Friday, April 5, 2013

The First Plateau

My mandolin studies have plateaued. There's a sufficient body of fiddle tunes and other songs stuck in my head, available at a moment's notice, but I'm not adding new ones like I once did--sometimes several per week.

It's also true that a lot of those tunes need work. Some speed work here, some polishing there--maybe even some ornamentation... but I'm not focused there. I recall them and I play them as I know them now.

My instructor is giving me additional scales work--complicated variations in each key, one key after another. The objective is to master those fingering positions, those combinations, the thirds, the fourths, the arpeggios, ... but my heart's not in it lately. He'll assign the work, but I'm not going to do it... not without a real, conscious effort anyway.

I recognize this: It's the first plateau after the initial fascination and obsessive pursuit is exhausted. Sometimes it has the feeling of the roller coaster pulling back to the platform, the harness releasing; other times it has the feeling of waking up with a hangover and wondering where you are ... and where your clothes are. More often than not, it's somewhere in between, something more subtle: "The honeymoon is over..." The alarm clock rings Monday morning.  "Not ikkyo again!" "We're going to sit zazen for how many hours?!" "Scales?! Ugh..."

I recognize this as the first plateau. Whatever got you started, it was your own passion that carried you this far, without the help of any carrot dangled in front of you or stick chasing behind you. Now, here you are. You are undoubtedly in some way changed. Maybe you have a new skill, a new relationship, or maybe a new cautionary tale. Now with the fog of initial passion cleared, you are free to examine, to deliberate, and to decide: What now? Do I continue?

I see this as a plateau, not a finish line, because I know that I'm not done. I haven't stopped here because I believe I know it all; rather, I'm stopped here because this is where I "woke up" from the delirium. In truth, this is the first place where I could even entertain the notion of stopping, the first opportunity to see myself from outside the activity and to see how far I've been carried by that tide. But from here, I also have some sense of what mastery is, and I recognize roughly how far I am from it. I can see there's more to learn, there's deeper to explore, there's nuance I don't understand, but the next step--if I choose to take it--is going to be a conscious one. That choice would be to trust this habit I've cultivated to carry me forward through the plateau's difficulties or to face new frictions in changing direction.

Of course, if the underlying true path is to use music to inspire more connections between people, I may know enough to make a good showing! It's springtime, after all, and people are returning to the benches lakeside!  In that case I'm not on a plateau at all, just momentarily distracted by wondering whether mastery of any instrument was part of it...

I wonder: Are you one to live chasing your passions, or are you one to cultivate the discipline to achieve mastery in the face of passions?

Will you let even that question deter you, or is it fun to play along and entertain it with me?

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