In college, I had the opportunity to study Zen Judo with a brilliant and kind teacher named Keo Cavalcanti, and of the many bits of wisdom I took away from those sessions, the one that has stuck with me the most in the years following has been “don’t try to dye your white belt orange the night before you’re scheduled to test.”
Mind you, being the only student to ever achieve the illustrious rank of “Peach Belt” does have a certain amount of cache to it, but not as much as you might think.
The second thing that has stuck with me is a simple phrase, often a refrain at the end of a tough workout: Some days you polish the stone, and some days you grind the stone.
A sculptor has to grind the stone before he/she can refine and polish it. The trick is remembering that both steps are equally positive and valuable…one is just a lot less glamorous. We see this every day, but don’t always acknowledge the complementary value. We focus on those days when the world is our oyster and we fly through tasks with seemingly effortless mastery, while writing off the other days, when getting out of bed ranks as an achievement, and any progress we make seems to be accompanied by a grizzled drill sergeant behind us bellowing “hold the line!” as we scramble for purchase on a rain-slick muddy hill.
Determined effort begets progress…sometimes we just need to broaden our understanding of ‘progress.’
I’ve brought up this metaphor in virtually every musical experience I’ve been in since college. It comes in handy during/after rehearsals when things haven’t gone as smoothly as one would like: harmonies that were perfectly tight a few days prior suddenly sound like someone ran them through the “auto-clam” plug-in. Changes to beginnings, endings, and everything in-between go unremembered from the last session. Rhythms go out the window and take dynamics along for the company.
It happens, and it can be very disheartening. Here’s my advice:
- Acknowledge it: If you’re struggling, give your band mates a heads-up. This lets them know that you’re aware of whatever it is that isn’t working and goes a long way to keeping tensions from building.
- Get over it: Remind yourself that this isn’t magic. Your ability doesn’t depend on wearing the Elder’s Ring of Wicked Bass Grooves. Having a bad day doesn’t mean your talent has deserted you. It means you’re grinding the stone. Accept it and…
- Get back to work: Take five, have a snack, re-center yourself, and move on. This isn’t wasted time as long as you’re putting in the effort. If you’re just phoning it in, stop wasting your band mates’ time and call it a night. Otherwise, pick one of the things you’re struggling with and ask to go over it a few times…or a dozen times…you may not correct the issue that night, but at the very least you’ve statistically improved your chances of getting it right the next time. On the other hand, if you give up now you’re effectively saying “I am leaving it to chance that this problem will fix itself.” Do let me know how that works out for you.
Is there magic in music? Of course there is. But the magic is the reward, not the means by which one achieves it.