Quiz for the musicians in the house: How often do you break down in the practice room?
I suppose the answer for me is based on how frequently I practice in any given period, but in general the breakdowns come every two or three months. Today was one of them, and it was an event.
It usually starts when something’s not going quite right: I’m running a phrase over and over and it won’t fall into place, or I keep inadvertently slowing tempo down. The last few weeks it’s been all about evenness between registers and my transitional clunkiness has been getting to me.
So what happens after I start to get frustrated? First I tear up a little and try to keep working. I try to work the emotion into my singing, thinking that maybe this time I will work on characterization and not think so much about technique. At this point technique (and possibly phonation) goes completely out the window and I briefly make sure there is no one outside the practice room window when I plop down on the piano bench, put my head down on my knees, and cry.
Like a good soprano, my small moments of frustration plunge into the downward spiral of neuroticism common to most artists. With my head on my knees I ask myself “what the heck am I doing this for?” And there’s no real answer. People have compared the artist’s vocation to a bad relationship – you love it but you hate it, you want to stop but you can’t figure out what else you would do. There’s no big goal, just “learn this piece”, “perfect this phrase”, “tune this note”, “smooth out the register change in that measure”. You will never have success that feels at all permanent or final. You will work this hard until the day you die – or quit.
After “what am I doing this for?” My thoughts often turn to “what am I sacrificing for this?” because there’s always a sacrifice. Sometimes it’s something simple like an hour goofing off at home – or even an afternoon of cleaning up the apartment. But the hours add up over time. I think of the hundreds of choices we all make every day in an effort to sing better and to have a career. We give up nights out with friends and time with people we love. We have a passion in our lives that by definition will edge out some other passion.
Depending on my mood, the time of day, and if there is anyone out in the hall, I keep my head down on my knees for while until I calm down. Then I start plunking out notes again (after determining how I am going to repair whatever book I threw across the room in my fit). So how often do the rest of you have a good ol’ practice room freak out?