Sunday, January 14, 2007

subway wisdom

Yesterday afternoon I was riding the Cleveland subway, the RTA, taking my bass to the airport. I was heading home to Miami - my audition on Friday had been a disappointment by any standard, though I might have predicted as much. Somehow just the thought of auditioning for the Cleveland Orchestra seemed to plunge me into hopeless fits of anxiety, which I never really confronted or overcame.

So I wasn't in the best of moods, but when you're travelling with a bass, you have to anticipate all kinds of comments, lame jokes and tired questions. I'd been getting them the whole trip, and I've found the best way to handle it is just to smile, act polite, answer the questions, and try to keep walking. That wasn't going to work on this train, though, and there was a black teenage kid who was asking me an endless series of questions. What kind of band did I play with? Did I live in Cleveland? When did I start playing? Did I work under contract, and get a check sent in the mail, or did I get paid right after playing?

These questions were getting rather awkward and personal, and I was wishing they would end - but then he asked me a question that made me pause: "Does playing music help you relieve stress?"

I'd been practicing the last month for this audition, and my stress level seemed to have reached unprecedented heights. My face is broken out in pimples, I never seem to get enough sleep, a disorganized mess seems to follow me everywhere I go - obviously playing music does not help my stress, or it hasn't lately. Why is this though? How has something so joyful and peaceful become so painful, destructive and unpleasant?

Maybe the easy explanation would be that I worked myself too hard - though really, I've practiced much more in the past, and I could have used quite a bit more preparation on Friday. The truth, I believe, is that I'd turned my practicing against myself, made it into such a destructive, worrisome exercise, that I'd started mentally and physically rebelling against it. If practicing creates this much suffering, of course you'll find any excuse to avoid doing it.

The kid got up and left, but I had a whole lot on my mind now. How had I dug myself into this hole, and more importantly, what do I need to do to get out of it? How can I get back to practicing to improve and feel better about myself, rather than practicing to tear myself down?

I was lucky to run into another bass player, Kristen Bruya, at the airport, and she gave me a lot of great ideas and suggestions, which I will definitely try and might share in another post. I think a lot of people do go through these types of struggles, particularly when auditions are the focus of all our practice - it can be a very dispiriting, unrewarding kind of work. In their own ways though, both Kristen and the kid on the subway reminded me that it doesn't have to be. Practicing can be a source of joy, confidence, possibly even inner peace. As I once heard someone say, "If you're not having any fun, it's your own damn fault!"

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