When I was in high school, no day felt complete unless I had practiced my flute for at least an hour. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been a mentally scattered person, but there was something about playing scales and etudes on the flute that focused my mind and rendered it possible not to think about anything else for the period of time that I was playing. I used to like to practice at night, after everybody had gone to sleep, and even my inner critic had taken the night off. Everything was about breath, precision, and unfurling a sound that silenced everything around it. All that noise in my head about what I could do or should do in life was silent, at least for an hour or so.
As the years passed, I fell behind in my practice habits from time to time, and then some musical project or opportunity would come along that would motivate me to get back into my old routine. That ebb and flow of practice is natural to most musicians. But lately, not only have I fallen out of my good practicing habits–I’m finding that I don’t even feel guilty when I go for two days in a row without playing flute. This worries me.
My brain may be too clogged with thoughts to concentrate on music. For whatever reason, it doesn’t seem as fun anymore, and I am finding my thoughts wandering while playing. I’ve been trying to figure out why, and what to do about it. But I also think that a lot of what we spend time agonizing over and trying to find the root cause of can be chalked up to habit. All it takes is a few weeks of doing something every day for a couple of hours in order to feel really weird one day when we aren’t able to do it. I think that no matter how spontaneous other people would like us to believe they are, people are really essentially prisoners of their own habits and routines. I’ve gotten out of the routine of practicing every day, and now being out of the habit feels natural.
Like a pregnant woman with a craving for strange food, I find myself listening to music I never cared for in the past. This week, for example, I’ve found myself listening to Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. These are musicians I would never have intentionally listened to in the past. I have always listened to jazz, musical theater, folk and classical music. I never appreciated rock music or the blues. Suddenly, three years away from being fifty, I’m realizing that I missed out on something, by being too nerdy, or too preoccupied with other things—and I want to know more about that. I’ve always listened to music the way an investor reads the financial pages—as research for what I may want to explore in the future. Listening to music without a “point” has never come naturally to me, I’m ashamed to admit. It is strange to regard others’ music as fodder for your own performance, and to appreciate it for the way it shapes your own art. I think it’s pretty common among artists, though. So I decided to step back and listen with a receptive mind divorced from my own musical interests. I found that listening to music, at least for the present, can be much more interesting than playing it.
The days are long now. I’ve gotten used to the chorus of birds who have taken up residence this year, some sounding like car alarms, some like dogs barking, and others like rubber squeaky toys. I’m sitting on the Adirondack chair as long it’s still illuminated by what little pool of light remains. The sun rests on top of the huge oak tree, which is slowly swallowing it. As it sinks below the tree line, I scoot the chair back more and more to catch the light, until the back of it touches the deck railing. A breeze rustles the pages of my notebook. A train in the distance emits a low, pervasive whistle, a tone cluster of sound. A hummingbird purrs nearby, and a cat croaks at it. I haven’t practiced yet today, but I don’t want to yet. I’m not finished listening.