The month of January is named after the ancient Roman god Janus who is depicted as having two faces on a single head: one looking backwards to the past and one towards the future. What I find interesting is that Janus was assigned to doorways, gates, and passages of all kinds. He is a kind of watchman for movement, transition, and change.
Perhaps this is why people feel the need to take stock of their past year or make resolutions for the coming one. It gives us a feeling of propulsion. We hope that if we can muster the momentum from our ideals, the projects already accomplished or goals not yet reached, that this will turn into inertia that we may ride through the peaks and valleys of the new year. Inevitably, however, we hit a wall. The thought of six-pack abs don’t quite seem to inspire us as much as they used to. Gym sessions get less frequent while trips to the fridge do not. The ideal is replaced by reality: the wish satisfies the mind but does not sustain the body or the spirit.
This leads me to the single most important lesson I learned from preparing for my M. M. degree recital. Traditionally speaking, I have had a love-hate relationship with practicing, which to be honest, was mostly a hate relationship. Practicing was always a requirement, an obligation, always “work”. No twenty-four hour period was complete without it and from the pre-dawn to the after dark, my days were planed around the sacred and profane hours I would spend with my cello.
Finally, after half a year’s preparation, it was over. In the hours following the performance of the program I felt feelings of satisfaction, accomplishment, and oddly enough, anticipation. This anticipation wasn’t so much anxiety as it was the excitement of “what’s next?” It was at this moment that I realized something. I didn’t hate practicing. I didn’t hate work. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I liked it. But I did need it. It didn’t bring me happiness because happiness is too ephemeral. It brought me fulfillment, fulfillment that only comes through sacrifice, adversity, and challenge.
This allows me to reframe my former statement: the wish satisfies the mind but the only thing that sustains the body and spirit is hard work. Propulsion is a daily practice that we reaffirm every day. In order to get over the mental block of being tired, complacent, or just plain lazy, I apply the following rule.*
The Rule of Fifteen Minutes: When you don’t “feel like it” for whatever reason, just do it for fifteen minutes. If after fifteen minutes you hate it, then stop and move on to something else.
However, once you’re over the initial psychological hump, there is a good chance you won’t stop. The mind with its short attention span and tendency to cry out with little ego-ridden toddler statements (“I don’t want to”, “I’m tired”, etc.) is satisfied by short-term gains. In the big picture of things, there is nothing wrong with this because short-term gains bring us happiness and without a bit of sugar, the medicine is bitter so to speak. However, where as happiness is the quick sprint, fulfillment is the marathon. Working on the most challenging projects in our personal and professional lives is what endures.
I would like to wish a Happy New Year to everyone and best wishes for all of your endeavors!
*I cannot claim originality to the Rule of Fifteen Minutes. My friend Katherine had it on Facebook and the original can be found here in the context of long-distance running: http://runhaven.com/2014/12/01/15-minute-rule/
I hate Christmas.
Shots fired, I know. For all you people out there that love Christmas and the baggage it brings, calm yourself, pick up the ornaments you may have dropped on the floor, and continue reading. I’ll unload my statement. I love “Christmas”, the day before, the day after, the time spent with family, and savoring of home-cooked food. It’s everything else that grinds my gears.
Black Friday is the beginning of the madness. We have no time to recover from our Thanksgiving food-coma before consumer bacchanal descends like a dark shadow over every retailer in America. But even if you skip out on the crowds at the mall, the specter of Christmas cheer still creeps into your life. The moment the turkey carcass has been stripped, every radio station, TV channel, restaurant, and business begins the real onslaught. Sometimes its innocuous. Other times it is borderline horrific.
Christmas music. Yes, the bane of the month of December. Excessively jolly, wholly cliché, and entirely aggravating, its like a dry itchy red rash that comes back every winter. You can’t get rid of it. You can’t stop itching it. It’s just there. It’s everywhere. Every musician has played Christmas music, ranging from the meek collegiate musician trying to scrape out enough money for Christmas gifts to the mighty commercial artist cashing in on their new CD. I’ll admit, I’m a sinner in this movement. We take something that is wonderful, a holy day, a time for family and friends when we can relax and find peace, and we ruin it by commercialization, commodification, and sheer overload. I do like Christmas. Three days of it I can deal with, maybe even a week, but not a month. This bastardization of something that is inherently good makes me want to live the monastic life in seclusion only to hear the prayers and chants of fellow monks until it all blows over.
When I heard that WMU University Symphony Orchestra would be accompanying the Moscow Ballet for a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, I had mixed feelings. Wow, the Moscow Ballet! … But Nutcracker... The music of this most famous ballet is so ingrained in our ears and minds in America. Truly, it is an American phenomenon which, since the mid-20th century, has become so integrated that it is synonymous with the Christmas season. The question is, why?
One explanation might be Disney's Fantasia in which a suite of the Nutcracker’s dances was employed. It captivated the minds of a huge audience by bringing to life the auditory experience of music into a visual narrative. However, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony No. 6 and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring were also used and these are not in the general consciousness or sub-consciousness of the American public.
Another explanation might be how the Nutcracker has been bonded with the Christmas season cycle. Since Christmas comes back every year, so does Nutcracker. Repeat performances means repeat plays and the whole effect snowballs over decades until many ballet companies and symphonies rely on its programing to survive leaner financial times.
I believe that America’s love affair with Nutcracker is part of a fantasy. I don’t mean to use the word fantasy with a negative connotation. It plays into, more specifically, our Christmas fantasy, our need for child-like wonder in which we can return to innocence and a time when we believed in the splendor of magic. Since Charles Dickens, Christmas has become a time for generosity but also meditation about what is really important to us. We abandon our usual rationality and adopt a very different attitude. No matter how big or small the gesture is, we celebrate with magnificence and extravagance. Decorations that would otherwise be ridiculous are now beautiful. Music that is unrealistically cheerful is welcome. Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker embodies this. The Christmas setting, splendid costumes, elegant dancers, and not to mention live orchestra, serves us the ultimate artistic feast of the season. This acquired taste is something that is in our blood, more than baseball or apple pie. It’s a spirit that is stronger than the anesthetic of vodka, stronger than the most brutal Russian (or Michigan) winter, and stronger than the sands of time.
Moreover, I would posit that there is a need for this kind of outlet. With the harshness of the world and daily grind of the year, the performance of great music such as the Nutcracker serves as a necessary escape, not in a blind or willfully ignorant way, but in a meaningful one. Even with the unholy commercialization of the holiday and the cliché re-gifting of pre-packaged Christmas music, one cannot but help be moved by the desperate and grand pathos of Tchaikovsky’s sincere expression.
This is the kind of art the melts the Scrooge-ish heart and Grinch-like attitude of the most cynical individual. It’s times like Christmas that music remind us that this is what we need, not only for a day, week, or month, but an entire year and entire lifetime. The WMU University Symphony Orchestra plays the Nutcracker for the Moscow Ballet tonight at 7:00 in Miller Auditorium.