Thursday, November 15, 2007

confessions of a practice rat

All this talk of practicing is making me realize - I need to go practice! Well, that and:

My name is Matt, and I am a practice addict.

The first realization that I might have a problem was New Year's, 2000. I was visiting my family in California for the holidays, in the middle of my senior year at New England Conservatory. I'd been practicing more that year than I ever had, trying to shape up for grad school auditions and prepare for professional auditions - like Jason and Joe, I basically lived in a practice room that year.

So I was with family over winter break, and I was away from my bass for two weeks - and suddenly I was a complete basket case. I had never been anywhere near that depressed. The rest of the world was drinking and partying like it was 1999, because it was. Everyone else seemed to have a noisemaker in one hand and a glass of bubbly liquid in the other; the only noises I was making were muffled sobs, crying into a plastic cup of champagne. My mom, a psychologist, knew it was depression, and we both knew it was serious - but neither of us could explain what was causing it.
A Skinner box is a cage equipped to condition an animal's behaviour through reward or punishment. In a typical drug test, a surgically implanted catheter is hooked up to a drug supply that the animal self-administers by pressing a lever. Hundreds of trials showed that lab animals readily became slaves to such drugs as heroin, cocaine, and amphetamines. "They were said to prove that these kinds of dope are irresistible, and that's it, that's the end of the addiction story right there," [psychologist Bruce] Alexander says.

- from "The Rat Trap" by Robert Hercz, p. 37 in The Walrus, December 2007

Without realizing, I had been running a sort of Skinner box experiment: depriving myself of any sort of stimulation or activities - those things I called "distractions" - not having to do with the double bass. I would even mentally play through excerpts while walking back and forth from my apartment to the practice room. I had conditioned myself into a bass-playing machine, doing, thinking, even dreaming about nothing but bass. No wonder I'd turned myself into an addict.

The problem with the Skinner box experiments, Alexander and his co-researchers suspected, was the box itself. To test that hypothesis, Alexander built an Eden for rats. Rat Park was...the size of 200 standard cages. There were cedar shavings, boxes, tin cans for hiding and nesting, poles for climbing, and plenty of food. Most important, because rats live in colonies, Rat Park housed sixteen to twenty animals of both sexes. [...] The denizens of Rat Park overwhelmingly preferred plain water to morphine (the test produced statistical confidence levels of over 99.9 percent). Even when Alexander tried to seduce his rats by sweetening the morphine, the ones in Rat Park drank far less than the ones in cages.

- same article, p. 38

Doing one activity 8 to 10 hours a day (besides sleeping) is not normal behavior, for a rat or a human. Why then do we do this to ourselves? Like drug addiction, it seems to start with a severely restricted, oppressive environment. Not that NEC was a cage - though at busy times people would circulating through the halls, looking into practice rooms like rats in a maze - but I built my own cage out of low confidence and self doubt. I decided that I would have to work harder than other people - I wasn't as naturally gifted, but I still wanted to be successful, so I would have to squeeze out any other interests. To be the first one practicing in the morning, and the last one to go home at night, was really a sort of high - and the fact that I still wasn't making as much progress as other students only seemed to confirm that my attitudes were correct.
Rat Park showed that a rat's environment, not the availability of drugs, leads to dependence. In a normal setting, a narcotic is an impediment to what rats typically do: fight, play, forage, mate. But a caged rat can't do these things. It's no surprise that a distressed animal with access to narcotics would use them to seek relief.

- p. 38

Luckily I wasn't a complete practice rat: I still had some friends who would pull me out of my cage, and later that year I started training to run a marathon. I really think having a supportive social network and some form of physical exercise are vital for all music students; I doubt I could have survived those years without them, and I've seen other young musicians lacking them fall apart. My mom was very concerned, seeing my depression that winter, and from that point on she would often tell me not to practice so much. I didn't really take her advice - how could I ease up the compulsive practicing, when I was still bombing at auditions? But at least she provided a voice of caution, and helped me to pull back from really hurting myself.

Practicing would go through cycles for me: for a while I would be completely gung-ho, pounding away, burning up the hours, feeling great about the work I was accomplishing. And then I would find myself crashing, becoming either depressed, sore, or nauseated by the just the sight of a practice room. In retrospect, those times were my mind and body's way of telling me: "Lighten up, take a break, do something different for a while." When we're too stubborn to listen to what our bodies tell us nicely, they'll sometimes resort to injury or burn-out to get the message across.
His message - that the core values of Western life have created an environment of rootlessness and spiritual poverty that leads more and more of us to addiction - is Rat Park writ large. And by addiction, Alexander means a great deal more than illegal drugs. There are legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco, of course. Then there's gambling, work, shopping, the Internet, and anorexia ("addiction to starvation," as Alexander puts it). Research is showing that as far as the brain is concerned, these activities are drugs, too, raising levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, just like alcohol, heroin, and almost every other addictive substance we know. In this broad - but not loose - sense of the word, addiction is not the preserve of a coterie of social outcasts, but rather the general condition of Western society.

- p. 39

The stereotypical drug addict - dependent, desperate, dangerous - is not a figure I like to associate myself with. Though if I've never been much of a drinker, smoker, or gambler, it's probably because those weren't my drugs of choice. I went for the hard stuff - Findeisen, Simandl, Bottesini. A week without Sevcik still leaves me jonesing. And the underlying problems, of doubt and low self-confidence, never really disappear. I just have to manage those feelings, and take pride in the efficiency of my practice sessions, rather than the length.

Recovering from this addiction isn't about going cold turkey - I'm always going to practice. But hopefully I can learn to do it sensibly, safely, and in moderation. And maybe save some time for fighting, playing, foraging and mating.


Joe Lewis said...

Well I can certainly relate to this. This coming from a guy who throws the guitar in the trunk on any family vacation. On a visit to Puerto Rico, I insisted that we track down the teacher at the Conservatorio. Why? To convince him to let me in to the bass locker so I could get some practicing in.

Great post Matt. I am with you on this.

Gottagopractice said...

Not the typical practice post, but definitely food for thought.

Anonymous said...

I remember a young bassist who was invited with his family to go cross country skiing near Wenatchee, Washington. The family was packed into a Toyota van, with barely enough room for ski equipment and luggage. The young bassist stood by the van with his double bass unable to believe that there would be no room for it and that he would be expected to spend a weekend without it. Does this sound familiar? I suspect the addiction to practicing can begin at a very young age in the aspiring musician.

Adam said...

Hey Matt,

Its great to see that you're reading the Walrus now that you are living up North. Can you even get the New Yorker up there?

Have you ever read "The Potent Self: Spontaneity and Compulsion" by Feldenkrais? It has some very remarkable ideas in it that seem to have convergence with much of what this entry is discussing.

Matt Heller said...

Thanks for the great comments - it's nice to have such engaged readers, including (I think) my Dad.

You don't have to be anonymous, Dad - I don't blame you for my rootlessness and spiritual poverty!

I'm not condemning anyone else's extreme practice schedule - in my case, I think it did reach an unhealthy point. And practicing less helped me to practice more efficiently, and make progress that I wouldn't have otherwise. So I hope readers will take this post for what it is - my own personal experiences and opinion, not a prescription for everyone to stop practicing!

I'll look for that Feldenkrais book - I've let my New Yorker subscription lapse (they'll post to Canada, but it costs twice as much). Thanks, Adam!

Mike said...

Thank you very much for this post. I've had a lot of trouble dealing with my own "rat cage" over the course of my undergrad at U of C. My first three years featured a lot of the same depressed feelings you mention here, except possibly made worse by the fact that I wanted to practice eight hours a day but couldn't - after four hours, physical and mental fatigue got the best of me. This year I've cut back.

What I'm struggling with is this: given the astoundingly competitive state of major orchestra auditions today, is it even possible to make it in this business without practicing yourself into a state of total madness? The real troubling thought I always run into when I consider this is that it is hours of experience and repetition that develop the physical skills necessary to an orchestral musician. I've met the players I will be up against on the audition circuit in a couple years, and they are terrifyingly good - if someone puts their sanity ahead of a heavy daily practice schedule, are they sabotaging their chances?