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  • Richard Narroway

Research your own experience

Updated: Apr 17, 2021

The other day I came across a quote from the legendary Bruce Lee, which I have been ruminating over ever since. It is so simple and concise, yet so universally relevant in its larger meaning. I can’t think of a better way to encapsulate the process of learning in so few words.

“Research your own experience; absorb what is useful; reject what is useless; add what is specifically your own.”

Here is my own view on it, taking into account the specific needs of aspiring musicians:

Research your own experience -

This phrase holds the implication that we are all essentially students of our own experiences, and that it is up to us to decide how we learn from them. Taking this one step further, however, I would say it highlights the notion of learning to become your own teacher. As a musician, this is absolutely vital in the long-term. Of course, we all need some level of guidance throughout our lives, particularly in our earlier stages of development. But as we gain more experience and knowledge, the ability to learn on our own becomes increasingly important. In my opinion this is one of the most valuable attributes any student can have.

But how does one develop this skill? My suggestion would be to start simply: if something doesn’t sound good under your ear, ask yourself why. Do something about it. Experiment with a different contact point or bow speed. Take a look in the mirror and observe if you are doing something particularly odd or unnatural that is affecting the sound. Be an investigative student who isn’t afraid to explore new ideas, even if it occasionally means having to take a step back after two steps forward. Study the score of the pieces you are playing, compare different recordings and interpretations, learn about the composers and their lives, read books and treatises…this is all part of “researching your own experience.” By staying curious and ever-hungry for knowledge and truth, you will only grow as an artist into the future.

studying the autograph manuscripts of the Piatti Caprices in Bergamo, Italy

Absorb what is useful -

As a student you will undoubtedly be exposed to a great deal of information and oftentimes conflicting opinions. What works for others might not necessarily work for you. That being said, try to hang onto those ideas that resonate with you and that work for your playing. Really treasure them and cultivate them, for in doing so, they will provide you with a strong foundation from which to build your artistic identity going forward. At the same time, however, don’t be discouraged by periods of uncertainty when you are trying to internalise new concepts or ideas that are less familiar. Sometimes the process of “absorbing what is useful” takes time, whether that means a few days, months, or even years. It is important, I think, not to lose sight of the larger journey. By embracing the process over the long term, and by soaking up everything that you find useful along the way, over time you will build a strong, reliable arsenal of techniques and ideas that truly work for you.

Reject what is useless -

As for those things that don’t work for you, let them go! There is no point dwelling on them or stressing over the fact that they seem to be working for some of your colleagues. When it comes to being a musician there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach. Just because someone told you to play with a lower elbow or to position your left hand at a particular angle, doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for you. Sure, try it out, and if it proves helpful, that’s great! But if you find that it feels particularly unnatural or that it gets in the way of your artistic goals, then let it go. And I don’t mean simply trying it out for thirty seconds and giving up immediately; I mean giving it a legitimate attempt over a period of a few days, even weeks. If after that time it still isn’t working for you, then it only makes sense to leave it behind. Of course, this is not to say that you should disregard everything you are being taught if it requires you to change your playing in a certain way. Some things may just take a little more time to digest and integrate into your playing, particularly when it involves unlearning bad habits.

Add what is specifically your own -

This is perhaps the most important element. For me it is less about “adding” what is specifically your own, and more about keeping a hold of that which is already uniquely yours: your heart, natural instincts, temperament, and intellect. It can be easy to let these things fall to the wayside when we are so caught up with the process of becoming a better instrumentalist. At the end of the day, however, our music carries so much more meaning if it is a true expression of who we are and what we believe in. In other words, it needs to come from the heart. Sure, do all the research, build your technique until it is bullet proof, try to integrate as much information as you can from all of your lessons and experiences. But remember that our goal as musicians should never be simply to do what we are told or to play all the right notes; rather, it should be to become the most well-rounded, thoughtful and inquisitive artists that we can be.

A few final thoughts:

What I appreciate most about Bruce Lee’s words is the fact that they are equally applicable to any facet of human life. Every day offers one another opportunity to learn new things, to absorb more useful information whilst letting go of that which is less helpful. It’s really a wonderful way of approaching life in general, ensuring that you never stop growing as a human being.

Throughout my own collegiate experiences I encountered many periods of uncertainty, during which I questioned repeatedly whether this was the right path for me. I won’t lie, even now there are days when I just don’t want to pick up the cello, or when I feel particularly purposeless as a musician. But I assure you, this is perfectly normal, and goes hand in hand with the unfortunate reality that as a musician you will rarely be satisfied. There will always be more to learn, and “further heights to reach,” as Jascha Heifetz so aptly said. The most important thing is to embrace the larger journey, with all its successes and failures, because at the end of the day, that’s what life is all about.

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