The Five Powers

Sometimes when I practice, I feel like I'm reinventing the wheel. That is to say, I am creating methods and making discoveries that have been figured out by many other people, probably a long time ago. Reinventing the practice wheel isn't bad or embarrassing - it's good and natural. My teacher may have told me when I was eleven years old (and I'm sure he did) that I need to put my lips close together before I begin playing... but until I discover this again for myself (perhaps years later) during my own practice session, the practical application of putting my lips closer together before I play will likely go over my head. The cool thing about the lesson was that it gave me the idea in the first place, which made it easier to "discover" later on. I had a back pocket full of wisdom to apply to a challenge, when I thought about it enough.

A few of us will make totally new discoveries in the realm of music and the horn. Most of us will rediscover, remember, and perhaps modernize methods from practitioners both living and dead.

I've been taking some wisdom from somebody who was REALLY EARLY in discovering great methods for practicing the French horn. Early... like twenty-five hundred years or so ago. Perhaps you've guessed it by the title of this entry; I'm talking about the Buddha (or "Gautama Buddha" to be more specific, since Buddha is really more of a title.) Gautama didn't know how to play the French horn, you say!? The instrument wasn't even invented? Welp, here's what the Buddha was good at: figuring out how to do HARD THINGS. 

In Buddhist texts, the Buddha talks to various people (including a musician!) about what he calls The Five Faculties or the Five Strengths/Powers. (Two helpful wikipedia articles about this are here and here.) These strengths are what the Buddha felt were needed work on becoming enlightened (A REALLY HARD THING.) The strengths are:

  • Faith/Conviction (which controls doubt)
  • Energy/Effort/Persistence (which controls laziness)
  • Mindfulness (which controls heedlessness)
  • Concentration (which controls distraction)
  • Wisdom/Discernment (which controls ignorance)

The beauty of this list is that these powers are helpful to practice ANYTHING DIFFICULT, not just (haha - just!) the work of becoming enlightened . They work great for learning the French horn, for example. For my own practice and teaching, I slightly westernize and secularize the list. Here is my checklist of mental powers of practice:

Confidence - Energy - Mindfulness - Concentration - Wisdom

How does this work in practice? Well, I use it before and during practice, performance, and even teaching. As an example, here is one way that I use this checklist before beginning a practice session:

Before practice, I run down the mental checklist. This can be a really quick process ("Hey hey, I feel great! Full of confidence, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom!") or... not. Check out some of my solutions below.

  • Do I have confidence? If not, I might remind myself of all the really productive practice times I've had, even under less ideal conditions. Remind yourself of anything that gives you more confidence.
  • Do I have the energy to practice? If not, maybe what I need is a glass of water or quick snack. Maybe I need to stand up, instead of sitting down or turn on more lights. If you often have energy problems, make sure that you're taking decent care of your body!
  • I start to engage in mindfulness by simply scanning my body and noticing how it feels, today, right now. I scan my surroundings, notice the condition of my instrument, notice other sounds, smells, temperature, etc.. This should only take a couple seconds.
  • Do I have concentration? This is usually, for me, the most important question. Sometimes, the answer is YES. Especially when I have something important coming up, I am highly motivated and concentrated. But on an average day, when I may or may not feel particularly excited to practice, the answer might be NO. To help with my concentration, I often use my method book. Some kind of course that is structured and has a definite end helps me to saddle up and get in to it. Other ways to get concentrated include sitting quietly for five minutes, setting timers for short bursts of concentration, or having an accountability practice buddy. Let me know if you have other ways - I'm always interested in learning more! Overall, it's important to remember that concentration is a skill - just like horn playing - that improves with practice. The more you TRY to concentrate, the better you will become at it in the long run.
  • Lastly, I apply wisdom. It's funny how we might not do this until we have a reminder. If one of the powers above is JUST NOT HAPPENING for you today, wisdom tells you it might not be a good time to practice. Wisdom will also tell you that if you have a long recital coming up, you should try to focus on strength and endurance or if you don't have much time, you should do an abbreviated warm-up to get to the things of high importance. Remember, you have a huge reservoir of wisdom, from your teachers, your own experience, or simply your own intelligence at your disposal. Awesome things start to happen when you use it regularly!

Do these powers sound useful to you? Do you think about them already in some way? Let me know in the comments or email me. Thanks for visiting!