ask, “It seems so normal to me.”

“Seriously, it frightens people,", would be their reply, "students turn white with fear.”

This was a big problem. As a musician I use the P word all the time. All musicians do. Obviously we needed to come up with some euphemisms to say instead of this dreaded word. Several were tossed about: warm-ups and exercises being the most commonly suggested.

From that point on I tried to not say the forbidden P word, but use the more friendly, albeit watered down, substitutes instead. It never felt quite right. Like I was cheating myself and my students. Even while writing my book, The Complete Guide to the Native American Style Flute I wrestled with the question of “can I use the forbidden P word or not?”. In the end I decided I wasn’t fooling anybody, and elected to use it after all.

Yes, I would say the dreaded P word.

For a word that is so avoided and produces such fear it has sure been around for a long time, having its origins in Middle English via Old French. In fact its roots go back to medieval Latin and even farther to the Greek praktike, the feminine of the word praktikos, or practical. In medieval Latin it means to perform, or carry out. I’m not sure why a word that means practical, perform or carry out should instill fear in people. These things certainly don’t scare me. In fact they seem down right sensible.

Nothing worth doing in life comes easily. Everything takes discipline. Learning to talk, being in a relationship, driving, playing sports, raising kids... You name it, it takes a daily repetition of something to become proficient at it.

This is also true when it comes to playing a musical instrument.

So how do you come to terms with the P word? If you ask me, I say you embrace it! Personally, I enjoy practicing. Oops, I said it... Oh well, too late now...

At the root of daily practice is a Zen like peace that comes from every aspect of it. Like meditation, which is also a form of practicing, you gain a daily discipline -which centers your day, relaxes you and gives you a sense of personal growth and accomplishment. On most days you enter a Zen like groove which cleanses your mind of the unnecessary troubles of the day. Instead you turn inward and focus on self growth, awareness and beauty.

Like everything in life, one needs to start out with baby steps. This is true as well with practicing a musical instrument. Don’t tell yourself, “I’m going to practice an hour a day!” You are setting your sights too high, and you’ll be more intimidated and will never even start.

The best way to start is just start. (I told you it was Zen). Set aside twenty minutes every day, at the same time of day. Use this as your excuse for some Me Time. Go to a still place, a quiet room, away from the distractions of life, spouses, kids, TV and Facebook.

For the first ten minutes do the exercises in my book The Complete Guide to the Native American Style Flute. Use a metronome to pace yourself. Set it to a leisurely tempo (speed), say 72 beats per minute. Listen to how closely your playing stays in time with the click of the metronome. This develops an awareness of the music outside of you. A very important skill. It slows down your breathing and allows your mind to let go of worries. You are focused only on the clicks and your fingers.

Don’t try to do all of the exercises. Just pick one or two at first. Play them a few times at the leisurely speed, then move the click up one setting. A little faster. Keep listening, making sure your notes line up with the clicks. The object is not to play fast, but smoothly, and to learn to listen. Music is about listening.

At first this might seem hard. That is normal. But you can find peace in knowing that the days that it seems hard are the days you are really learning. Soon playing the exercises with a click will become effortless and you will play the notes without thinking.

Through discipline comes freedom.

For the second ten minutes put away the metronome and play what comes to you. From the Heart. Your fingers will be nice and warmed up and your thoughts will flow from an open musical mind. In just a matter of weeks you’ll notice that it is much easier to find the notes you hear in your head! Your fingers and mind have grown from the discipline of the exercises, allowing you to play what you feel, without thinking.

This is the fun time. The time to let your self go. When it is combined with the discipline of the exercises you will grow faster as a player. Just doing the exercises, or just noodling around on your flute will not produce the same results. You accelerate your progress and growth by doing them together.

If twenty minutes is too much, do how ever much you can, but do it everyday, at the same time of day. Remember, this is a form of meditation and doing it regularly will speed up your growth and progress, and bring about a sense of peace. Also, other people in your life will come to know that this time is your time and learn to respect it.

Over time, try to extend the amount of time you set aside for practice to thirty minutes. Time just for yourself and your music. Exercises first, then fun. Every day.

You be glad you did and soon you’ll wonder what all the fuss over the P word was all about.

© Cedar Mesa Music, BMI. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for reminding me about practicing! I love to practice, well, I love the feeling after I practice and I get that breakthrough. At the end of practicing I always feel a sense of calm and accomplishment -- and everything becomes easy and falls into place. I am not fighting the flute and the flute isn't fighting me. Playing becomes...more like playing and having fun.

    Thank you!