It’s humbling to learn something new. At the moment, I’m living in Bali for a month, updating FiddleHed.com and building a new course on improvisation.
I’m also re-learning how to surf. Out on the ocean, it’s pretty clear that I’m a beginner. Struggling to paddle out, getting battered by oncoming waves, not gaining enough speed to catch a wave, gaining too much speed and nosediving into a wipeout.
When surfing feels like a struggle, I can empathize more with you and other fiddle students. I can feel my ego fighting to hold on. First, there’s fear. I could actually die out here. And then another more subtle fear crops up. “Hey, look at that clown over there. He’s not a real surfer. He’s just taking up space on the waves.” The process of negatively judging people gets turned around on yourself.
It’s been a while since I’ve surfed: about eight years. So I’m back at square one. It’s both frustrating and exciting to be a beginner. I feel so clueless at times. But then every time I stand up it’s a small win. And there are such noticeable steps forward when you’re a beginner. On the day you start you can’t do it. And then a few days or weeks later, you are actually doing that thing.
Then as you progress, it feels like you hit plateaus. I’ve definitely hit my share of these as I’ve learned and played music over the years. I think learning something else new, like surfing, is good for my music practice because it gets me in the mindset of a beginner. I become more curious. I want to experiment and try something new. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with “Sawmill tuning” (AEAE), using it to practice Old-time and Irish tunes as well improvisation.
If you learn something totally new it can help you gain a fresh perspective on things you’ve already been learning and practicing.
White water practice
Just as a beginning fiddler starts with simple intervals (two notes), scales and tunes, a beginning surfer starts by surfing the white water after the wave has broken.
You basically just have to wait for the wave to come, hold on tight, and then once you feel yourself moving with the wave, you stand up. It’s important to do this a lot to work on your form and develop confidence.
In the same way, you want to practice very simple things on the fiddle so that you can focus on your form and develop confidence. Let’s call it white water practice. Warm up with something very, very simple until it sounds very, very good:
If you’re more advanced I encourage you to play this simple exercise anyway. How good can you make it sound? Can you notice points at which the sound quality is weaker or less precise?
As you play these two notes, pay attention to the rest of your body. Are you breathing evenly? Are your shoulders relaxed? Are your left-hand fingers clamping down like a vise? This practice of body awareness will drastically improve your technique. It will also help you to connect with the joy of playing. If you can play this simple thing well, then try to extend the practice to something a little more complex, like a scale or a phrase from a tune. If you have your fiddle handy, try to play either a D major scale or a small phrase from a tune in D, like the first bar or quarter from Oh Susannah, Tobin’s Jig, Whiskey Before Breakfast etc. See more Tunes in D here.
The point of the exercise is to remain aware of the body as you play, and to allow it to relax. If you can do this with a little exercise, then try to keep this awareness as you play an entire tune. You are using this simple thing to practice the right form and mindset. Then when it comes time to catch a challenging tune (or catch a bigger wave) your body has learned the form well enough so that you can do it without thinking too much. You have developed confidence because you’ve repetitively practiced easier things.
The challenge of regular practice
Over and over I tell students, “The most important thing is to simply play every day. Everything else follows from that. If you establish a regular practice, then you’ll also learn how to practice better.” Sometimes I can’t understand why people don’t just do that. Do you want to play the fiddle? If you play it every day, then you play the fiddle!
Learning to surf I see again how difficult it can be to get going on a good routine. I find myself facing the same obstacles that beginning music students face. For example, I know it’s best to establish a regular time and place to practice. But that can be a challenge. You may decide that the best time to practice is half an hour before dinner. But life seems to get in the way. Maybe an old friend is in town and wants to hang out. Or your cat seems to be sick and you need to take him to the vet.
There are constantly things that have to be taken care of and fires that need to be put out. Not to mention the infinite number of distractions that seek to dilute our attention.
I think the first step is to set a strong intention: I want to learn surfing (or fiddling), so I’m going to do it every day. You balance this intention with kindness to yourself. It’s counter-productive to beat yourself up for not practicing.
The next step is to pick a time and place to practice. This makes it easier to practice and supports your intention so that you continue to do it. If you successfully practice a few days in a row, then your intention to practice and learn becomes stronger. I decided to learn the fiddle, and look at me now. I’m actually doing it. Don’t be afraid to actually pat yourself on the back.
In addition to the tactical challenge of finding a good time and place to practice, there are countless ways in which the ego talks to us and tries to defeat us.
- How do I look in this wetsuit?
- I’m getting pretty good at this surfing thing.
- Jeez, I’m definitely getting worse.
- Why did that person get in my way!
- Dang, I just ran over that poor girl’s head. I’m a horrible person.
- Well, it was sort of her fault.
- How much does it cost to buy a house in Bali?
- Nevermind, it’s way too humid here.
- I feel like I want to stop.
- What am I going to eat for breakfast? What’s my plan for the day?
Probably the biggest challenge to learning anything is not what you actually have to learn (be it fiddling or surfing). It’s dealing with all the mental resistance and distraction created by the ego.
Perhaps the best approach is just to get to know and make friends with your ego. When it starts telling you, “You’re wasting your time, you should have started when you were much younger…” just listen to it without identifying with it. It’s like that somewhat annoying co-worker who taps his pen on the side of the desk. You could let it upset you, or you could move to another desk. Or put in earplugs. Just accept the situation. Accept that you can’t control everything.
Here’s the good news: if you manage to learn one thing well, you get better at the skill of learning. If you master one thing, you come to understand how to deal with doubt and distraction so that you can more easily let it go when learning the next thing.
Most obstacles are internal
Out on the water, I’m aware that things are constantly changing. I start to see how little control I have of the world. Fiddling seems so much easier than surfing because it happens in a more controlled environment. You’re just in a room by yourself. What can go wrong?
But now I think I’m wrong. When you practice music in a room by yourself, it is arguably a more controlled external environment. But there is still the internal weather to deal with: doubt, distraction, and fear. When you learn anything new, you practice letting go of mental and emotional waves.
And then after all the struggle, you catch a wave perfectly, stand up, turn and ride all the way to the shore. Or for the first time, you are really playing music on the fiddle. Instead of the usual stop-and-start practice, you feel like you’re just flowing with the music.
Go with it
My second surf teacher was named Made Mer.
He encouraged me to paddle back out in a more relaxed fashion instead of trying to battle my way through the waves. He said, “The waves just keep coming. You can’t fight it. You have to accept it and go with it. The waves are your friends.”
And so we come to the fiddlosophy part of the post. Learning something new is learning to put forth the right amount of effort while also accepting who and where you are in that moment.
Everything I’ve learned about music and meditation has taught me to completely connect with the present moment. This process is the goal. Focus on what you’re doing instead of the past or the future. When you play the fiddle, you just play the fiddle. When you wash dishes, you just wash dishes. Yet here in Bali I’m floating in the water on a surfboard, waiting for a wave and thinking of a million other things…
Noticing this, I feel a little alarmed. I don’t like finding myself resisting the present moment. It seems dangerous to have a mindset of wanting this experience to end. If you let that happen now, it will carry over to other things. On the other hand, learning this one thing (fiddling, surfing, whatever) is the perfect vehicle for learning to live in the present moment. While floating on the water waiting for a wave, I feel extra sensitive to how the mind jumps around and tries to separate itself from the current reality.
We also are learning to be kind. If I can be kind to myself than I will naturally be kinder to others. The reverse is also true.
- Set a strong intention to learn what you want to learn.
- Find a regular time and place to practice.
- Be kind to yourself.
- Learn to enjoy where you are and what you are doing. Accept what happens and go with it.
Now, go fiddle with it…