Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Butt-Bitten


How much of our intelligence, our success, our accomplishments, has to do with habits of mind, of practices of practice? We talk about talent, about inspiration, about genetic blessings, about determination, but maybe it’s just plain old-fashioned doing things well, with care, with precision, with attention to details. None of which are my strong suits!

I’m the guy who can think fast on his feet, feel my way through the work guided by intuition, react to the possibilities of the moment. In music terms, I’m an improviser and not a composer, a playing-by-feel and not a technician. In teaching terms, I’m good at leaving lots of space for kids to figure things out, help them improvise their way to understanding, applaud them when they react flexibly. All these things are well and good— until it’s the day before the Spring Concert! Then it all comes back and bites me on the butt. Oww!!!

Well, it wasn’t terrible, but next to my colleague’s well-rehearsed and crystal-clear arrangements with 7th grade, my 8th graders seemed to be floundering here and there and the music (and I!) suffered accordingly. Not that we hadn’t gone through the form many times, but some kids simply hadn’t prepared themselves and apparently I hadn’t demanded it sufficiently. Fine for a daily music class, but not the happiest circumstance standing in front of a few hundred people in the audience.

I tried not to scold them too much and owned that some of it is my own laissez-faire approach. I like jazz when it’s loose and supple and open to surprise and flexible, but when I stop to pay attention, I notice that much of which appears that way has been rehearsed and mastered. And so it’s the conversation between the spontaneity and the rigor that makes things interesting. And I could blame it on coming to age in the late ‘60’s, when rigor meant stiff and square and boring and just “going with the flow” was the prime operational strategy, the counter-culture’s mainstream “habit of mind.”

But nope, it’s not the hippies, it's me. As a kid, I used to listen to Horowitz playing Beethoven and thought I could just dive in and imitate him—minus the 10,000 hours of rigorous, meticulous, slow and patient practice. Surprise! It didn’t work! As my piano teacher so painstakingly told me just before I quit lessons.

If it’s never too late to have a happy childhood, my Tom Robbins oft-repeated quote to give adults permission to loosen up and enjoy, maybe it’s never too late to have a disciplined practice and rigorous habit of mind childhood. I’m doing my best to find out and hope I figure it out before the 8th grade concert tomorrow! Wish us luck!

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