top of page

Rhythm

In college I was a psychology major and music minor, with a viola scholarship, so I split most of my time between the psychology lab, training my rat (named Tony, after the mob boss in The Simpsons), and the music building, practicing the viola, rehearsing with the symphony orchestra, attending private lessons, and spending time with my musician friends while we were supposed to be practicing.


For my final grade in my course titled "private viola instruction," I played a fast, one-page modern piece that I loved, and played well, but always messed up once in the middle. Performing this piece for three music professors, I somehow made it through without the usual fumble. As I got closer to the end of the piece, I held my breathe, letting my fingers and bow arm muscle memory take over, while hearing the song get faster, and faster, and faster. The last few phrases were so rushed, it felt like a sprint to the end, where I was positive with every step I was about to trip and fall. I knew what my music professors were going to say as soon as I lowered my viola from my shoulder - "Enjoy where you are in the song." I had heard it from every music teacher in my life, every time I sped up a song, letting my anxiety take over my inner metronome, rushing to reach the end of a piece.


I thought of this today. I spent years hustling - going to school, working, building a business, keeping myself and Puppy fed and healthy(ish). Today I have the fruits of that labor - a great job, a loving partner, a beautiful home, and room to breathe for the first time in a long time. But I can't shake the feeling I'm about to trip, so I'm rushing to anticipate it. My mind is stuck in problem-solving, future-planning mode. My anxiety keeps me from enjoying where I am in the song.


Many music teachers and symphony conductors I studied under addressed "rushing" or speeding up at the easy parts, only to get going too fast to get through the hard parts at the new tempo. I have vague memories of many different conductors scrunching their faces and exaggerating the rhythmic movement of their hands, taking taller and wider strokes, trying to visually amplify the beat to keep the group of young musicians in front of them playing together. Sometimes this worked - we would notice the waving baton and follow the rhythm it created, settling into a cohesive ensemble, and enjoying the harmony and interplay of melodies in that moment. Other times half the group would follow the conductor, while half ran away with their anxiety, creating a cacophony of mis-matched noise, until the conductor signaled for everyone to stop and regroup. This was infinitely more likely to happen at a transition point - a tempo or key change. Sometimes most of the group would stay together, but some key sections - bass or tuba, which acted as a rhythm-keeper or metronome for the rest of the group, could trip up the entire orchestra by rushing or slowing down, which had the effect of dragging or pushing the rest of the group, regardless of the conductor's frantic movements.


Seasons, sunlight, work schedules, family members, deadlines, holidays, circadian rhythms - we have so many different metronomes and conductors directing our life's rhythms. It's easy to get stuck at a fast pace and let the others push you along, faster and faster and faster until before you know it, things have fallen apart. Relationships. Jobs. Health. My most magnificent crash was the day after my dissertation defense, when I broke my record for longest migraine at seven days. I had been holding my breath and pushing through my PhD program for six years, during which I also started a business, got a divorce, had surgery, and moved across the country. I have since chosen to interpret that migraine as a seven-day neurological and emotional exhale.


Any musician knows what to do after the crash. Stop. Reset. Go back a bit, and try again, but slower. Get it right at a slower tempo, then gradually speed up. Don't practice mistakes. Only play as fast as you can play the hardest section. I used to fill up my calendar and push my body to follow the schedule, no matter how much caffeine and SSRI's it took to make it happen. After that week of migraine hell, and the new privileges I have in a flexible schedule and sufficient, stable income, I have been able to go back and slow down. I am listening to my body more, sleeping and resting when I need to, and avoiding filling my schedule and CV to capacity. I have rediscovered boredom, and creativity, and even roller-blading. I'm finding my inner metronome again, and trying to avoid letting the sections of my brain, saying "you're being lazy," "that's not productive," or "you should be writing," that are rushing me push me around like an anxious bass section playing "Sleigh Ride." I'm doing better at enjoying where I am in my life.

I'm also aware that so few people will ever have the same number of privileges I have, with as much space to slow down, if any. We all need rest though, and I hope if you're reading this today, you take a deep breath and enjoy something about where you are in your life, your day, or this single moment.




78 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page