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Sunday, February 18, 2018

New Phases and Unrelated Matters

1 New Phase

I'm into a new phase. Where I had been reading at the gym during the hour I'm on the Futile Cycle and the Trudgemaster, I am now listening at the gym. The new storage card on my audio player is so darn big, I loaded hundreds of hours of radio shows (Gunsmoke, Marlowe, Johnny Dollar, Shep, ISIRTA, Hitchhiker, Lux, Lampoon, and anything by Welles seem to make up a lot of it). 

I've enjoyed my recent reading of screenplays, Doc Savage books, and whatever else I could find, but I haven't enjoyed the days when the scale showed me gaining weight back that I'd been keeping off since they sawed out my gallbladder, and I noticed after a couple of days of audio narrative that I seem to be able to keep the heart rate higher and cover more phony miles when I'm not taking info in through my eyeballs.

It took a couple of days to get used to not reading. It helps to not turn my tablet on at all, obviously, but then I start looking at the screens at the front of the gym. Closing my eyes works for that, at least often enough to break the spell. Even with that, I ended up comprehending the last half of some drama about agents (FBI, I guess) getting the last laugh on a mad bomber who killed six redshirts under our hero's command in the backstory. I almost looked at the guide to see what series it was when I got home, but then realized it just didn't matter and never would, so I did other things.

2 An Unrelated Matter

In an unrelated matter, I got some help with ignoring the voices in my head from a surprising source: the voices. Most of the time, they're no problem—they're entertaining, and a rich source of crazy ideas A, B12, and D3. When I'm playing or practicing piano, though, it gets to be a bit much. As I explained once, it's a little bit like practicing while Robin Williams stands just off to the side, quietly but audibly free associating the whole time. 

I've long been aware that something has been acting as a wall that I regularly would hit while trying to execute some piece of music. I'd be doing fine, then bammo! Mr. Fuckup strikes again! Well. One day I was playing along, and the second internal track was doing its usual distracting thing, and a voice on that track actually said something very much like, "You know, these voices are probably part of what's keeping you from playing better." BINGO.

Having a brain that thinks it can multitask isn't always a bad thing. A while back, I made a big improvement in my playing one day when I noticed that I was mentally sending a directive to one of my hands along the lines of: "Okay, if Right Hand doesn't peg the melody in the part, just outline it in the thumb line." In other words, I was designating imagined entities for specific tasks. So I created an invisible henchman (I should give him a name—he's earned it) and tasked him with always knowing where I should be looking in the score. Looey (there you go) stepped up to his job admirably, and my playing was noticeably better.

So I had this resource, and I needed to figure out how to make it work for me, given that even if I pay close attention to a measure and get it just right, my subsequent thoughts (Got that just right! Oh, if only X was listening right now! It would go a little… like… THIS:…) would take me right off the rails again. 

I ended up with something like the bit in my 1970s Transcendental Meditation™ training where the instructor (Jeff Peckham) said, "From time to time, your mind will want to wander. This is okay. Just gently put it back on the track and resume your meditation." (I dropped Jeff's name up there because I saw a news story a mere handful of years ago about how he was being a gentle thorn in the side of some local movers and shakers, and that made me proud to have briefly been his pupil.) What I decided to do was to put a question foremost in my mind that I would return to again and again, like the protagonist in MEMENTO reading his tattoos in the mirror. That question is "What do I have to be doing RIGHT NOW?" It became my new mantra for practicing. Heck, maybe I should use it for everything, along with my philsophy of life, "Left foot. Right foot. If not there yet, repeat." 

So I use it, and I think it helps that I've been playing with the Irish group now for about three years, and that I'm in my fourth semester of music theory and aural skills. The answer to that question is always a combination of words ("Next comes a chord with A at the bottom and a C# under your middle finger"), and the look of the notes, and the feel under my fingers of how the correct combination will be. It's a description that should include every note to be played (though if one hand knows its part well enough, I can expend most of the energy on the weak one). 

So far, so good. It's like I'd been around 65% of where I felt I should be, and have now gotten up to 80%–85%. When I'm playing something I know intimately, even if I haven't done justice to it in execution, the figure feels even higher.

Thanks, voice. That was useful! I haven't shut you out of my head, because you've been useful to me more than twice, and you're entertaining when I'm mowing the lawn or washing dishes. Also, I probably can't. You're still there when I'm sequentially depressing those keys, but you're not the boss of me, and you're way less distracting. So far, so good.