“It’s light. Finding the light that can glow”
There are so many things that we need to find in this world, but nothing comforts us after a bad time like light does. There’s nowhere to hide, and provided we have done nothing we need to conceal, that is a comfortable place to be.
Speaking as somebody who was terrified of the dark as a child, that is.
We all hide much, and more than we probably need to. So we stop looking for light to bring in, because of shame.
I can’t see fully in light. It blinds me. And often we can only let it in if there’s a break or vulnerability. Leonard Cohen said it best:
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
To be ready to let light in, there’s pain, and there’s work. There’s a gnawing fear that it’s a weakness that will be exploited. Who has not had some weakness exploited in their life?
I started looking for light by going back and back to the first thing that every musician learns:
I hear the groans of musicians everywhere, but hear me out.
Scales are like weights training for your intonation, your technique. We know this.
Scales also hold the keys to anxiety and avoiding repetitive strain injury.
The irony was that I didn’t even get this advice from anybody I was involved with musically. A dental hygienist put me on to it while fitting me for a night guard. When I started getting anxious because this mould was going down my throat, she told me to start playing through scales in my head, start to finish, while breathing in. It worked, and nobody had ever given me that advice before. It planted a seed.
What follows is speaking from my own experience. But I know that I didn’t like scales, so I tried to get them out of the way as quickly as possible. Which meant that when I was playing scales for a teacher, I would be tense because I hadn’t laid the foundation properly, and tensing up added on increments every time I played that note.
I learned that this was more relaxing when I worked on it as though it was an experiment. Just observing, no judgement. Just a long note. I started trying to keep my bow as even as possible, which meant noticing when I got afraid.
It seems silly, doesn’t it. Getting afraid because you’re two-thirds down a bow towards the frog, when moving between the two lower strings? Because I didn’t drill technique hard enough? Or knowing that I don’t watch my intonation when I hit a C note above middle C in 3rd position?
This isn’t an hours-long commitment, by the way. This is something I take 15 minutes on, but those are dedicated minutes. That is when I am fully engaged in what I am doing. Just me and a vibrating string which envelops everything else in my head. Distraction breaks that connection, so getting better at getting back to that is important.
(Quick note as well to anybody who has only played scales as up and down with zero variation: what are you doing? That’s step one in how you can drill the hell out of it and also start to improvise better.)
End of technical talk.
This seems like a lofty topic to relate down to something as simple as body awareness and the fact that I was a lazy music student, right?
It isn’t, though. It’s small decisions that reflect up to the big ones. It’s putting in the work on the foundations. If I have no foundations, I cannot build. Putting the work in there reduces my anxiety, which means I play with less pain, which means I play more, and get better, and get closer to making music I can play as well as write.
You can find something that makes a light glow brighter in you. It doesn’t have to be grandiose, or lofty, or anything related to anything I talked about. This is just what I found that helped me. You can find a glow in working on something, day in day out (not even long-term, necessarily), building a foundation that has deeper ramifications for you.
I spent a while perfecting a breakfast sandwich and that was as important to me at the time as this is now, because I was not feeding myself properly up until that point. Now it’s mainly a weekend treat. These individual glows don’t have to be a lifelong pursuit, either. It’s taking the time and care to build a foundation, because it is worth it.
Weaknesses remain weaknesses if we keep them in the dark and do nothing to address them. A vulnerability is out in the light and can be turned into strength.