Wednesday, April 11, 2007

renouncing renunciation

Asceticism, of course, is no solution: it is sensuality with a negative prefix. For a saint this might become useful, as a kind of scaffolding. At the intersection of his various acts of renunciation he beholds that god of opposition, the god of the invisible who has not yet created anything. But anyone who has committed to using his senses in order to grasp appearances as pure and forms as true on earth: how could such an individual even begin to distance himself from anything! And even if such renunciations proved initially helpful and necessary for him, in his case it would be nothing more than a deception, a ruse, a scheme - and ultimately it would take its revenge somewhere in the contours of his finished work by showing up there as an undue hardness, aridity, barrenness, and cowardice.

- Rainer Maria Rilke, from The Poet's Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke, p. 135-136
Even though I draw inspiration from these words, I can't say I've exactly lived up to them. For most of my life, I've been renouncing one thing or another: television, drinking, the beach, relationships, blogging... It sometimes seems like every recreation, every source of pleasure I have discovered in life has had to be weighed against my greatest pleasure and purpose, which is making music. And in most cases I have limited, or even renounced altogether, those non-musical pleasures.

The more I consider this question though, I find myself agreeing with Rilke's perspective. Certainly we need to be discerning and disciplined, in our lives and our art. There are a whole slew of things not worth the brief pleasures they may give us, and we need to avoid these things if we are to respect ourselves and our art. There is an opposite extreme though, and when we limit ourselves too much, avoid everything, it is another sort of disrespect for our art and ourselves. It's as though we don't want to credit ourselves as skillful players, able musicians, and complete human beings. We act as though our technical equipment is so fragile, our musical ideas so feeble, that they need constant maintenance and attention.

I'll always respect my friends who do marathon-practice sessions. Lately though, I'm of the opinion that there are times when it's better not to practice - spend the time with friends, or outdoors in nature, with poetry or literature, or maybe studying the score without your instrument to intervene. Give your imagination the opportunity to develop and keep pace with your technical command of the instrument. After all, speed and agility will never compensate for a lack of imagination. When we let our practice outstrip our lives, and the craft replace art, it only leads to those qualities of aridity, barrenness, hardness, and cowardice.

So lately I'm trying to open myself up to new things, try some courageous acts, and live a fuller life outside the practice room. I'll report on how my humble attempts go, and I hope you'll read those words of Rilke and become inspired as well!

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