Slowly I’ve been gathering the accoutrements of a comfortable and inviting practice space. I started by clearing the seldom-used guest bed out of my spare room to make space for a chair by the window. I moved a mirror into the space so I can see how adorable I look at all times. Ok, and so I could watch my posture and embouchure. Then after I found myself avoiding the space in mid-November, I invested in a space heater to toastify the room on cold days. Now it might be my favorite room in the house!
I still have at least one more item that maybe, just maybe, Santa Claus could bring me.
That there is a Wenger Music Posture Chair
with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time. It is the Cadillac of orchestral chairs, with luxurious padding and upholstery on a sturdy steel frame. It promotes good posture, healthy breathing, and proper support. It would be so much nicer than the rickety piece of junk wooden chair I’m currently using.
But I digress. My point here is that I’m making my practice room better, and consequently finding more time to practice tuba. While I’ve played quite a lot over the past few years, finding time and motivation to sit down and study how I’m playing has been quite difficult. Even now, the motivation isn’t always at 100%, but I’m trying to be consistent and conscientious about it.
However, in addition to uncomfortable furniture and cold rooms, practice is laden with more sinister pitfalls: Philosophical traps in the form of paradoxes and Catch-22’s.
Let’s talk paradoxes first. We’ll keep it simple with one of Zeno’s paradox, the Dichotomy paradox:
“That which is in locomotion must arrive at the half-way stage before it arrives at the goal.“
The principle behind this paradox is that before any action can be completed, an infinite number of sub-tasks must first be completed. Since it is impossible to do an infinite number of tasks, no action can be completed. For example, if I’m sitting in my uncomfortable wooden chair and I want to pick up my tuba that is sitting beside me, I must first lift it halfway. Before I can lift it halfway, I must lift it a quarter of the way. Before I can lift it a quarter of the way, I must lift it an eighth of the way. Before I can lift it an eighth of the way… you get the idea.
Fortunately for me (and to the dismay of Zeno), I have successfully lifted the tuba into my lap without incident. So far so good. Where I run into trouble is the mental paradox.
Often while practicing an etude, I find that there are elements of my playing that are not as good as I want them to be. In even a simple etude, there are so many factors to consider. There’s the pitch I’m playing, the articulation I use, the breath support, the intonation of the pitch, the volume of the pitch, the articulation of one note into the next, the shape of the phrase, the point at which I need to breathe, the message I’m trying to convey.
Before the etude can be mastered, I first have to perfect each of these elements. If there’s an element out of place, I have to strip it to its fundamental core and focus on the cause of that element. And if that sub-element isn’t quite right, I have to take it down to the next level. Over and over I dig deeper and deeper, until I’m focusing on a component far removed from the etude I’m working on. Then I work myself back up the chain and move to the next part that needs to be fixed. Assuming I dig myself out of that great black hole, I have to then combine what I have learned with the next element to be mastered.
All the while this is happening, I’m honing in on such tiny pieces that I sometimes feel like I’m not even playing music anymore. Once I realize this, much of the joy of playing drains out of the act of practicing, making it that much more difficult to keep morale up and continue working. As with Zeno’s paradox, it feels like I’m not actually moving anywhere.
Now let’s talk about the Catch-22. Because this brings up one of those fundamental parts of practice that keeps me awake at night. It involves the dreaded “mistake.”
I do consider myself an accomplished performer, and the fact that I stay steadily employed as a musician seems to support that. Regardless, I make plenty of mistakes. Whether it’s a wrong note, a wrong rhythm, or a flubbed tone, it pecks away at my self-confidence.
Everyone makes mistakes.
I’ve heard it countless times before, and it’s both vaguely relieving and acutely distressing. While it speaks to my need for empathy when I err, it doesn’t speak to my desire to improve and not make as many mistakes. So how do we stop making as many mistakes?
Yes, but practice what? I already know that mindless practice produces useless results. I also know that practice is very much about habit, in that we learn what we repeat whether that’s good or bad. So if I find myself making mistakes while practicing, am I just reinforcing these negative habits?
Well then, I’ll not make mistakes while practicing! That should solve the problem, since I’ll be reinforcing something positive instead. But here’s the problem. If I could omit the mistakes in my playing while practicing, wouldn’t I already be doing that? Isn’t the problem in the first place that I can’t stop making mistakes? I mean, maybe I’m not trying in the right way, but how do you learn the right way?
Therein resides the Catch-22: If my playing includes mistakes and I practice to correct it, I will necessarily be making mistakes while practicing, thus reinforcing the mistakes. On the flip side, if I am able to practice not making mistakes, why am I making mistakes in the first place?
Ok… deep breath. Let’s look at that chair again.
While I don’t have a solution outright, let’s get to the mitigating factors. Zeno’s paradox is more an exercise of the mind than a reality. As stated before, I am able to get my tuba into my lap during every practice, despite the “infinite sub-tasks” required to do so. Likewise, I don’t think I really need to break every musical element down into its fundamental subatomic particles. Taking a top-down approach is also a way to escape the labyrinth: sometimes focusing on the musicality of an etude can do so much more than thinking of every technical aspect.
The Catch-22 has a few mitigating factors too. I’m using rather rigid definitions of “practice” and “mistake.” There are plenty of approaches that do not reinforce the making of mistakes. These approaches involve a devotion to the practice and diligent attention paid to everything I’m doing. In this way, I stay alert as mistakes happen and mentally register them instead of glossing over them.
Also, as I play my instrument more and more, my overall comfort level with the horn increases. This means that as I consciously improve, I’m also unconsciously improving. And sometimes even when I’m not consciously improving, I am still unconsciously improving.
I struggle with these issues every day I pick up the tuba. On a good day, they’re nagging thoughts in the back of my mind. On a not-so-good day, I just want to throw the thing out the window. Sometimes I cut my session short to avoid the frustration, and sometimes I can work through it. I’m still learning when each of these approaches works best.
So perhaps now you can understand why I need so many incentives to lock myself in my practice room. A few minutes of space heater induced coziness is a nice consolation for tackling some of the heaviest philosophical challenges that one twisted mind can come up with. And who knows; with just the right piece of furniture, maybe I’ll be able to put these impossible challenges behind me for good.