Eliminating FEAR through Practice & Meditation
by Richard Slavich
No one would argue with the idea that the musician finds daily musical sustenance in practicing. As Dr. Suzuki reminds us, we need to practice “only on the days we eat.” But what about our diet? Can we make our practice hour more “meaty”, more productive? Some perspective can be gained by comparing practicing with the defining activity of the monk: meditation.
At first glance, the parallel appears far-fetched: the musician’s whirlwind of physical motion and torrent of produced sound couldn’t be more different than the stillness of the monk sitting in a Tibetan monastery. But what’s going on inside in each case?
Meditation is the focusing of the mind on some object of inner awareness–a prayer, a sacred word, or simply one’s own breathing. When the mind wanders (as inevitably happens!), the meditator gently returns it to the chosen focus. By repeating the prayer time and time again, the mind eventually slows down, calms. Keeping one’s awareness steady is very difficult at first, but with perseverance, one attains a certain ease, inner continuity. A goal of meditation, then, is the quiet mind, the mind free of “mental static.”
The earnest musician can find much food for thought here. A clear conception of what the piece should sound like is the musician’s “prayer,” i.e., object of inner focus. As the monk’s meditation is anchored by the prayer, so the musician must always orient her work to a clearly defined musical ideal. Thus, good practicing is the closing of the gap between what we want to hear (“the inner ear”) and what we are actually creating at present (“the outer ear”). Practice without a goal clearly held is scattered, inefficient work. “No brain, no gain.”
A second lesson the monk teaches is the importance of repetition. As the monk returns to his prayer time and time again, so the musician needs to learn the value of repetition in practicing. Indeed, Dr Suzuki defines practice as “repetition with a goal in mind.” Taking a passage and ironing it out, gnawing at it like a dog does a bone, leads to ease, comfort, and, eventually, mastery.
Whenever we repeat an activity, we build up patterns, habits with respect to that activity. We achieve fluid and unfettered muscular motions by first visualizing/imagining them, and then repeating them over and over again; we achieve “the long line” by first hearing it inside, then striving ceaselessly to hear it in our playing. As in meditating, the goal is more process than product- oriented: performing with a high standard of intonation is the natural outcome of daily practice that stresses attention to intonation. “Excellence is not an act but a habit.” (Aristotle)
Meditating and practicing are hard at first. It takes discipline to return day in and day out to the same activity. But with time, a certain momentum begins to accumulate. The meditator looks forward to the calm and feeling of expansiveness that emerge during his morning “work-out.” The musician feels good solving problems, hearing progress, becoming increasingly comfortable with the piece. The eventual goal of mastery is found in both traditions: the Asian master recognizes the Western maestro.
Finally, “as you practice, so you perform.” The quiet presence of the monk in the marketplace finds its parallel in the confident demeanor of the musician striding on stage: each goes about his business, secure in his action, having lived it “from the inside.”
Cellist Richard Slavich is a concert artist of vast experience, having appeared as soloist with many orchestras, including the Colorado Symphony, Denver Chamber, and National Repertory Orchestras. He has performed in recital throughout the US, in venues ranging from Chicago’s Orchestra Hall and Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center to rural elementary schools in South Carolina. As winner of the United States Information Agency’s “Artistic Ambassador” competition, Mr. Slavich presented 5 weeks of concerts, master classes, and radio broadcasts throughout Asia. An avid chamber music player, he has performed hundreds of chamber music recitals, most notably as cellist of the Denver Trio, and as frequent guest with the DaVinci Quartet. Mr. Slavich and his wife, professional cellist Katharine Knight, have performed several times together as the mischievously named cello duo “Hot Celli”. A highlight of his concert career was a performance of the entire set of Bach solo cello suites during the 1999-2000 concert season. Mr. Slavich’s first professional position was a three year engagement as solo cellist of the Nuremberg, Germany Symphony Orchestra. He has also served as principal cellist of the Boulder Bach Festival and National Repertory Orchestras.
Mr. Slavich is widely recognized as a dedicated and demanding teacher. A member of the string department at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music since 1977, he directs the cello and chamber music programs, and each year offers a ten-week seminar on combating “stage fright”. He has presented cello master-classes throughout the US, and in Canada, India, Thailand , and Malaysia. His essay “A Player’s Guide to the Popper Etudes” appeared in the May 2001 ASTA Journal. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa in History from Stanford University, he earned his music degrees from the prestigious Indiana University School of Music, which awarded him the accolade “Graduate with Highest Distinction”. His teachers include Fritz Magg, Janos Starker, Frank Miller, Menahem Pressler, and William Primrose.
Mr. Slavich’s first CD An American Cellobration explores the music of five contemporary American composers and is available on the Crystal Records label (CD639). A new CD Cello Meditations explores spiritual dimensions of the cello’s voice in works by composers ranging from Bach to Messaien.
Mr. Slavich has been the recipient of much critical acclaim, both in concert:
“Slavich is an elegant performer, projecting the music with fine tone and nimble finger work, no matter how quickly they must flutter over the strings. He achieved a deeply satisfying account of (Tschaikovsky’s “Rococo” Variations) as both a technical showcase and exuberant piece of music.”
“…a rich and satisfying blend of brilliance and sensitivity..”
–Bangkok Post, Thailand
“The cello tone of Richard Slavich was particularly resonant and myriad scented.”
— Amrita Bazar, Calcutta, India
“…an elegant and spirited performance…”
–Times Colonist, Victoria, British Columbia
“His is a supple technique, equal to all demands of skill and artistry.”
and for his CD recordings:
“His playing is sensitive throughout, strikingly so in the Rochberg work (Ricordanza).”
“Your performance of my piece (After Reading Shakespeare) is secure and
“Slavich brings energy and warmth to each piece, shifting gears with ease and
–Denver Rocky Mountain News
Please visit Mr. Slavich’s website http://www.du.edu/ahss/schools/lamont/faculty/cello/slavich-richard.html.