I recently counted the number of projects that I had on the go. Some were years old and some were relatively new, but all of them took up mental space and created an expectation of action which in turn was linked to an amount of guilt or stress. I realised with a growing horror that my projects were basically unending. They included:
- learn to paint watercolours
- practise circular breathing on the didgeridoo,
- decorate my busking guitar,
- learn to cook lasagne properly,
- reform the barbershop quartet,
- practise soloing on the double bass
- join a jazz band,
- learn to use my welder and build my cargo bike,
- convert a bike trailer into a go-kart,
- reach my potential on the violin,
- write the string quartets I need to complete my band’s second album,
- read the music books on my shelf,
- take quotes from the books to add to my academic database,
- learn to ride my BMX on the halfpipe,
- set up a musical meditation and gong bath group,
- record my new songs on my home studio,
- create a piece of spray paint pallet art for my church foyer,
- learn to play the cornet well enough to perform at a gig,
- break up my old pallets and use them as floorboards,
- re-roof the lean-to,
- do a cycle tour of Britain,
- write a musical and perform it locally,
etc. etc. etc.
Sounds exhausting, right? Well I recently came across a blog which addressed this issue of starting too many projects, and in it the writer invents the idea of a rite of passage called the Depth Year. You can read it here.
The idea is that once a young person has finished their education, perhaps started in a job and had a chance to experience some of the breadth of life, then they have this Depth Year. During their Depth Year they are not allowed to start any new projects but instead sink deeply into the ones they have already started.
It’s an appealing idea in a culture which can seem so shallow. It maps onto my experiences of meditation and lifestyle minimalism: if you remove things you are not left with nothing, but rather you expand to fill the space.
During meditation you aim to quieten the mind of its incessant chatter (which is all but impossible, but the process of trying is rewarding), and the resulting stillness is incredibly full, not empty.
In the case of lifestyle minimalism, removing 100 things from a room doesn’t leave you craving those things, but leaves you space to focus all your attention on the one thing left.
With this in mind I have embarked on my Depth Year. I have been selling, donating and throwing away a lot of physical, mental and emotional clutter and this has helped me focus on what I really want to do.
I have chosen to practise my violin, which I have basically not played since about 2001 and I have already found 5 ways to help me on this journey:
1. Simplify the space
Starting with a tidy room gives my mind the focus I need. Having less stuff in the room to start with also helps.
2. Remove obstacles to starting
In the past when I wanted to practise violin I had to dig out the violin case, get the violin out, tune it up, find the music stand, tighten the bow, find my music, and then begin. This all requires an amount of activation energy which my mind rebels against.
Now I keep my violin out on a display stand, the music stand already set up and the music I want to practise already open. I can walk into the music room, grab my violin and be playing in a matter of seconds.
If a child goes into a room and there’s one toy out on the floor and one toy away in a cupboard, the child will play with the one that is out, and we are basically just children so keeping the thing I want to do already set up helps my inner child.
3. Simplify the process
When I used to practise for exams I would have to practise my scales and arpeggios, then work on three pieces of music. I have come to realise that this is way too much to fit into a session – any one of those pieces would have individual passages which could be practised for hours by themselves and by trying to stick to a particular process, however worthy it may seem, I fail to experience the depth of doing just one thing.
Instead I now have one thing I am working on. Right now it’s a study by Wohlfahrt. A study is a technical exercise, it’s a piece of music that you wouldn’t necessarily put on a CD and listen to but is great for working on technique. It is important to choose something well within my capabilities: the important thing is the subtlety of technique that I can focus on, not just stumbling over 24 notes per second for the sake of it.
I have now played this same piece scores of times and each time I spot small things to improve for next time, including:
- 4th finger position on the G string
- neatening up the staccato notes
- crossing the strings more gracefully
- Intonation of F naturals on the E string
By just focusing on one manageable piece of music I find a whole world of violin technique opening up which will help me improve in all other areas.
This point is so vital, we sometimes think we are doing it properly by having a long tortuous process, but what we’re really doing in that case is putting mental obstacles between us and our wanting to do the activity.
4. Don’t time yourself
Another key for me is not to set a time when I am going to do my violin practise and not to set a time limit for how long I will practise for. From personal experience this creates a negative obligation and an opportunity to fail. It feels good on the first day when you play violin at the time set and for the correct amount of time but on day two you get distracted halfway through the hour and suddenly instead of celebrating the 30 minutes of playing you feel like you’ve failed.
Much better in my experience to say that practising my violin is now one of the things I do in my day like making coffee and browsing Facebook. It happens organically when I wander into the music room several times a day. I pick up my violin and play my one piece of music and either stand there enjoying it for a long time, or just play it once or twice before doing something else.
I recognise that many people will disagree with this point. I probably would have done as well 15 years ago, but for me and other people I have spoken to, rigid structures and timeframes are great in the short term but unsustainable in the long term.
5. Think termly
The idea that I will be playing the same piece of music forever is a bit depressing, but also it’s possible to think the piece has always got more to teach me. In order to know when to move on I think of a school term of between 4 and 6 weeks. I aim to have my Wohlfahrt study on my music stand for around 6 weeks, and to play it roughly 6 days per week. At the end of this time I will put Wohlfahrt away and get out a Vivaldi concerto.
In this way I resist the urge to rush ahead of myself and start another piece before I have absorbed all the teaching from the first piece. What I am aiming for is depth of learning, not breadth.
So those are my 5 principles. They can be summed up with the word “simplify” – the space, the set up, the process, the piece. I’m excited because I’m already feeling myself engage with the instrument in ways I never allowed myself to before. In the past I used to just choose the fastest flashiest piece of music I could struggle through and squeak my way through it once before becoming disheartened, never learning anything from the process. This feels deeper, more grown up and I’m already noticing many small but significant ways that I am improving. I’ll let you know how it goes.