FINDING THE JOY IN PRACTICE
It’s been a snowy winter in the North country this year, and the drives through have been dazzling. There was chain control all along Donner Pass, so I looped down around Bakersfield and up through Vegas to get to Salt Lake. The drive from Vegas reminded me of the stunning landscapes of Sedona, with the striated rock and the delicate desert colors. The following days we drove to Idaho and then to Jackson Hole, through white buttercream mountains and Wedgwood skies.
We traced a triangle, 5 hours on each leg, plenty of time to chat leisurely of idea and of memory. The vistas appealed to the guitarist’s favored color palette, and I smiled as she fell in love with a mountain rising out of the snowy plains. The bass player was unimpressed by the snow, seeing it as a big jerk forcing everyone to stay inside. I delighted in her grumpiness about the cold. She is a Texas girl, through and through, and doesn’t truck with this snowy baloney.
The singer, resting her voice, alternated between sharing in the conversation and snuggling into blankets to nap. Singers have it the worst when it comes to care between shows. Drummers take care to keep in limber shape and to try to get some sleep, guitarists and bassists warm up their hands, but singers have the delicate vocal chords to tend, susceptible to fatigue, dehydration, dry air, cold air, overuse and tension. She never has a problem when she hits the stage, and I guess this is a combination of her fortitude and of her care.
Something that all band members have in common is that they practice, every day. I know that this is what keeps the singer’s voice limber and strong, and why the guitarist and bassist expand in their playing like endlessly opening flowers.
I am the odd man out here. I feel the embarrassment of admitting that I am not a daily practicer. I tend to practice in chunks rather than in a regular flow, sitting at the drums for long periods of time only when working out a particular new thing. I will sit down at my electronic kit in the house here and there, 5, 10 minutes at a time, but more as an afterthought than a schedule. When I go to my studio I often play freely for a while for fun, and push off working on the stuff I should be working on. I mean to incorporate a regular daily routine, but I have meant to do that for 25 years, and have done so off and on instead of steadily.
Lately, I’ve become aware that my creative process seems to be about compartmentalization. I have several creative endeavors that take up my time: drumming, writing the blog, writing other pieces, songwriting, singing, instructional videos, meditation instruction, studying in the contemplative psychotherapy program, working with energy healing and other deep hippie stuff. Every day, I wake with a long list of items that each of these paths require, and I shuffle them up to the most urgent. Time is my guide.
The strange thing that I have discovered is that when I get to the stage and sit at the drums and play, I often find that I am suddenly able to do something that I have been struggling with, but not particularly shedding on. For instance, I have spent hours at the drums working on a particular bass drum pattern that never seems to come, but then this last weekend in the snow, as I played, I had a sudden realization that if I accented the second note of the pattern, the rest would flow out, and suddenly, the roll happened effortlessly.
I probably could have figured that out months ago if I had been sitting down at the drums every day, but it didn’t happen that way. I have been working on it for years, and in one flash, a light bulb went off and everything shifted. Maybe what I was practicing was just continually reinforcing the stuck way I was seeing the pattern. In letting go of the striving to do it and just feeling free and open and in the open awareness of the stage, maybe only then could the information flow.
I had a conversation with my singer about how strange this was. She could relate to my story with her harmonica playing. When we introduced a beloved song years ago, she took on learning the harmonica in order for us to add it to our set. She said she knew she just had to do it, and there was no thought of this endeavor being difficult or impossible. She just accepted that she would do it, and the band was astounded at how quickly she got good at it. She said was no doubt in her mind that she could learn it, so she just went step by step.
As she told me this, I flashed on remembering when I started learning drumming. When I started playing drums, I had that freedom of feeling that everything was possible. I had no intention of being a professional musician, so learning drums was just interesting. It just opened up my mind to the possibility of doing something that I had never even considered. I didn’t have any blocks of thinking that it could be difficult. I just went into it with joy, and everything seemed to blossom.
I certainly want to practice more. What kind of player would I be if I got it together and sat down every day for two hours? Well, I’ll keep at this intent and meanwhile, I open to the joy of playing whenever do I make it to the kit. I see how judgment about practicing has blocked the desire to practice, and how often I keep myself from drums because of this judgment. I see how some days, sitting for 10 minutes feels excruciating, as all judgment, of my process and ability, blocks all the joy.
I have always attributed my ability to progress as a drummer to the internal work that I do to open up to the wide awareness I find in meditation, that place of non-attachment. The deeper I fall into the moment, the more I let go of all the thoughts and concepts that keep me from becoming a part of the music, and the better I play. It’s as if my understanding develops, and my body follows.
When I think something is difficult, when I psyche myself up that I will never be able to do that particular pattern, I pretty much insure that I’ll have years of grueling work ahead of me. Letting go of the concepts of difficult and easy, possible and impossible, this is what creates a fluidity in learning and in playing. When I sit down at the drums with a feeling of futility or frustration, I might as well go do something else. Those emotions will make my foot tangled, my body tense and heavy.
It is possible put up impediments to flow in everything we do. To think that something is impossible or that it will take years of hard work is to set a wall before us that we have to scale to get there. We all know those people who have so many walls in their psyche that they are trapped, incapacitated. Either they have invented the walls or they have believed the barriers they have been told by others, either way, it is a heartbreaking human condition. In fact, I would say that most of our concepts of the way things work are walls for us to overcome.
I asked a great and prolific songwriter what he did when he was blocked. “I just go to work,” he said, looking at me quizzically. I could see there was no question of block or barrier in his creativity. Without the concept of block and with his work ethic, there was no getting wrapped up in that concept.
There are many things I think are difficult and nearly impossible to do, on drums and in life. Now when I hear those thoughts, I’ve begun to examine them. This is a benefit of contemplative practice: we begin to look at our thoughts as separate from who we really are, as concepts floating in awareness that we don’t need to believe.
When I sit down to work on something I find impossible, I hear the voice that says “impossible” and I allow it to rise and disappear as I drop my awareness into stillness. I examine around the difficult pattern – I take a breath – the NEW pattern and divide it up into small parts. I have now successfully reduced its heft. I practice the pattern in small increments, as slowly as it takes to play it right. I feel boredom and frustration at having to play so slowly, and – breath out – I make it a meditation and find delight in the simple movement. I allow boredom and frustration to dissolve in open awareness, and I bring my attention to small aspects: the stick in my hands, the movement of the wrist, the sway of the back. Where is the tension that keeps me from mastery? I set my breath inside of it.
Above all, where is the feeling of trying, of effort? I find that this may be the biggest impediment to learning. In “effort” are the concepts of difficult, inability, overcoming, futility, hard work. When I reduce anything down into parts, I am able to approach these parts with levity, with joy. This works with drumming, and it works with meditation. When I “try” to let go of thought, emotion, attachment, I instantly create another attachment to accomplishing, to doing it right. I think I’m moving forward, but I am only building a wall I’ll have to tear down later.
There are deep emotional patterns I can confront this way too. I could never be so vulnerable as to say what hurts, or what I struggle with, I say. Then, in an open moment I share my heart and what comes back to me is magic and connection. It works with drums, and it works with relationship. “Trying” to be loving is implying that a loving heart is not my natural state. I let go of how I think compassion “should” look, and just fall into the deep empathy that is our pure state of being.
How much of our experience of life is ruled by these hidden conceptual walls that we erect? As we go deep into presence, we see these stumbling blocks to being in joy, to moving through life from joy. In learning to not give our concepts power, to let go of our attachment to limitation, we can break down the big picture into this moment, and then this one, and then this one. We see that what we create, the life we create, the world we create, in every moment, can be made new.
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