I am viewing practice differently right now and who’s surprised? My work and living situation is unrelated to the cello, I have nothing to ‘prepare’ for and don’t often feel that in the mood. In fact, I spent over three months playing as little as once a week and was embarrassed to feel quite energised by the sabbatical. I have since felt a pull to return to playing. I thought at first that the return would have me unprecedentedly motivated and ready to take on a dramatic schedule again, filling up all my free time. Conversely, playing the cello is becoming an activity much like my daily walk; not too long, unless I feel energised to go further, pretty regular and solely for the purpose of seeing new things and enhancing my wellbeing.
When speaking about the idea of wellbeing through the practice of music, it is useful to look to a philosophical view of what we are actually doing when we sit to play. What are we striving for? What is pulling us back to music time and time again?
In her book ‘A Case for God’, Karen Armstrong explains music as ‘an intensely rational activity (which) segues into transcendence’. She goes on to express how music isn’t ‘about’ anything, it doesn’t represent sorrow (for example), but it elicits it in hearer and player alike. It is her view that we experience this sadness, joy, humour etc directly in a way which transcends ego, because, this is not my sadness, but sorrow itself. The subjective and objective become one through music.
Music exemplifies what religion, spirituality and meditation strive towards. An understanding of the essence of being, expression of humanity, connection and belonging. Musicians have the privilege of witnessing and transporting the beauty in sound. Still, our practice and view towards practice is a largely temporal one. We forget the importance of connecting with music in this meditative and reverent way. We make the communication with our instrument so common place and harsh that it can be difficult to witness the spirit at play.
This reminds me of when I had an unhealthy view to exercise. I’m sure athletes might relate to this slightly disordered routine in order to achieve excellence at a skill. I would focus on numbers, distances and achievements, often discarding the more worthwhile experiences in exercise such as acknowledging the landscape, taking breaks to rest and feeling present in the moment. Exercise would feel like a mission and I was so relieved when it was over. How similar does this sound to the way many of us practice? It is often to be ploughed through, enjoyed mostly when over. I would struggle to take practice breaks because I would worry that I was missing out on time and not improve as quickly.
My relationship to exercise and moving my body has changed from a mission to be completed to a sacred space within the day. I usually look forward to choosing where I want to go and seeing the huge variety of dogs, people and landscapes around. I love the trust of following how I’m feeling, but I also know that I rely on going outside for my mental health. I need a reminder that there is more beyond the space I live in and more beyond the brain I can be screwed up around. I am starting to see playing my cello with this medicinal and therapeutic value. Just as meditation, exercise and personal connection give our souls something tangible and uplifting, so can engaging in music hold an important place in our wellbeing. Music is one of the greatest miracles of the world and a supreme example of the corporeal meeting the divine. How can it not have the ability to uplift our suffering hearts and minds!
We have felt the need to abuse the beauty in playing though judgment, over-saturation and a fear of failure. We have felt selfish and guilty if we suffer with performance anxiety, yet love playing in the solitary confines of our own music space. It is important to honour where we are at in our journey with playing and remove the judgments we hold before we even pick up our instruments to play. What if we saw music as an important part of our wellbeing, much the same as exercise, mediation and eating well might be? I wonder how much might change for us if we saw it also as a means of communication beyond the limits of our minds, not only as a service to a paying audience. The reassurance that there is more to life than the pressure we exert on ourselves.
If you feel the need to play for your own wellbeing and are not inspired to share it, I urge you to follow that desire. It may give you a vital and more loving perspective when you (and the world!) are ready to share and perform again.