The New Discipline and its Artificial Hells: On Art, Pain, and Responsibility

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danika paskvan: essays

We are none of us inviolable. We are none of us free to craft affectual experiences without taking responsibility for those creations.

We do not have the artistic right or social license to signify recklessly, simply because we feel bored or creatively limited or unsatisfied with our current domain and have chosen to play within the bounds of another—with no examination of the contexts of ethics and consent that underwrite that craft.

This piece deals with questions of creative ethics that arose from my experience at the Darmstadt 2016 Summer Course. I specifically speak to the Composer-Performer Workshop “concert” on the night of August 10th.

My response arises from and details a personal experience that was true, non- optional, and not at all represented in either the student concert or the performances and discourses at the Summer Course as a whole.

The Composer-Performer event of August 10 was an evening…

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Practice anxiety: Tool #12

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Your practice notebook is your friend!

Your practice notebook is your friend!

Three things – a practice exercise

Why? One of the things that can lead to anxiety around music practice is the same thing that can lead to anxiety around performance – you probably just don’t notice it as much. When you’re on stage, you might notice the negative thoughts that you have and how much they affect your performance by interrupting your focus, heightening your nerves, and becoming self-fulfilling prophecies about major mistakes. The thing is, you’ve probably practiced these thoughts right in – in the practice room.

Next time you practice try to keep a tally of all of your negative thoughts and all of your positive thoughts, even just for 10 minutes. Notice how few of the negative thoughts are actually constructive. Many of them instead will be sweeping generalisations: “This is too difficult for me”, “I’ll never get this passage”, “I’ll never play it like so-and-so”, “Why do I even try”… And positive thoughts, if they happen at all, are probably just as non-specific: “My sound is good today”, “Wow, I got that bit!”, etc.

Here is a simple exercise you can incorporate into every practice session to help increase the number of specific and helpful positive thoughts you deliver to yourself (and it might be useful to know that positive feedback is more useful than criticism).

What? This exercise is called “Three Things” and is taken from the Bulletproof Musician online course (highly recommended if you can afford it … great thing to ask for as a Christmas present!). Have your practice notebook open next to you while you practice. After your practice session write down three things:

1. One specific thing that went well
2. One specific thing that improved
3. One instance of great effort

The idea is to make sure each of these things is as specific as possible. In order to do this, you’ll be forced to be thinking throughout your practice session what these positive things you could write down might be. If something is really not going well in your practice session, then remember that it might end up being either thing number 2 or 3, which will give you a positive way of looking at the challenge. And the positive feedback you’ll give yourself will help you to know more specifically how to approach the next practice session to get the same successful results.

This is just a starter exercise to help you increase the number of positive thoughts you have in a practice session. It’s a long journey to change the kind of learned thinking that results in more negative thoughts, and know that this exercise alone probably won’t eliminate them, but it’s a good step in the right direction.

Practice anxiety: Tool #11

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Braving the elements to go out and practice somewhere that's not your bedroom can nevertheless be well worth it. Photo from Horn Blog.

Braving the elements to go out and practice somewhere that’s not your bedroom can nevertheless be well worth it. Photo from Horn Blog.

Go practice somewhere else + 2 extra tips

Why? If you’re like me and do a lot of your practice at home, you’ll know the struggle that is a gazillion competing distractions (internet, comfy couch, books, long to-do list, snack grazing…) that present you with many options for NOT practicing. On the other hand, when you step into a practice room somewhere else you have one purpose in mind. Granted we’ve all had those times in conservatoire practice rooms where you’re scrolling on your phone and decidedly not practicing, but it’s far clearer that you’re not doing the thing that you’re there to do.

What? So, if there is any possibility for you to practice somewhere that is not your bedroom, jump at the chance! Can you ask your music teacher if you can get special permission to turn up at the music block an hour before school (or stay an hour after) to practice? Chances are there’ll be ensemble rehearsals on anyway and you can occupy one of the practice rooms. If you’re studying music at uni, get up early and snag a practice room before the rush. It feels so good to knock some basic tech practice over early in the day. Book practice rooms during busier times. Or is there some other options available to you – rooms available at a local studio that you can book for a suitably low rate? Can you join up with some friends and rent out a small warehouse space and make a practice schedule between you? Think outside of musicians, practicing amongst other kinds of artworks can be very stimulating! Some libraries have practice rooms you can book. Is there a church in your local area that will allow you to practice there in return for maybe playing at their weekend services? Take advantage of resonant spaces – they make you want to practice more (I spent last week practicing in a ballroom and it was AMAZING)! Or if you work an office job, see if you can get access to turn up before anyone else arrives to do your scales before knock on – I used to do this when I worked as an arts administrator. Just some ideas…

Extra tip #1: Practicing somewhere else works especially well if you can only book the space for a certain time – it adds pressure that means you’ll want to make the most of the space while you have it. Think carefully about when you book practice time and note it in your diary. Treat it like a job – turn up and put in the hours you promise yourself (but don’t push yourself in the case of illness, exhaustion or injury, know when to be forgiving of yourself).

Extra tip #2: If you are overcome by the desire to check your phone or you get a call, try stepping outside of the practice room. Be disciplined – the practice room is for practice. Set a practice timer and pause it while you attend to the distraction. Or set your phone on airplane mode while you’re practicing!

This practice anxiety tool is fairly hardline, and is useful for getting or keeping you on track when you’re not struggling too much. For more practice anxiety tools that encompass moments of real struggle, click here.

Practice anxiety: Tool #10

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Colouring is my "safe" activity. Image by Paula Signolfi Cyoia via takepart.

Colouring is my “safe” activity. Image by Paula Signolfi Cyoia via takepart.

Finding safe activities (for me: colouring)

Why? What do you do when feelings of discomfort associated with practice become so intense that the very thought of picking up your instrument becomes distressing? This is a danger zone, and could lead to a period of chronic avoidance, which for me spirals quickly downwards into depression.

It’s tempting to switch out and turn to the usual distractions – scrolling through social media, bumming out on the internet, playing games, and/or binge watching a tv show. But in my experience these things don’t help you deal with the situation at hand, and in fact can worsen it. They’re all fine for when you just need a little bit of time out, and as rewards for some good practice work, but not so much for dealing with more acute emotions.

I’ve already written a bit about what you can do if you’re struck by these kinds of intense feelings: the brain dump, and 30 things to do when practice feels like an impossibility (this second link includes a lot of music-related activities that can still feel okay to do even when practice doesn’t). But this time I want to write about finding a completely “safe” activity that allows you to distract yourself just a bit, calm yourself and hopefully even ready yourself to take the steps needed to get to that place where you can start practice.

What? Recently I was planning activities for a long-haul flight. I developed a fear of flying several years ago in relation to some PTSD (the event which triggered this had nothing to do with aeroplanes, but I flew very shortly after it and so flying became kind of tied up in my brain with the event) and, while I am much better at coping with it these days, I am always anxious when getting on a plane. So I always take about 10x as many things to distract myself with as I could possibly use. Searching the internet for ideas I came across colouring books for adults.

Often these are full of either abstract patterns or pictures of plants, animals, city scapes and so on with much more details than children’s colouring books. I picked up a book like this in the airport in Amsterdam and used the coloured markers I have for marking up scores. It takes some time to finish colouring in one of these detailed pages, but I was amazed at how calm I felt about it. In fact, there’s some science behind it and colouring is now being promoted as a mindful, calming activity for adults with anxiety. It’s fairly low cost (a book costing $10-15 will last for aaaaages, or just do a google image search and print some pages off! And I’m sure you’ve got some colouring pencils or pens lying around) and choosing your colour combinations is oddly soothing. I can do this for a while, and then my mind feels much more creative and open to possibilities – including music practice.

Colouring is a “safe” activity for me. For you it might be something else. Spend some time working out what that activity might be, and then make sure the materials are on hand for when those situations arise (they will).

Practice anxiety: tool #9

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Interstellar improv! STS-56 Mission Specialist Ellen Ochoa plays the flute in space shuttle Discovery's aft flight deck in April 1993.  Image: NASA.

Interstellar improv! STS-56 Mission Specialist Ellen Ochoa plays the flute in space shuttle Discovery’s aft flight deck in April 1993. Image: NASA.

Improvise

Why? Practicing notes on a page can be anxiety provoking – you are constantly measuring yourself up against technical and interpretive ideals. This is even the case with simple scale or tone exercises, but is especially intense when you have difficult repertoire to master. It can often be enough to lead to avoiding picking up your instrument altogether.

When talking to others about my practice avoidance, I’ve often been told that “starting is the hardest part”. This is very true, although not the full picture (what about re-starting, again and again, as is necessary? what about tension and strong feelings during practice?). Some days when I’m really struggling to start, removing the stress of notated music can help me not only to make this all important start, it can also greatly improve my connection with my instrument and lead to new sound discoveries.

Try improvising for five minutes and then, if you feel like moving on to ‘actual’ practice, set a timer and start your warm-up routine or repertoire work.

What? Improvising is a very personal thing. Just take your instrument and start to make some sounds. It honestly does not need to lead anywhere, which is what makes it so freeing. On the other hand, too much freedom can itself be limiting – where do you start?? Here are a few ideas to kick things off:

– Choose a note that generally feels good for you and just start playing long tones or repeated soundings. Play with colour and quality of attack. You’re not aiming so much to ‘improve’ your tone, but to explore the possibilities. Don’t be disturbed if it doesn’t sound the way it ‘should’. Move on to notes around it and make slow moving melodies. Experiment with intervals.

– Search for strange sounds like multiphonics, colour trills (bisbigliando), ultra soft sounds, buzzing or bamboo tones. Use whatever fingering comes to mind and see what comes out. Use normal note fingerings and see if you can find strange sounds by over- or under-blowing. I like to find two similar sounds and then move back and forward between them.

– Play or hold your instrument differently, i.e. ‘incorrectly’, and then make gentle sounds, keeping your body as relaxed and comfortable as possible. Move between this and your normal playing posture. Stand, sit, walk around. Focus on the feeling of contact between you and your instrument.

– Meditate on an idea and play some music to match it. Find some text scores as starting points. Pauline Oliveros (American avant-garde composer and improvisor) has some available for free download. Look at a picture and try to play the scene. Be patient with yourself – play for a while before settling on your materials.

– When you find a nice sound or idea, write it down however it makes sense to you. This can serve as a really nice starting point for future improvisations, and can be useful material to draw upon if you’re ever asked to improvise in a class or other public situation.

Play scale or harmonic patterns you’re familiar with if you want, but I would encourage you to go further into the sound possibilities of your instrument more as well. Pentatonic scales are always really nice to play around with, because you basically can’t go wrong!

Always try to be light with your self-judgement. This doesn’t need to sound ‘good’, you don’t need to meet any expectations. Just let yourself actually play.

Mixed feelings: returning home

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My little blog post on why KP is really awesome and George Brandis’ changes to arts funding are really not.

Kupka's Piano

Hannah, far left, working with Belgian group Ensemble Fractales and English composer Olly Sellwood ahead of a concert in Brussels. Hannah, far left, working with Belgian group Ensemble Fractales and English composer Olly Sellwood ahead of a concert in Brussels.

Flutist and co-founder of Kupka’s Piano, Hannah Reardon-Smith, has been living in Brussels for the past year while undertaking an Advanced Masters in Contemporary Music Performance Practice. She returns to Australia just for the month of July this year, and will join KP in their Wynnum concert at the Imperial Room.

I’ve got mixed feelings about coming back to Australia.

That said, I’ve had mixed feelings about living and studying in Belgium too. I’ve had (and in the next year will have) some incredible opportunities, learning with and playing alongside some of my heroes, making contact with many of the composers whose work I’m most interested in, and realising how small (if widely spread) the global community of musicians playing la musique contemporaine really is. I’ve been mentored by members of Ictus and

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Practice anxiety: tool #8

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Juna (trombone), myself and Miyama (koto) improvising together at the Impuls festival in Graz, Austria back in February this year.

Juna (trombone), myself and Miyama (koto) improvising together at the Impuls festival in Graz, Austria back in February this year.

Playing with others

Why? This one depends a bit on how you experience anxiety, but for me self-discipline (enter superego!) is the biggest driver of my problems. Organising rehearsals or even just fun “duet dates” with musical peers who you respect and admire – but also trust and are comfortable with – can give you a huge boost, as well as set external deadlines that don’t involve you having to “prove yourself” (in this way it’s different to a lesson, masterclass, audition/competition or other important musical engagement with an external deadline). Finding people you feel good about playing with in a non-competitive environment and repertoire you’re excited about can give you something tangible to work towards and help you find joy in your practice.

What? The level of commitment you throw into this activity is totally up to you. Sight reading simple duets with someone is a great way to practice intonation, rhythm, chamber music skills, and also to have a good laugh. Consider teaming up with a peer-level pianist to learn repertoire with “accompaniment” – in this instance I suggest the non-pianist stops thinking of themselves as the “soloist” and works closely with the pianist as a duo, investigating more deeply how the parts interrelate. Choose repertoire that’s a similar difficulty for both of you, and by the same token, work with peers who are at a similar level.

You might also choose to prepare a piece along with several others to play for assessment or (even better) organise your own concert. This is the way that many of the world’s great chamber ensembles have formed! In addition to creating more enjoyable performance opportunities, you’ll learn important skills about organising and working well with others. Repertoire choice is really the crucial element here – seeings as you’ll be driving this yourselves, you need to find pieces that you are passionate about.

Maybe another option for working with others that you may not have considered much is working with composers. Even is new music isn’t so much your schtick, you’d be surprised how rewarding this is from an early level. If you’re undergraduate-level study, seek out the composers around your age. Listen to their music, and if someone’s writing something along the lines of what you think you could do then offer to workshop a small piece with them. Help them to explore your instrument (and maybe explore it a bit yourself!) and give sound to the notes they’re putting down on paper. Once again, this takes the pressure off you, while also improving your playing and musicianship.

A final idea for playing with others is improvising. This is great because you’re not limited by instruments that composers think should go together (see the image above for what was a surprisingly effective trio), and you can really explore the sounds you like and the interactions with your collaborators without the pressure of measuring yourself up against a score. If you’re unfamiliar with improvising, try starting with some long tones/sounds and building up some harmonies to practice using your ears to direct the sounds. Be creative! I’ll write more on improvising next post…

For some really great tips on musical collaboration, read this article on the Musician’s Way blog.