Thursday, January 31, 2013

Building your mountain.

Imagine that building your skill in an art – any art – is like building a mountain by yourself.  The end goal is to make a big, strong, tall mountain that can stand the test of time on its own.

First thing you have to do is get the foundation.  Without a foundation, all the stuff you put on top is just going to sink down or fall off.  You need to make sure that the base of the mountain is supportive and solid.  Sometimes people wind up adjusting the foundation after things are already on top of it, but it’s often really difficult and you wind up needing to re-fit everything above it.

In this way, the foundation is much like your health: mental, physical, and emotional.  You also need to be able to respect yourself (something I talked about here) so that you can handle the process ahead.  Without this foundation, it really doesn’t matter what skills you acquire or how much experience you get because it will always be hampered by a soft or unstable foundation.

Next is the bulk of the work in the large rocks.  You’ll have to somehow get these up and over onto the foundation, arranging them in a way that will support each other as well as what’s to come.  Some of these rocks take a lot of work to get into place, like the big clunky slabs that barely budge.  Others roll and swivel really nicely.  Everyone has their own set of rocks and no two sets are alike.  The bigger these rocks are to start, the less work you have to do to fill in the mountain later. If you skimp on these rocks (unintentionally or otherwise), you’ll have to spend time making up for it later to make the mountain a decent size, because it’s not about speed, it’s about the finished product.

In this way, the large rocks are much like your core skills: stance, range of flexibility, body awareness, musicality, etc.  If you shortcut one or more of those core skills, you’ll wind up with either stunted or limited growth later on because like with the foundation, you don’t have the support for the next set of skills.  (Who wants a stumpy mountain?)  Also, imagine trying to increase the size of your mountain by enlarging the rocks in the middle of it!  Better to have those large rocks in place, even if it takes longer to get them there.

Following the large rocks are the small rocks.  There are hundreds of these, if not more, and they’re scattered all over the place.  Some are right at your feet while others may lie many miles away.  Depending on your group, you may get told which rocks to place, but you have also have a lot of freedom in which rocks you choose and what order you put them in your mountain.  This is where a lot of people rush to get to, at the expense of the large rocks.  It’s where the character of your mountain takes shape, where your style shows.  But without that support system in place from the first two steps, your mountain won’t support the weight of the small rocks for long and will lose its shape.

In this way, the small rocks are secondary skills: finger dexterity, lightness of feet, balance, projection, showmanship, volume (of voice), intention, syncopation, hand percussion, odaiko technique, etc.  Depending on the person, some of these skills are easily acquired (rock at your feet) while others take a rather long time (rock miles away).  The temptation to get to these skills quickly often has people neglecting their core skills and it shows, both in the lack of one or more fundamentals and a secondary skill that’s lacking.

The last step: the details.  This ranges from the grass and trees to the pebbles and dirt.  This process doesn’t really add to the weight of mountain but does “color” it.  It won’t make the mountain more solid, but it will make the mountain more “you.”  Some people will get to this stage and continue to focus on the details (the color of this bush here, that tree there) instead of looking into the mountain to find more ways to strengthen it.  However, all of us add to the details as we learn, even if we don’t focus on improving them until much later on.

In this way, the details are the personal style.  This could range from bachi twirls and flips to acrobatic antics, humor or intensity, exaggeration of effort or making things look really easy, and so much more.  While these are often a lot of fun to practice, some people act like once they get to this point, this is all that’s left to work on.  Those who fall into that trap don’t realize what’s weak in their mountain – or don’t care enough to fix it.

When using the mountain-building analogy, realize:

  • If you have to go back a step to a bigger rock (from small to large, for example), it may feel like those bigger rocks feel “heavier”.  In reality, it takes the same amount of effort to work on a big rock than it does a small one.  You’ve just gotten used to the smaller rocks and they usually deal with a smaller area of focus.  If anything, it’s more humbling to have to go back than it is tiring. 
  • In the first stages, development is obvious.  You’re putting in big chunks of mountain and those chunks are immediately visible.  When you start working on the smaller rocks, you may feel like you’re spending just as much time, but on more things and with less overall progress. 
  •  The holes are important too!  It’s impossible to fill in every conceivable space within your mountain, but some people will try.  While this isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing, it’s exhausting.  If you’re constantly focused on adding to your skills, you may never get to enjoy them.  Furthermore, the holes you choose to leave may very much add to your style of playing.  Some people have a really tough time being intense in a song, because being a super-happy-fun ball is just who they are.  Some people will never physically look the same as the rest of the ensemble and to a point, that hole may help define them more than be a “deficiency”. 
  •  Sometimes, an earthquake or other natural occurrence will do a lot of damage to a mountain.  For this analogy, think of it as learning something that completely changes the way you look at your foundation.  After the smoke clears, you may have to remove a lot of the small ones to re-adjust the large ones, in order to create a sub-structure that reflects your new understanding. 

So step back and look at the mountain you’re creating.  Where are you in its development?  What rocks are you putting in right now?  Where is it weakest?  Where is it strongest?  Can it hold its own weight?  Can it hold up to more weight in the future?  How's your mountain?

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