Spring Breaking Down

sousaphone at spring break

From left to right, Chubbs, El Poonhound, Beef, and Tuba Lard.

So you may have noticed that I’ve taken a few weeks off writing.  Well, I’ve been on Spring Break, catching the rays of Daytona Beach, spending my nights in a drunken haze of wet t-shirt contests and beer pong.  And today I’m going to tell you the lessons I’ve learned from my new bros Chubbs, Beef, and El Poonhound.

Ok, the truth is that I’ve been struggling to come up with things to write about.  The anxiety about not writing something “of quality” builds up for me, until I’m paralyzed by my own writing process.  Especially now that I’ve had some posts that I’m proud of, it can be disappointing to put something out that isn’t as strong.  Interestingly, this reminds me of the process of practicing, and a lesson I learned early on.

In 1994, I had my first private lesson on the tuba with Jay Krush of the Pennsylvania Ballet.  I had been playing for about 4 years, and had been quite successful at the local band and orchestra festivals, placing towards the top of the section each time.  I was ready to take my playing to the next level (whatever that meant), and Jay had been highly recommended.

As with just about any 15 year old, I had a lot of different activities on my plate.  I had taken some difficult classes in high school, I was playing in the marching band, and I was active in the theater group as well.  After the first few tuba lessons, Jay began to notice that I wasn’t practicing consistently, and he let me know that he noticed (in the kindest way possible).  I made some efforts to make time each day, with varying degrees of success.  At some point, probably because of how Jay was encouraging me to practice, something clicked for me.  I realized that the musicians I admired: Sam Pilafian, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman; all had devoted massive amounts of time towards practicing.  Nothing extraordinary there.  What really sunk in was that they didn’t go through years of practice and then one day just stop, after having achieved a certain level.  Their practice was a lifelong endeavor to improve and remain at the top of their game.

While this was inspiring in that I now had a more clear template for success, it was also disheartening to realize that even the best performers in the world have to dedicate their lives to practice and improvement.  In fact, they especially have to!  Now, I don’t have a problem with working hard to achieve goals, but the concept of an process without end can be daunting.  When this concept sunk in for me, I pulled myself together and started putting in the work.  Since then at certain times in my life, I have been able to devote more time to practice and improvement, and at others I have either not had the time, or not successfully utilized it.

Sometimes the knowledge of what it takes to be my best is my undoing.  I will recognize that I don’t have the time to work at being my best, and then I feel too demoralized to put forth the smallest effort.  After all, if I can’t be my best, why bother trying at all?  Not the healthiest attitude for sure, but it’s something that gnaws away at me from time to time.  And sometimes I don’t know how to get out of it.  Like right now with my blog, as well as with my music practice.

So how about I start the process right here and now.  Off the top of my head, here’s what I would tell a friend if they were experiencing the same problems:

1. Remember those other shades besides just black and white?

The choices I have as a performer/writer/person are not broken down into success versus lack of success.  That’s the way that joyless (and terrible) executives approach their problems.  There are a myriad of other flavors in this ice cream sundae.

How did you do?  	Completely successful	 	Not at all successful	   How did you do?  	Successful 	Not successful 	Pretty successful 	Successful is some ways, not in others 	Well, I had fun 	Define success, man 	I sure learned a lot 	With a few tweaks, it will work 	Need to check it out more 	I might be headed in the wrong direction 	I successfully learned what success is!

It is more realistic to approach my work as in the second column.

2. Break it down into small chunks

I don’t have to go from zero to one million when it comes to efficiency and quality.  In fact, it’s not even possible, barring extraordinary good luck.  Instead, I can focus on small pieces at a time.  For my blog, I can just start stockpiling ideas more efficiently.  Or I can tweak the narrative style.  When it comes to practicing, I can incrementally add time to my routine.  I can also shift what I’m adding in order to vary my practice experience.

3. Make work into play

When I choose a method for doing or learning, it’s not just to put myself on the well-beaten path to success.  There’s something to be said for writing and playing for the sake of writing and playing.  After all, isn’t that what drew us all towards the things we do in the first place?  Sometimes there’s an enjoyment of the process, but sometimes that enjoyment needs to be cultivated.  I need to make the time to discover the many facets of my creative process, and to rekindle the abstract joy I encountered in the first place.

So hopefully I’ll be back here same time next week putting into practice what I’ve explored today.  After all, discovering how and what I want to write about and exploring the process of learning and constant improvement has to be at least as exciting as a wet t-shirt contest at Señor Sousa’s, right?  Right?


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