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The Magic of Practice

  posted by Daniel on November 11th, 2011

This afternoon, I sat down on the floor, placed one foot eight inches in front of the other, and balanced on my knees and ankles a large, lop-sided container made of clay and leather, containing nothing but air.

It was time to practice mridanga. It had been a few weeks since my last practice session, as my time has been devoted to updating the Kirtan Central website, creating a new free series of Intro to Harmonium videos, and getting the word out about the new online harmonium class I'm holding "live by video" once a month.

So imagine my surprise when, though my attention was distracted by some recent emails, and though my heart was heavy with missing my sweet Karen who's away in Hong Kong for two and a half interminable weeks, my hands were naturally recollecting rhythms and variations on rhythms that I couldn't even recall the names of! Truthfully, my mind was fairly muddy, but my fingers were flying through the standard da-ge-ti-kha-na-ge-dhi-na mridanga rhythm, inserting variations and periodically breaking into rhythmic "ti-hai's" before my mind could remember the syllables those very ti-hai's were composed of.

What was happening? Perhaps I had accidentally pronounced the "Mridanga Pranam Mantra" (which my Mayapuri mridanga teachers exhorted me to say before each practice session) correct for once, and blessings had been bestowed.

Or perhaps... ah, yes, it's all coming back to me now... I had practiced. And here it was - the fruits of that practice - if a few weeks late.

It's an interesting time-delay that I've often experienced when practicing a musical instrument. I first noticed it as a kid, when my weekly music lessons on piano and later saxophone would be paused for the summers along with school. For a couple months I wouldn't take lessons, and summer being a time for camp and water balloon fights, I wouldn't practice either.

Inevitably, September would arrive, and I would return to my musical instruments. My embouchure muscles might have weakened a bit (the mouth muscles needed for playing saxophone), but each year a surprising realization would dawn on me - I had improved! Between the end of last year, and the beginning of this year, I had improved! Of course, between the end of last year and the beginning of this year, I had done very little in the way of active practicing. But as a neuroscientist might be better able to explain than a music teacher such as myself, the time away from active practicing had allowed all I'd learned to sink in deeper, to take hold and establish itself within me in a more natural, integrated way.

To be sure, I'm not unique in this effect - now as a music teacher I get to observe it with others. Often after some time off, though there may be some superficial "rustiness" in technique to shake off, there's also a more integrated relationship with the instrument than before.

And so I am reminded that the value of practice is not always immediately evident, for many of its rewards develop in a secret internal dark-room, to be revealed weeks, months or years later. As the Bhagavad Gita puts it,

"On this path no effort is wasted,

no gain is ever reversed;

even a little of this practice

will shelter you from great sorrow."

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