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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Zen in the Art of Archery: The Purity of Purposeless Practice

I have been reading, and rereading Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery for some fifteen years.  Over the years, the book has spoken to me in different ways.  The book is written in a simple and clear manner, and it isn't really about archery at all.  All that one needs to do is to mentally substitute their discipline of choice.  It is really a book about harnessing Practice Monster.

The book is so beautifully composed, and so concise, it hardly makes sense to try and summarize it here.  With only eighty pages, it can be read in a couple of sittings.  The material takes time to process, however, and your experience will depend on what you bring to the table.  I've lost track of how many times I've read it, but I gain new insights with each reading.

With my recent thoughts and writings about the dynamics of personal practice, I've found myself lingering on the the final chapter, about Zen and swordsmanship.  The hapless beginner, giddily thrusting his sword with more joy than skill . . . this summarizes my memories of being a beginner saxophonist: it was more play than anything else, and that was a beautiful moment indeed.

With formal study comes the horrible realization that there are many more skilled than yourself, and that you are hopelessly at the mercy of those with better technique.  Faced with bigger and stronger opponents, the situation is impossible.  In despair, you furiously practice, building a prodigious technique that can be wielded like a weapon, to slay your enemies.  And yet, you fail.  Again and again, we fail.

The imagined enemy can be a competing musician, or the music itself.  Either way, Practice Monster is fully engaged in this part of the process.  The advanced student is driven by the idea of conquering.  Practice itself becomes a dreaded enemy.  Self-doubt and frustration alternate between depression and rage.  The monster consumes us with the illusory obsession with being the best.

It is only when we break free from the purpose of winning that we can attain the high levels of mastery.  The discipline of practice must become its own purpose.  Practice, no matter what we are practicing, becomes a meditation.  The outcome of disciplined practice is inevitable, but that outcome has no bearing on the moment.  Detached from any desire for personal gain, we freely ascend through the purity of purposeless practice.

As a professional musician, I am certainly connected to the importance of advancing my reputation.  It would be transparently dishonest to imply that I am not motivated by profit, or by my own ego.  My career feeds my family, after all.  But there is a deeper level of practice that transcends the material world.  When we learn to practice because it is like breathing, eating, or sleeping, we begin to understand when Herrigel writes that mastery is reached "when the heart is troubled by no more thought of I and You, of the opponent and his sword, of one's own sword and how to wield it – no more in even of life and death."  The true master is more than just unafraid, but completely impervious to fear, temporarily unaware of its existence.  Only then are we joined with the music.  Practice well!

1 comment:

  1. Great post David. I believe it is important for us to search, discover, and strive for a higher artistic purpose. In my experience this helps to move us beyond the "competitive" nature of technical ability. I remember having the same feelings when I was studying saxophone during my undergrad. I have found the more I can focus on serving a specific artistic vision that is bigger than "correct notes" and "lots of gigs" the easier it is to remove my self from my competitive side. That is not to say I don't also get frustrated or don't deal with technical issues. The frustration comes from trying to say something about the world we live in and not being able to fully realize that vision. I believe this is different from trying to be better at that etude than my friend in the next practice room. I think it is important for us to always keep the big picture in mind and remember that technique is only a tool for self expression. We must have technique and we will hone it for the rest of our lives but it is only good if it serves the art and the contribution you are trying to make artistically. I believe when artistic vision is our goal we must explore other methods to achieve that goal in addition to technical practice. I think we could all benefit from allotting some of our "practice time" for creative "free play" (whatever that means to you) within the music in addition to competition and technique. During that "free play" we may even discover a sound or idea that makes our technical playing totally unique, thus also giving us a competitive edge.