Nurturing Nature

The 8-year-old juggling a soccer ball and the 48-year-old jogging by, with Japanese lessons ringing from her earbuds, have something fundamental in common: At some level, both are wondering whether their investment of time and effort is worth it.”
Benedict Carey, in “How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? Talent,” NY Times, 7/14/14.

Really? If this is true, both are wondering about the wrong thing. I suspect, however, that the 8-year-old is simply having fun. To imagine dazzling like Lionel Messi is also fun. (Depending on the season, as a boy I imagined pitching like Warren Spahn or quarterbacking like Bart Starr, or being like my father.)

How could imagining greatness ever not be “worth it?” With imagination comes discovery. Children experience this. Adults don’t seem to get it.

There is always value in “doing.” If I practice stroke rehabilitation only because I want to get to “Carnegie Hall,” I am missing the point.

I taught percussion at the college level for a number of years. Not once did I tell my students to practice so they might “get to Carnegie Hall.” I taught them to focus and problem solve so they would become better musicians. I also tried to help them develop thinking skills, tenacity, coordination, and character.

A few of these students stayed in music. Most went into other professions: technology, business, law, etc. All brought insights gleaned from music to their respective occupations. (See Dr. Nimesh Nagarsheth’s thoughtful book Music and Cancer: A Prescription for Healing. Dr. Nagarseth and I studied with the same teacher at University of Wisconsin Madison.)

Certainly musical facility is essential for a successful career in music, but careers are built on many additional factors, including: imagination and creativity, sensitivity, social grace, ability to perform well under pressure, risk tolerance, health (both physical and emotional), tenacity, likeability, patience, luck, and more.

Constructive engagement takes discipline, organization, and imagination. This is a lesson I first digested through musical practice. When I thoughtfully engage (through writing, listening, drumming, moving, imagining, teaching, laughing), I move toward wholeness.

P.S. For what it’s worth, I did make to Carnegie Hall (but only because the ensembles with which I was performing happened to be booked there). Frankly, it took me a few minutes to remember the various performances, and I’m not sure I remember them all. At any rate, being there was far less important than the process undertaken to get there. Those concerts were moments in a life. Who I have become (the good and the bad) through thinking and doing represents life’s events distilled.

The MET Orchestra

Where to begin?

There is so much to tell, I hardly know where to start. At the beginning, seems the logical advice. That would work well enough for a book, but I suspect that format would fail for a blog. So, instead, I begin with the here and now, then look backwards and try to weave threads of meaning into a broad tapestry of experience.

I begin with last Sunday’s MET Orchestra concert (Fabio Luisi conducting w/ Renee Fleming, and clarinet soloists Anthony McGill, and Stephen Williamson) at Carnegie Hall. It was a concert wonderfully performed and, for me, vividly experienced.

Indeed, for me it was a revelation. For the first time since the stroke, I truly experienced music.

For some months I have been doing extensive mental musical practice. Sitting in a chair or lying in bed at night, sometimes for hours art a time, I imagine pushing the keys of a piano and playing drum rhythms. With every key I push or every drum stroke I make, I imagine as richly as possible the sensations of touch and movement, and the instrument’s sound.

This is not a new idea. Most successful musicians do extensive mental practice.* I did too, when I made my living as a performer. But it was some time before I came to understand its benefits for stroke recovery.

Instead, since I could barely move my fingers, I thought I needed to work to actually move them. The work was so exhausting that at first I could only maintain it for a few minutes. I wonder now if it was too exhausting. Maybe even counter productive.

About two weeks ago, I began doing mental typing. I imagine the keyboard. Then I imagine moving my fingers through the alphabet and firmly pressing every key. I write this blog today with ten fingers. The left hand is slow, stiff, and clumsy. And using it is extremely uncomfortable. But I can do it. Two weeks ago, I would have used only my left hand index finger to type this entry.

Much more on all of this later.

For now, I need to finish the Met Orchestra story. As I listened, I engaged in more mental practice. I put the music into various parts of my body—a finger, a wrist, my skull, my chest. I imagined each finger dancing to Copland, the wrist’s nerves awakening to Mozart, and my brain making rainbows of energy to Mahler.

I have never felt more alive.

(See: Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself. NY: Viking 2007. pp.200-204.)