Throughout my life, there are only two things that have remained constant fixtures: Playing the cello, and Gardening.
In fact, my 2 earliest memories are of eating all of the raspberries in the allotment when I was about 3, and playing French Folk Song in my red and white strawberry dress for my Kindergarten class. (I’m not sure if I was more proud that I got to wear a pretty dress to school or play my cello for my classmates. I think they brought equal amounts of joy that day).
Since that first performance at age 5, I have always had to practice. And with the exception of the years I was in school at New England Conservatory, and then in Miami for the New World Symphony, I have also always had a garden.
Over the past two years, through the work I’ve been doing with my Virtual Summer Cello Festival, and Bridge Online Cello Studio students, I have spent a lot of time boiling down the best, most efficient, and most effective methods of crafting music (ie: practicing). Alongside that, came the time and space to learn more about the best, most efficient, and effective methods of growing a garden.
And, surprisingly, they are exactly the same.
In gardening, one must look at their space, the amount of sunlight it gets, what and how much they want to grow, and at which point of the year those plants will thrive. Even here in Bermuda, there is no point in planting lettuce in June. It’s just too hot, and don’t expect your peppers to grow in January–too dark!
Likewise, as musicians, it’s important to look at the year. When do you have auditions, competitions, performances, and tours? How much time do you have to practice? Can you repeat programs? When is the best time in the year to schedule the premier of that (totally impossible to play) new piece? Probably not the week you get back from vacation.
I had the perfect plan for one of my flower beds. Onion sets would be planted in mid-October and would be ready for harvest in mid-March–just in time for my pepper and eggplant seedlings to go into the ground. Except…the cold fall meant that the onion sets weren’t available until early November, and they weren’t ready to be pulled until mid-April. Meanwhile, my peppers and eggplants were bursting out of their little pots. I don’t know why the onions are taking longer than usual, but they are. And instead of trying to force them (only to be faced with rotten onions later on), I needed to adjust. So, we changed course. I put the peppers and eggplant into the potato bed (I’ll find another spot for those later) and can let my onions take whatever time they need.
In Music, we often have to adjust. Perhaps you planned on learning some new rep for an upcoming performance, but life got in the way, and you didn’t have the necessary time to adequately prepare it. So you swap it out for something that feels more comfortable. You’ll have time to learn and perform the new rep later. Often students will get “stuck” on a concerto because competitions and auditions keep popping up and they need to use it….again. And then they win, so they need to keep it ready to perform.
So yes, the plan will change and you will need to adapt, but without the plan in the first place, you’d just feel lost all the time and wouldn’t know what you were adjusting to.
In the plant world, if you plant certain things in close proximity, you’ll have greater success. My yields improved dramatically this year when I planted Borage (a plant with little blue flowers that are like crack for bees) amongst my vegetables. My garden is FULL of bees now, happily sucking the nectar from the borage, and then pollinating all of my vegetables. But, putting certain other plants next to each other is a bad idea. One attracts a bug that will decimate the other, for instance. So it’s important to know what works with what, and which things to keep away from each other.
Same thing in music. It’s so important to find other musicians to collaborate with that make your heart sing. That pianist that always seems to make you play better–where rehearsals are full of laughter and inspiration, the quartet that has an easy way of communicating with one another. And it’s equally important to understand that, for whatever reason, some people might not be the best fit and they never will be. Don’t try to force it. Your companion plant is out there.
Ahhh…synthetic fertilizers. Use it on your plants, and they will double in size, throw out tons of flowers or vegetables, and generally shine for you. But they won’t taste as nice, it’ll kill all of the good insects buzzing around, and you’ll be destroying the soil (so good luck next season!)
As musicians, we can see right through fakeness…eventually. The person at the rehearsals who wants to be your BFF, hang out, have lunch, grab a coffee, and then, ZING, starts hinting (not-so-subtly) that they want you to get them on that sweet sweet gig you get to do every summer? Yeah. don’t do that. Form genuine relationships with the people you work with. See above about whether it works or not.
Some tasks in the garden require heavy lifting, a lot of energy, and a lot of time and focus. Yesterday, I planted a pomegranate tree that has been sitting in its pot long enough. It needed to go into the ground. But I knew it would require a lot of digging, dragging large bags of soil and compost, pruning the tree, etc. I meant to do it on Saturday, but I was feeling a bit low energy on Saturday, so instead of planting the pomegranate tree, I did some other important tasks that required less exertion. Sunday I had more energy and the tree got planted.
I’ve never understood people who had the same practice routine that they did day in and day out. No matter what. I teach my students different ways to approach their practice that go along with what kind of mood they’re in. From slow, quiet intonation work, to a full-out mock performance run-through, to drilling the trickier passages. We can use our shifting energy levels to our advantage if we pay close attention to them. This also takes away the “I can’t practice, I’m too tired.” excuse. Because they know there is work that they can do when they’re tired, and it will still benefit them.
I’m not going to grow turnips, and I’m not going to grow kale. I don’t care how easy they are. I don’t care how healthy they are. I don’t like them. I never have, I never will. And I have grown many a kale plant that just grows and grows and I never pick the leaves (because I don’t like it) and they take up a ton of space, and I feel virtuous for growing Kale, and everyone comes over and remarks on how awesome it is that I’m growing kale (and such an enormous plant, too!) I’m done with Kale. And Turnips.
I also spent years (so many years) of my life playing contemporary music. From NEC to New World, to Tanglewood, to freelancing in Boston, it seemed the cool kids were always the “new music” crowd. I loved the people, I loved the scene, I loved that I was a part of something great and important–allowing today’s generation of composers to be heard– and I played a lot of great pieces. Oliver Knussen, George Benjamin, Michael Gandolfi, Jessie Montgomery, Andrew Norman, Caroline Shaw, Joan Tower. I could go on and on with all of the great experiences I had.
But I didn’t love it. My dyslexic brain has a REALLY HARD TIME reading music in general, and this was just exhausting. And in between those great moments were a lot of just “meh” moments, and in between those, were some really unbearable moments. So while I will always support new music (musically and financially) I’m not going to play it unless I really want to.
So please, play what you love. Explore, take risks, all of that, but mostly, play what you love.
Sometimes I just sit in my garden with a cup of coffee and just watch. I see where the bees go, how the sun is hitting certain plants more than others, how that branch has grown so much it’s casting shade on the beets, etc. I notice things I wouldn’t normally have seen, and I’m able to make the necessary adjustments.
In the practice room, it’s just as important to spend time quietly observing your work as it is hacking away at it. The quiet observation can come from looking at the score and noticing new details, or from listening to a recording you just made and taking notes.
Take moments here and there to just watch. What’s happening with your shoulder there? Is that tension? And there…that phrase didn’t seem to go anywhere. What does it need?
I keep a garden log, and when I was a student, I kept a practice log. I wanted to learn what worked, and what didn’t. From my garden log, I learn just how long it took a seed to germinate. I learned which plants will thrive in Bermuda, and which will say “no thanks!” I learn how late in the season I can grow potatoes before they succumb to blight due to humidity, and I learn the results of various experiments I try. All in the name of doing it better next time.
In practicing, the log or journal can keep track of how long it took for a piece to be committed to memory, or how many weeks it took you to get that tricky passage in tune and up to tempo. Recording yourself is, of course, one of the best ways to collect data: Where are you in the process right now? You can take notes on what you want to fix, and work from those.
I’m a big believer in the Pareto Principle: That 80% of your results will come from 20% of your effort. Keeping track of things will teach you what your 20% is. Do you make more progress when you practice at a certain time of day? When you’re actively listening to recordings (yours and those of other professionals?) when you practice slowly? Or when you start with a full warm-up? What is working? What is a waste of time?
At the end of the day, it’s about the quality of your soil. The micro-organisms that are happily living underneath the ground eating, pooping, dying, and decaying. It’s incredible what is happening down there. The worms are creating holes in the soil for the plant roots to crawl into. Without those holes, the roots get stuck. Stuck roots mean stunted plants. But you won’t see any worms unless there is good organic material in that soil. Compost, vegetable scraps, seaweed–all that good stuff. And pour that synthetic fertilizer on the plants to get them to grow anyway? You can definitely forget about those worms.
Any musician will agree that without a foundation of good technique, proper posture, bow hold, embouchure, etc. there is no amount of talent or time in the practice room that is going to help. As boring as it might be to stare at your slowly moving arm in a mirror for 5 minutes, It is worth spending time on those foundational basics. Without it, you won’t get very far.
You can’t force a season. Gardening has a rhythm built-in. you plant the seeds and wait for them to germinate. Then you plant them and wait for them to grow. Then you harvest them and wait for them to finish, then you let the soil rest a bit and…wait. Even here in Bermuda, where we technically can grow food year-round, the summers are generally too hot and dry for things to be very happy. In fact, my sun and heat-loving nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants) will go dormant from late July to August. They won’t die. They just stop producing for a bit, and when things cool down a bit, they kick back into gear.
As musicians, we need to build in a rhythm as well. We have “the season” from September until May, and then “the summer” from June-August. And summer festivals feel wildly different than the rest of the year, but we need to think about a rhythm to our work. A new piece. Getting to know it, figuring out our interpretation, memorizing (if appropriate) performing, making it our own. All of these things need time, and they need patience. We have all had students (and have all probably BEEN that student at some point) that always had their eye on “the next piece” and was always in a hurry to be “done” with their current repertoire.
Patience, grasshopper. All in good time.
For me, being a cellist was always about the process, from learning a new challenging piece to playing around with concert programming, I loved preparing for things even more than I loved actually doing them (though that was fun, too)
Same with my teaching. I love watching the growth from one lesson to the next, which exercises will help this student the most? I had a student perform this past Sunday-a student who for years suffered from crippling performance anxiety, just walk onto the stage confidently and played the beep out of the Boccherini Concerto. I was proud of her performance, of course, but I was more moved by what it represented for the growth in her mental game than her musical one.
And as a gardener, I suppose it’s the same. While I do love sitting and admiring my plants, flowers, veggies, bees, happily buzzing away, and all that good stuff, What I truly love about gardening, is seeing the health of my soil improve from year to year. More worms, greener plants, larger vegetables. I love planning new beds and observing what happens when I do this, or that. Does it improve the situation or make everything die?
Our work as musicians is so much more rewarding if we see it for the long game it truly is. What relationships will we nurture?
How can you take that long view this week in your own work? What plan can you put in place? How can you adapt that plan? Who can you help/accept help from? Do what feels more organic and authentically you? Build on your strengths? Amend your weak points? Play music that excites you? Calmly observe your work? Learn from the data? Lay a good foundation? Show patience with yourself?
Happy Practicing (or gardening….if that’s your thing 😉
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