Learning Music as a Spiritual Practice

Most people learn an instrument because they want to have fun. They want to do something enjoyable. Others may thrive on the sense of accomplishment. It’s important to constantly return to the joy and fun of learning. But there some other amazing things you’ll pick up along the way.

  • You get better at learning things, learning anything.
  • You gain a deeper appreciation of the music you listen to.
  • You come to see a spiritual connection to things through the music you make.

In this post, I’ll start with a highly practical process of learning and then talk about the spiritual dimension of learning music. By the way, this post was originally published as Simple/complex/simple. I had some new insight into this that I wanted to share…


 

The FiddleHed lessons are taught in a style I call Micro-practice, aka “Incremental Learning”. We learn small pieces of things and then put them together into bigger pieces. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. And as we learn we try to work right at our edge.

This means we practice something that is challenging enough for us to grow, without frustrating us so much that we want to stop.

 

Here’s another way to look at it: The whole process involves moving from something simple to something complex and then to something simple again.

Say you’re learning a fiddle tune. The first thing you learn is the first note, and then the second note. Learning each of those is a simple thing. Putting them together we get a more complex thing. But after you play that complex thing a few times, it will become a simpler thing. That two-note pattern will soon feel like one thing. Does that make sense?


Let’s apply this to a fiddle tune called John Ryan’s Polka.

Start with one small piece: the first bar of the tune:

A3-3-1-2-3-1

 

Then learn the second bar:
A0-D2-A0-D2

 

After you feel confident with these two bars, put them together into a two-bar phrase:

At first, this may feel awkward. You may have difficulty with the transition. Or it may be tricky to remember one part after playing the other. It will feel like two different things that you are trying to put together.

But if you practice this larger piece with looping, it will soon become one thing.  You won’t be thinking about each note, about each separate bit of information. It will be recognized by your brain as a single thing.

This is deep. But more on the spiritual implications later in the post (for reals)…

This process of moving from mulit-tasking to single-tasking applies to other aspects of fiddling, such as bowing. Slur two-separate two is hard to learn at first.

  • Start by playing D0-1-2-3 with separate bows.
  • Then play D0-1 once with slur 2 in a downbow. Do this a few times. Then loop it.
  • Then play D0-1 with slur two, take a pause and play D2-3 with separate bows. Repeat this a few times.
  • At a certain point, your mind and body will probably just start to play D0-1-2-3 with slur 2-separate 2. Eventually, this will feel like one action instead of a series of parallel actions.

Micro-practice

Here is a simple breakdown of how the process flows:

  • Start with simple pieces or simple actions
    • Single notes
    • 3-5 note bits
  • Add complexity
    • Put together two simple pieces
    • Add something to the simple piece
      • Bowing like slurs or double stops
      • Rhythmic variation
  • Return to simplicity
    • Return to smaller pieces for further practice
    • The larger piece has become simple through practice

Multi-tasking becomes a single process

Here’s a slightly different way to look at the same process.

You start with two simple tasks, let’s say patting your head and rubbing your belly. You practice each simple task until you can do it. Then you do both simple tasks at the same time. You are now multi-tasking. It’s tricky and challenging at first. Maybe you can’t quite do it, so you go back to practicing your head-patting (which needs work!) and your belly rubbing (you are naturally talented at this one). Then you return to multi-tasking and by golly, you can now do it. With a little more practice, the act of patting-your-head-and-rubbing-your-belly miraculously goes from multi-tasking back to single-tasking.

Miraculous!

Until it becomes super-easy. Then it doesn’t seem so miraculous anymore. But it still is!

Here’s another example. When you first learn to drive, you have to learn and remember many separate tasks: acceleration, braking, checking your review mirrors, using your turn signal, etc. But after a year or so of driving, you do it almost unconsciously. It’s so automatic, that you can talk on the phone, eat some chips, or listen to music as you drive. (Not recommending this though! “Keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel.”)


Learning music as a spiritual practice

So there are a few deeper things to consider here. Wherever you are in your journey as a fiddler, you are currently doing something miraculous. You just don’t recognize it as such. Perhaps getting a decent sound on an open string doesn’t sound like that big of a deal anymore.

But it is!

And in some ways, it’s a good thing that this doesn’t seem like any big deal (though it is). You wouldn’t want to rest on your laurels after just getting a good sound on the open strings, right? You’re going to want to learn new and more challenging things. Like left hand-hand fingering. Or playing a klezmer tune along with a faucet drone:

And now for the spiritual dimension. First of all, what does spirituality mean? My personal definition: seeing that you are not an isolated unit but that you are part of something bigger (whatever you want to call it). To know and feel the connection you have with the Universe.

When you take this incremental approach to learning, you see, over and over again, how things connect and then form one thing. A melody is made up of thousands of parts, yet, it feels like one thing. As humans, we usually feel like separate beings, yet we all are connected in mysterious ways.

You don’t need to know this to play music (and you wouldn’t want to over-think it). But it can deepen the experience of listening, learning and playing music.

What is challenging you now? Can you find a way to break it down into simpler things? When those things become easy, try to integrate them into a more challenging thing. See if you can notice the moment when that challenging thing starts to feel like one thing. Can you do that?

3 responses to “Learning Music as a Spiritual Practice

  1. Ha!! The faucet concert was brilliant! This is exactly the thing I love to do❤️. Also! Klezmer is my favorite style! Yes to me my fiddle playing is a spiritual journey thank you so much for teaching us🙏🏽Blessings.

  2. Say Hey, Jason

    Almost time for me to sign up for my fourth year! I have been playing daily, 40min-1 1/2 hrs. or longer each day. The longer sessions are just because it’s fun. I am retired from the phone Co. now but still work part-time at the Y and I care for our 5 Acres which was once full of horses. I also try to keep my 71 yo body going by exercising and swimming at the Y. No more jamming at the local breweries presently. Besides doing FiddleHed Play-Alongs, I also play along with YouTube videos of other instruments playing fiddle songs, until jams re-open.

    Sorry for the mini-bio! But the Simple to Complex is the theory which beckons FUN. I have learned finally a bit what you have taught all along; make it fun and then you won’t quit.
    Battles with bad sound, poor bowing, arthritis in the fingers (wonder thumb helps), difficulty in audiating a tune……..whatever, Back to something simple and relax. It’s working. Thanks.
    Owen O’Malley

  3. This post is as good as it gets, and a lesson to always keep in the back (or front) of one’s head. Thank you for it.

    from my man Tagore:
    “My poet, is it thy delight to see thy creation through my eyes
    and to stand at the portals of my ears silently to listen to thine own
    eternal harmony?”

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