July 2013

Zen and the Violin: Ten Tips for the Journey

July 10, 2013 07:38

So, I’m a meditator, and that’s a good thing to be in today’s world. I’m pretty lame at setting time aside to meditate on a daily basis, however, which is why I head out a few times a year to go on private, silent retreats. Last May’s retreat was particularly effective, for whatever reason, and I returned with greater clarity that has served me well since. I recently compiled an article for the dance community, comparing Zen precepts and my meditation practice to my ballet practice. There are a surprising number of similarities: staying focused on what’s unfolding right there and then; not being distracted by nagging thoughts; remaining wholly present physically and mentally. Then there are the not-so-Zen facets of ballet. It’s all about beauty, grace, the illusion of perfection. It’s competitive. There is an image in your mind you’re doggedly striving for, that you can’t seem to ever reach. Ego, desire, dissatisfaction all have a field day in the ballet studio.

Violinists are not ballet dancers, but they are both still part of the performing arts world. I wondered if some of the same precepts could apply to the violin world. Taking my little list, I revised it for a violin-based readership. Tell me if you agree with any of these.

Gentle tips to help you on your the journey

1) Wherever you are in life, at this very moment, and in your violin practice, is precisely where you’re supposed to be. Even if, at this moment, something feels like a mistake, a mess, a problem that needs to be fixed.

2) Don’t be afraid to fail. You learn far more through failing than you do through succeeding.

3) Strive to remain in the present daily, hourly, in your lesson, your practice time, your life. Try to observe, without judgment, the way your attachments and aversions often dictate your moods, your choices, and consequently limit you.

4) It’s good to improve on a regular basis, set goals for yourself, but don’t withhold satisfaction with the way things are right now. Don’t live your life waiting for the day things will be easier, or better. The reality is, that day in the future when things are “better,” you will find a new “better” dangled before you like a carrot. It’s all an illusion to pull you from your life in the present.

5) It’s all about the journey, the process of learning. Once we stop the learning, we stop living. The destination, believe it or not, is largely irrelevant.

6) Practicing and/or playing the violin is hard, and can be oh, so discouraging. Same goes for life. But it's the hard stuff, these forays outside your comfort zone, the scary (to you) risk taken, that make it so rich and worth living.

7) Observe everything and everyone, including those against whom you compete, with gentle compassion. We are all on this journey, on parallel roads. Each has its bumps and smooth spells. We all made choices in life that put us where we are now. We deserve to be cherished, and respected. Particularly by ourselves.

8) Some days it all comes together. You’ll have moments of startling insight, power, clarity, perfect intonation and musicality. You’ll play like Heifetz/Oistrakh/Milstein/insert-your-favorite-violin-master-here, and it will feel like You Have Arrived.

9) The next day, poof, it’s all gone. “From God to clod,” as my teacher wryly puts it. You decide you haven’t sounded this pedestrian and amateurish in years. Worse, you stay in this less refined space for days, even weeks. None of this should not be construed as failure. It is simply another facet of the learning process.

10) Pain hurts, both the physical and emotional kind. Don’t judge your own pain, even if it stems from competitiveness or disappointment. If it is there, burning, whether or not it is noble, have compassion. Compassion of the self is where it all begins, and is the greatest gift you can give yourself. Harsh self-judgment is nothing more than pain on top of pain.

Most of all, make sure you enjoy the journey. Make it full of music, inside your heart and out.

© 2013 Terez Rose
The Classical Girl

PS: You can find the original dance-related article here, at

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