The Value of Practice

Vincent van Gogh (1853 - 1890), 
Chair, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, April - May 1890 
chalk on paper, 33.0 cm x 24.7 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Why bother practicing anything?

Isn't it enough to just get out of bed in the morning and go through the motions of your well-planned or follow-your-nose around day? I guess that depends on who you are and what you want out of this all-too-brief life. For the sake of argument, let's just say that your answer is, no. That's not enough.

Also, for the sake of argument, let's say it doesn't really matter what you practice. You could be practicing law, tennis, meditation, a musical instrument, sobriety, writing... usually, when I talk about practice, I'm talking about drawing and watercolor. And I'll get to that shortly.

Whatever you practice, you're usually going after a result. Generally, you want to "get better" at or master an activity or experience. Maybe you're in it for the competition, with yourself or someone else. For a score or an accolade or, simply, just to do it.

If you measure practice on a graph, you are not going to see a straight line ascending at an angle. That graph line will shoot up one day and plummet the next. Or plateau for long periods of time. Again, that's generally speaking. If you're Federer, with a lifetime of discipline, your calendar planned at least a year out, surrounded by a support team and trainers, your results might look different but even someone at the top of whatever game they're playing has to manage daily practice and deal with daily results.

If you're not a pro and don't expect to master whatever you practice, why bother practicing anything? Every discipline has its own set of rules and regs and quantifications, but just consider your personal experience and level of satisfaction with a practice.

No matter how long you've been practicing, you're not always going to be happy with your results. Which means that you're not always going to be happy with yourself. You're going to succeed sometimes and you're going to fail. A lot. You're going to trip and fall and hurt yourself. Even if it's just with the thoughts you think about yourself (which can be more damaging than a broken bone). Like it or not, that's just the way it is.

But the true value of practice is that every time you set out or sit down to do so, you meet yourself. You show up to practice, you meet yourself in whatever condition you find yourself, and that, right there, adds up to a lot. 
"Exercittio potest omnia." *
(Practice makes all possible or Practice is everything.)

*Often (almost always) mistranslated as "Practice makes perfect."

As you succeed, fall down, get back up, fail, succeed, fail miserably... you learn about your weak points and strong points and get to know yourself. If you keep on going, practicing, you have the opportunity to accept your weaknesses and appreciate your strengths.

Contrary to popular belief, it is your weaknesses, your limitations, that give you your personal style. No one else in the world has your particular set of strengths and weaknesses. If you can learn to embrace your weaknesses, you can turn them into strengths.

Above, the simple, charming, kind of wonky, drawing of a chair was made by Van Gogh during the last four months of his life, after many, many years of practice. It might not hold you up if you tried to sit down on it, but it certainly is alive. And unmistakably Van Gogh.

What do you practice that makes you feel alive? What have you learned through that practice that makes you unmistakably you? 

Why fight it?

I think it's hysterical that my intention was to write about the value of practice and instead, I am surrendering to a quick post on...surrender!

After almost two weeks of serious over-scheduling, my mind, body and soul are telling me, "break time!"

Anyway, it is very, very, very hot where I live and work and I must move to the drawing table and surrender to my pencils, brushes and colors, if only for my mental health. Well, spiritual health, too. Okay... for fun. Actually, I have already been working at the computer here for hours today and I must switch gears.

Sometimes, even when you feel (or are) obligated, even if only to yourself, it's good to say, "Sorry, Charlie!"

Must go scribble.

"Always say 'yes' to the present moment... Surrender to what is. Say 'yes' to life - and see how life starts suddenly to start working for you rather than against you." —Eckhart Tolle

Getting Started

What do you do when you over-schedule yourself? Do you over-schedule yourself? I do. And I'd like to knock it off or at least find a better approach to work.

I wish that I could say that I just came off a couple of jam-packed weeks but I still have a few intensive days to go. I love my work. It's just that my primitive brain reaction to too much on my plate is to find any way at all to go unconscious.

The problem with going unconscious, at least for me, is that I need recovery time from unconsciousness more than I need recovery time from too many responsibilities on my schedule.

Above pictured is my morning chair where I sit with coffee, my Lamy pen and notebook and have a meeting with myself about the day. This morning, I missed my meeting. Not a good sign.

For me, going unconscious is a failure. Yes, I am hard on myself but the thing about failing and getting started again is that it builds resilience.

So, because I have another block of writing to do before teaching a new class tonight, I'm going to jump off and do that. The topic is related both in theme and activity. You may read that tomorrow.

Thank you, Gustav

Gustav Mahler
, 1907

7 July 1860, Kaliště in Bohemia, now Czech Republic – 18 May 1911

Because I've been working so hard on composing my art history courses and teaching, and unable to carve out time for personal expressive creation, I've been thinking a lot about Gustav Mahler lately. Mostly about his response to someone about his time spent composing vs. conducting and, perhaps, which may have been more important.

"I conduct to live. I live to compose." —Gustav Mahler

Unfortunately, I don't have the source or context. But, regardless, the drift is clear.

The first time I ever heard Mahler was while watching Visconti's Death in Venice while still in high school at the Ardmore or Bryn Mawr Theater in Pennsylvania. Already primed with a lot of listening to and love of Richard Strauss, I was completely swept away without having any idea of what was happening to me. I was falling in love with the music of Gustav Mahler.

At later viewings, after knowing Mahler's music far more intimately and because of how often Visconti uses themes from that one Adagietto movement from Mahler's 5th Symphony, I had to hold my seat when I really wanted to walk out because of the overuse of snippets of those particular passages and because, though I loved Death in Venice at first sight at 16, I later found it cloying and overdone. Still, considering the time frame in which the film was made and Visconti's attempt to merge Thomas Mann's character of Aschenbach with Mahler, the composer, and, I'm sure his personal experience and maybe, longings...the mishmash, lusciously shot by Pasqualino De Santis, featuring a not so flattering but profoundly made performance by Dirk Bogarde in the title role, it is still a cinematic masterpiece.

Donald Elfman or Chris Rouse, or both, gave me a recording of Mahler's 9th for my birthday - Bernard Haitink's recording (really, if you're going to listen to one thing, listen to this.) recording with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra — for what must have been my 18th birthday or maybe just for fun, and I fell hard for at least a decade. Really, for the rest of my life

I listened to every recording of any Mahler I could get my hands on and while we were all still hanging out together in Philadelphia, Donald and Chris picked out for me what they thought were the best recordings. (There were few at that time.) A few years later, in 1980 — before the wide public embrace of Mahler — I knew a UCLA professor who would say in lecture, "If you were going to buy stock in a composer today, I'd advise you to invest in Mahler."

I went to Mahlerthons where nut cases like myself would listen to Mahler's entire output uninterrupted. I never actually stayed through the entire 'thon but it was fun to stop by, lay down on whosever carpet it was and listen for a couple of hours.

When you become familiar with Mahler and all of his music, it's easy to perceive it as one, long gigantic piece of music interrupted only by the composer's conducting obligations. A cathedral of themes and variations. I still have scores for all the symphonies. I think. If so, they're in storage near UCONN.

Although I'm listening to Haitink's 9th right now, I haven't really sat down and listened to a Mahler symphony or song cycle in years. If I had a proper system, I'd schedule Jascha Horenstein's 1970 recording of the 3rd with the London Symphony Orchestra asap. It's a little too quiet on computer uploads to be fully appreciated so I recommend Pierre Boulez's more recent recording of the 3rd with Anne Sofie von Otter and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra .

The best Mahler symphony I ever saw performed live was conducted by Boulez at one of his Avery Fisher Hall Rug Concerts. It was an absolute thrill, the whole thing. So I downloaded the Boulez version of the 3rd and though it's a completely different approach from Horenstein's, there are some really interesting choices and interpretations and, being as it's conducted by Boulez, it's meticulous and transparent with a web-like rhythmic structure.

I think I read somewhere that upon its completion, Mahler showed the 3rd Symphony to Bruno Walter and asked Walter how he might conduct it because Mahler — the leading conductor at the time — did not know how. Boulez certainly did.

Now, there are plenty of books on Mahler and loads of recordings of his music. Make your life better. Listen to, learn about Mahler if you love music.

Ken Russell made a film about Mahler that only Ken Russell could have made (Ken Russell's Mahler). I think it was  Robert Powell's destiny to portray Mahler and Georgina Hale is fab as Alma. Watch it. It is, I think, the quintessential example of Ken Russel's cinematic expression and, in that, a brilliant, if brutal, portrait of Mahler. In another film, Bride of the Wind, Jonathan Pryce plays Mahler.

I'm glad to have made myself sit down and listen to the 9th again while writing this post. It's been a great, emotional pleasure. Mahler is not easy, especially in this day and age. You have to take time out and really listen. He requires your full attention. At length.

Listening to, obsessing over, Mahler's music has made my life a profoundly richer experience. Thanks again, to Don and Chris for giving me an enthusiastic foundation.

Click here for Leonard Bernstein conducting the Adagietto from Mahler's 5th with the Vienna Phil

Walking home on a summer's evening

What a great fortune to live in a beautiful neighborhood under a mature canopy of trees with room for a garden. I walk a few minutes through verdant streets of historic houses to a vintage art film theater.

Last night, I walked down to see Beatriz at Dinner. I was surprised by the final unfolding of the film and am still thinking about it. Loved the music by Mark Mothersbaugh.

I walked to an early evening show because it was so hot outside, I thought that I may as well spend it in air conditioning. Sure enough, by the time I walked home, it was twilight and the air had cooled down considerably.

I spied these glowing hydrangeas a block away from the theater and stopped to take them in and share.

One thing at a time

“A weakness of all human beings is trying to do too many things at once.” 
—Henry Ford

There's no such thing as multi-tasking 

The ocean waves do not try to reach shore at the same time. 

The leaves on a tree do not try to change color at once. 

Each wave, each leaf is a unique manifestation of an unfolding process of living experience. Human beings moving through space and time are also unfolding processes of living experiences. 

But the human mind? Especially with gazillions of distractions here in the early 21st century? We are so easily distracted that we miss much of the beautiful unfolding process of life. 

I make this claim with confidence because I am one of the most easily distracted people I know. 
I practice meditation briefly every day but nothing, no meditation I have come across, calms and focuses my attention like drawing or painting. It may not be for everyone but it sure works for me. 

In my experience, multitasking is a myth. Trying to multitask, or even expecting yourself to be able to multitask, can leave you dizzy, drained, overwhelmed, ungrounded. You may think that you are working on several projects simultaneously but, in fact, you can only take action on one thing or think one thought at a time (no matter how brief that time may be).

Expect yourself to do one thing at a time and plan for that. It's a sure way to sanity. 

"Two things cannot happen at once; it is impossible. It is easy to imagine that two things are happening at once, because our journey back and forth between the two may be very speedy. But even then we are doing only one thing at a time. 

"The idea of mindfulness is to slow down the fickleness of jumping back and forth. We have to realize that we are not extraordinary mental acrobats. We are not all that well trained. And even an extraordinarily well-trained mind could not manage that many things at once--not even two. But because things are very simple and direct, we can focus on, be aware and mindful of, one thing at a time. That one-pointedness, that bare attention, seems to be the basic point."

— Chogyam Trungpa, from "The Four Foundations of Mindfulness Meditation"

I have a long list of reasons why I continue to teach drawing and watercolor after 20 years. One reason is that the process allows people the opportunity to quiet their minds and practice focusing on one task at a time.

Practicing drawing and watercolor is mindfulness training on steroids.

What creating a course looks like

Not much! At least the researching and writing part of creating a course is primarily a keep your butt in the chair kind of activity. Speaking of which, I must grab a bottle of Lemon essential oil to help myself focus for this evening's work.

Late last night, I completed all the notes and presentation document for Lesson One of my landscape painting history practicum. That's a mouthful. Must come up with a more succinct, sexier description. And I will, but not today.

I've moved into a play by day, work by night schedule. Not that I'm playing exactly but rather doing housework, chores, gardening, swimming or working out at the gym, reading... that sort of thing. In part, I like to spend my days enjoying the daylight, not staring at a computer screen. So I tend to settle down to "work"in the late afternoon or early evening and force myself to stop by midnight.

Yesterday, I really did spend all morning, afternoon, and evening at the computer screen so I snapped myself staring at the screen and again, in the throes of research.

Writing this blog post today is honoring my commitment to renewing my blogging practice. I have a feeling it's going to mostly be slice of life stuff. It's also yet another way to procrastinating getting back to work. I don't know why. I love the work. I think it's mostly a writer's issue.

Anyway, that's it for today. Except to say... 

Howdy, Joshemari! I always love hearing from you, appreciate your friendship and, as I become more active here again, will come visit more often. I can't stand Facebook and agree with you that here, on Blogger, is where I've forged my best internet friendships. You've inspired me to schedule in daily drawing and watercolor again very soon. I remember your hospital sketches. Love to you.


All rightee. I am going to start blogging again regularly. Here. On Blogger.

I have not been entirely silent here but it's mostly been weekly missives directing you to my main home site.

Over the past several years, I have been playing with different website and blogging platforms, at first, in order to create a membership site. Then to handle the various projects I've worked on. Basically, I have been driving myself crazy in that the result of all this experimentation has splintered, splattered my attention.

This wonderful blogger blog was originally devoted to my watercolors. My personal daily practice of drawing and watercolor has fallen by the wayside as I've turned my attention to teaching and coaching. At this moment, my drawing and watercolor practice happens mostly in the classroom. This is good, but not good enough for my need to do watercolor.

Nonetheless, I've become a much better teacher and have developed some awesome new teaching programs. Also, because I've been working with a super coach over the past year, I've become a much better coach.

Yesterday, I spent a stupid amount of time working on and researching new platforms because the one I have been working on over the past couple of years has failed me in a number of critical ways. Maddening! Alas, typical, as anyone who has strayed into the variety of available website/blogging platforms can understand.

As it turns out, in the meanwhile, there seem to be new options in Blogger that offer me a way back in to this platform. We shall see how this turns out over the next month.

But for now, I am not worrying about uploading images. I am simply going to blog fresh daily while finishing up the history courses I'm creating and will carry on about my business at hand, prioritizing daily because I have a lot of work to do.

My goal is to get back into the habit of writing fresh daily, get my online shit together and, once my history courses are up and running, start drawing and watercoloring for myself and posting those things here along with slice of life photos.

So, that's what's up. You'll see some changes here and there. It's good to be home in Blogger. Let's see what I can make of it.