When you haven’t spent a lot of time doing things just because you want to, you tend to forget what you like to do. People ask me what I do for fun or as a hobby and I have a mini panic attack when I realize…
I. Don’t. Know.
But, I figure the best way to start figuring it out is to go back and think of things I liked to do as a kid.
I remember liking art classes when I was little, before the violin and everything that came with it took over my life. So, I thought it might be a good idea to try drawing again.
How drawing lessons can help you play the violin better
Amazon.com’s blurb for Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain calls it “the world’s most widely used drawing instruction book”. Seems like as good a place to start as any.
Don’t label what you are trying to draw
We all get caught up in the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we are capable of. “I can’t draw” or “I’m not artistic” or “I have no imagination” are things that a lot of people tell themselves. When faced with the task of drawing an eye or a tree or a bird, if you tell yourself, “draw an eye” you get stuck thinking, “how the heck am I supposed to draw an eye that looks real”?
Soon you are paralyzed with the overwhelming task of drawing the perfect platonic example of the human eye, so awesome that it will hang in the Louvre next to the Mona Lisa, celebrated as the greatest masterpiece of the 21st century and when you realize your eye looks like a lopsided almond with a circle in it you spin out into such existential despair that you need to retire to the bedroom where you bury yourself under the covers with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and a hot water bottle.
Or, maybe that’s just me.
Well, instead of doing that, Betty Edwards tells you in her first lesson to “draw what you see without labeling it”. One of the first things she has you do is draw Picasso’s portrait of Igor Stravinsky. I was pretty sure she was crazy because obviously there was no way I can draw that.
But then, she asks you to turn the portrait upside down, which changes your perspective. No longer are you drawing Igor’s face and body sitting in a chair in Picasso’s inimitable style, but you are just drawing a bunch of shapes. A line here, a curve there, a circle, a square and so on.
An hour or so later, you turn it around and, miraculously, you’ve drawn something that looks remarkably similar to the original.
The next time I went to practice the violin, I applied this principle by telling myself to just draw what I see. Or play what I see. So instead of saying, “this is a hard passage, I can’t play it” or “oh no, here come those octaves that I suck at” I tried to just play the notes, just like I just drew lines and shapes without applying meaning or fear or labels to what they represent. And like magic, passagework that has plagued me for years felt easy and natural because I wasn’t working through a layer of fear to get to the actual notes.
A teacher once told me to turn my violin upside down and play a difficult shift on the back of the neck, where it is smooth and there are no strings. Then, when I turned the violin around and played the shift on the strings, memorizing the feeling of the smooth neck instead of the feeling of strings, the shift just…happened. With an ease and fluidity that I didn’t think possible.
By paying attention to something new, my approach to familiar concepts was fresh and easy, releasing me from old fears and prejudices that might hamper my natural instincts.
Be the tortoise…slow and steady…
When I started the drawing lessons, I felt a lot of pressure to go through them quickly. In the book’s testimonials, there are pages of before and afters of student work. The improvements are really amazing and occurred over a matter of days so naturally, I was eager to get to the end of the race, too.
But it’s not a race, and drawing, like playing the violin, takes practice. I am one of the most impatient people I know – I’m intense and harsh with myself and if I often find myself saying, you’ve done this for 20 plus years now and you STILL missed that shift??
It’s taken me a long while to realize that this is not helpful and makes practicing pretty torturous. So, I remind myself of how I have to go very, very, slowly when I draw and it slows me down in the practice room, too. Recently, I heard a famous singer from the Met tell a student in a master class, “that which we learn slowly, we learn well.”
So, note to self. Slow. Down.
Start with the smallest possible movement
Being a professional musician is different from being a student musician. In school, you have a lot of structure with lessons and classes, surrounded by your peers, and you also have the luxury of time. You might take a whole semester to learn one concerto or sonata; maybe even a whole year.
Once you are a professional though, you will most likely (if you are lucky) be living a life of fighting an avalanche of music. You’ll have too much music to learn and not enough time to learn it.
So it will feel counter-intuitive to focus on the smallest possible increments when you are in the practice room. But I was reminded of this principle in drawing: when you think of drawing a whole landscape, it can be overwhelming. But if you focus of one blade of grass at a time, you will find the task more manageable and more importantly, more efficient.
The same will happen with a monster pile of music: take it one measure at a time. And, the nice thing is, if you can stay calm, the process gets faster and soon you will find that you have reached the double bar in a shorter time frame than you might have imagined.
Nurturing your “Beginner’s Mind”
These things, I realize, are all meant to nurture what in Buddhism is called “beginner’s mind”. Living our lives, we are programmed to tell ourselves stories about what we can and can’t do. Some of this is very necessary because it keeps us from touching hot stoves and walking off cliffs. But at some point, fear becomes an obstacle to reaching our potential because we label who we are instead of just sitting down and drawing what you see, one small shape at a time.
If we can find ways through the stories we tell ourselves, we often surprise ourselves with what we produce.
But then again, sometimes it’s okay to just stay in bed with some Cherry Garcia.