When I was in school, something happened to me at the end of every single school year. I would walk out of that final class, turn in my last assignments, play the last notes of my jury, close the book on my last exam, walk outside, and immediately fall ill with a terrible, terrible cold. For the two weeks after the semester ended, my violin would sit in its case, the television would turn on and stay on, and tissues, thrown half-heartedly toward the trash can and landing instead on the floor, would accumulate into little white fluffy piles. Without fail, this happened at the end of every single semester of college and grad school.
This biannual descent into ill health had, of course, less to do with the title of this post and more to do with a younger version of myself re-routing time needed for self-care and sleep in order to manically study and spend extra long hours in the practice room. But that which came after the sickness, when the coughing ceased and the sinuses cleared, was the worst of all.
Sun shining, children laughing. Happy families picnicking in the grassy knolls of local parks. Surf and sand and hot dogs and pool floats. Magic and laughter and butterflies landing on the extended fingertips of soprano-voiced fairy tale princesses. And, for me, an unrelenting, dark, heaving sense of guilt for not wanting to practice my violin.
The traditional, formalized study of a musical instrument is a very goal-based practice. We are taught to be working, improving, and achieving at a steady rate as we tackle new repertoire and advance through extended techniques, all the while polishing the basics, the living structure upon which all new techniques must rest. Psychologically, I think this does a lot of good for musicians. There are obvious links between hard work and success. But music demands so much more than technical precision, and there is much about artistic success that cannot be measured. And when practice becomes a chore, joy is quickly dissolved.
The school year was a time of total artistic immersion. Surrounded by talented colleagues and under the influence of some of the most impressive musicians I have met or will ever meet, I would take on as many projects as possible. My classes required me to spend endless hours in the presence of the masters of my art, through books, videos, recordings, and live coaching. Teaching violin part-time at a private school for girls gave me a unique view into the lives of some of the hardest working and most successful people in DC, and forced me to search for newer, better, smarter ways to teach every single week. Parties with friends often quickly turned into readings of chamber music, heated arguments about theory, etc. etc. I was surrounded by inspiration. Hours spent in the practice room felt either mandatory or rewarding, and often were both.
I'm no longer in school as a student, and my time with my teachers is short and precious. Most of my friends are musicians, but life happens, and we aren't together all the time like we were in school. This means that to feel inspired to work, I need to actively look for inspiration. It's so much harder than it was when I was in school! But feeling that itch to pick up my violin and practice, full of fuel and fire, makes taking time to find inspiration totally worth it.
Some of the ways I can bring myself out of a funk are by spending time on youtube, watching videos of my favorite violinists (Hilary Hahn, Gil Shaham, Anne-Sophie Mütter...), getting on the phone and talking with my friends about what projects they have going on in their lives, searching for new music and listening to experimental groups like the Kronos String Quartet, or recording improvisational music on my computer. I also love to discover new visual artists, dream about multi-genre collaborations with artists I admire, or create visual art myself. If all else fails, I can rely on my most fool-proof (albeit expensive) method to spark the urge to practice: putting on a brand new set of strings. That'll definitely do it.
Where do you look for inspiration?