Follow by Email

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Books Worth Reading II

Thomas M. Sterner's The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life. Sterner is a musician, worked for years as a piano tuner/technician, as well as having an interest in Eastern philosophy. It's one of the best books I've read about developing better habits of discipline and focus. He has a wonderful little section that speaks to our habit of rushing through things and multi-tasking: with a day ahead that included getting two pianos ready (one for the piano soloist with the local symphony), then travel to do other tuning work, then back in the evening to check both pianos before the concert. He notes that he'd done this kind of thing many times and knew very well how much time it took, and that it was about two and a half times the amount considered a day's work in the trade. I'll let him speak from here:
When I started on the first piano, I put all of my effort into "being slow." I opened my tool box very slowly. Instead of grabbing a handful of tools and thinking I was saving time, I took each tool out one at a time. I placed each tool neatly in position. When I began setting up the piano, I performed each process individually, trying to deliberately work slowly.

It's a funny feeling when you try this. At first, your internal dialogue is howling at you to get going and pick up the pace. It is screaming at you, "We'll never get this done, you are wasting time." It is reminding you of the whole day's worth of work you have to get done to meet everyone's approval. You can feel the anxiety start to build and the emotions floating up to the surface. However, your ego quickly loses ground to the simplicity of doing one thing at a time and doing it slowly, on purpose. It has no place to build stress and work up internal chatter. That is because working slowly in today's world goes against every thought system. You can only work slowly if you do it deliberately. Being deliberate requires you to stay in the process, to work in the present moment.

After I finished the first instrument, I even went through the process of packing up my tools with meticulous care, just to walk ten feet away and unpack them slowly, one at a time, to start the second piano. Usually I would grab two handfuls of as much as I could carry and scurry through the orchestra chairs on stage trying to sve time. Not this day, however. I was determined to carry out my goal plan of just trying to work slowly. We spend so much time rushing everything we do. Rushing had become so much of a habit that I was amazed at the concentration it took to work slowly on purpose.

I took off my watch so I wouldn't be tempted to look at the time and let that influence my pace. I told myself, "I am dong this for me and for my health, both physical and mental. I have a cell phone and, if need be, I can call whomever and tell them I am running late, and that's the best I can do."

Into the second piano, I began to realize how wonderful I felt. No nervous stomach, no anticipation of getting through the day, and no tight muscles in my shoulders and neck, just this relaxed, peaceful, what-a-nice-day-it-is feeling. I would even go so far as to describe it as blissful. Anything you can do in a rushing state is surprisingly easy when you deliberately slow it down. The revelation for me came, however, when I finished the second piano. I very slowly put my tools away one by one with my attention to every detail. I continued my effort at slowing down as I walked to my truck in the parking garage a block away. I walked very slowly, paying attention to each step. This may sound nuts at first, but it was an experiment on my part. I was experiencing such an incredible feeling of peacefulness in a situation that usually had every muscle in my body tense that I wanted to see just how far I could intensify the situation with my effort.

When I got to the truck, the clock radio came on with the turn of the key and I was dumbfounded. So little time had passed compared to what I had usually experienced for the same job in the past that I was sure the clock was incorrect. Keep in mind that I was repeating a process that I had done for many years. I have set up these pianos together sometimes five and six times a week. I had a very real concept of the time involved in the project. I pulled my watch out of my pocket as a second check. It agreed with the clock-radio that I had cut over 40 percent off the time. I had tried to work as slowly as possible and I had been sure I was running an hour late. Yet I had either worked faster (which didn't seem possible, given my attention to slowness), or I had slowed time down (an interesting thought, but few would buy it). Either way, I was sufficiently motivated to press on with the experiment throughout the remainder of the day. I got so far ahead of schedule that I was afforded the luxury of a civilized meal in a nice restaurant, instead of the usual sandwich in the truck or no lunch at all.

I have repeated these results consistently every time I have worked at being slow and deliberate. I have used this technique with everything from cleaning up the dishes after dinner to monotonous areas of piano restoration work that I don't particularly enjoy. The only thing that foils the result is when I am particularly lacking in stamina and find myself drifting back and forth between working with slowness and succumbing to my feeling of, "I have to get this work done quickly."
The rest of the book is certainly as good and as interesting as this passage.

How often do we rush our own work? Whether in preparation (score study, prepping for a class), teaching or rehearsal, does rushing (because we know we have so much to cover!) help?

One of the notable things about the Swedish Radio Choir is their ability to work in a slow, concentrated way on different elements in the music, for example, intonation--it's quite extraordinary. And I had a rehearsal on Rachmaninoff's The Bells with them where I moved at too fast a pace, which resulted in frustration (and not faster results). We need to think of this in our rehearsals: rushing (and not really mastering a passage in the music) rarely accomplishes much and may in fact build in bad habits or mistakes. But it also means we have to build up the ability of our singers (at different levels, of course) to focus, concentrate, and do the patient work necessary to succeed in difficult music. This is perhaps even more true today with all the distractions (cell phones, instant messaging, Facebook, etc.) of the modern world.

Lots to think about, but this is certainly a book that's worthwhile!

No comments: