There are just some days where perspective fails and we are convinced that playing music sucks. Or rather, that as we are attempting it, music sucks.

Both are false, but that’s not much consolation when you’re in the middle of a crummy practice session. When you’re mayor of Crapville, Grand Marshal of the Futility Parade, it can be tempting to abandon a practice session in favor of a breather or some other activity that seems less like self-flagellation. Of course you have to honor yourself: but I’d like to make a pitch for staying put, and doing something I like to call Sitting In The Fire.

A cousin of Cheerful Relentlessness, SITF happens when you feel the sting of defeat or hear the siren call of whatever is going on anywhere else but here and you stick with it instead. Pema Chodron talks about this and uses phrases like “leaning into the sharp points” to describe the feeling. What I find, 98 times out of 100, is that the actual feeling of frustration is not nearly as bad as we end up making it, because instead of just feeling frustrated and trudging onward, we get thinking. Our verbal center kicks in, and the spiral starts. Words beget comparisons which begets the soul-dredging process, resurrecting old hurts and failures for your stomach-clenching delight. So what I’m suggesting is that you just feel whatever you have going on, and see if you can muster up a little bit of curiosity about it all. Not curiosity like, “Why am I doing x” but more like, “Hmmm, my guts are a little tight. Yep. There they are. Tight guts.” Doing this takes the teeth out of the frustration and allows you to start a really productive chain reaction.

If the feelings have no teeth, you’re more likely to stay in front of your music.

If you stay in front of your music, you may practice for a little longer.

If you’re aware of how you are physically feeling, you can turn your attention to your technique.

If you’re paying attention to your technique, your practice will contribute deeply to your ability.

If you are focused on your technique, it’s harder for frustration to monopolize your brain.

If you can stay put instead of distracting yourself with something that is guaranteed to please, you build a deeper relationship with yourself and your instrument. Just like any partnership, there is much to be said about enduring hard times. When you sit in the fire, you show yourself what you’re really made of, which as it turns out, is some pretty tough stuff.

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7 thoughts on “Sitting in the fire”

  1. (checks practice area for hidden cameras)

    Just last night I had one of those crappy practice sessions where nothing worked. Not the scales and hooked bowing pieces I had set out as my goal, not even older pieces that I know by heart. Nothing. I gave up in frustration and put the cello away for the night.

    Next time I'll stick around longer and see what happens.

    Thanks.

    Reply
  2. Probably what I'd do without you, my dear. I shudder to think about my life without this blog and the community of people it has brought into my world.

    Reply
  3. M: This blog works because I assume that everything I struggle with is what most people suffer through. I don't need a hidden camera: just a mirror! 🙂

    Reply
  4. Those struggle sessions are important & good! They mean you are getting more focused and critical of what you're doing.

    It's the first step into whatever the next level is for you!

    Reply
  5. Thank you! I've been very frustrated lately as I prepare for a too soon concert. I think I'll get off the internet and go play my cello for a while!

    Reply
  6. Laura: you're welcome. I have to remind my readers that this blog is advice to myself, too! The road from my arm surgery has been dotted with a lot of frustration, and I'm sitting right in it, too.

    That's why I'm tan these days. 🙂

    Reply

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