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Painted Brain | Necessary Vulnerability
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • December 10, 2014

Necessary Vulnerability

I spend almost all my time helping people feel safe enough to allow themselves to feel vulnerable. This is true in my private therapy work, my group work, and here at the Painted Brain as well, where the focus is more on helping people feel vulnerable with each other, and therefore closer to each other. Feeling vulnerable, like feeling anything else, is both an emotional response and a physiological one. I think this is at the core of why people talk about ‘feeling naked’ when something uncomfortable about them has been revealed. Spending so much time in the presence of vulnerability, along with a vast increase in my own public speaking roles, has had an enormous impact on my own vulnerability. I feel like I have reached a place where feeling vulnerable is a very comfortable feeling for me. Since I feel it so often and feel so safe there, I decided to do a recital.

A recital is a public performance of your personal progress in your music, something I had not done, ever. I have been playing the upright bass for close to 20 years, since I was in college. I have clear memories of a professional cellist visiting my music theory class at Mount Hood Community College, the year after I graduated with my BA in 1997. He played the prelude to Bach’s first cello suite. I was enthralled and set this piece in my sights. Even though I struggled even playing scales in tune, one year into my practice with this honkin’ large wooden instrument, I felt that if I put in the time, I would be able to play the piece someday, maybe even beautifully. I was inspired to read that Pablo Casals, the great cellist who first popularized the suites for their performance merit, was reported to have practiced the cello suites for more than 11 years before performing them publicly. I first played this piece in public at the Painted Brain’s most recent gallery show, in the spring of 2013. One of 36 movements in only 17 years, memorized. It was so liberating, and such a friendly crowd!

I worked briefly with Margaret Tindemans, renowned gamba player (the string family before the violins, with frets like guitars and six strings) in Seattle long ago, and she suggested to us that one can either focus fundamentally on pitch or on tempo but not both at the same time. During the first fifteen years I was playing, I literally (not figuratively) could not count on my ability to play even a single note correctly if called upon to do so alone, in front of an audience. Then I worked as a therapist for a classical string player who was burned out beyond belief but unwilling and unable to take time away from practice. We talked at length about stripping practice down to pure mechanics, like physical exercise, and to remove all emotion and intention from the actions. The person got past the block, and so did I. I devoted all my practice time to playing one note at a time, focusing on the first phrase of the first violin sonata by Bach, playing it exclusively for weeks starting with the long low G minor chord. Up until this point, I had been entirely focused on tempo, not on pitch.

Anyway, I was thinking a lot about the moment-by-moment emotional mechanics of playing solo classical music to a live audience and thought I recognized something new this past weekend, especially about what happens, as an amateur, when you screw up while playing solo in public. In the midst of the Presto movement of the first Bach sonata, in front of about thirty people, I was playing through two solid pages of sixteenth notes. When I messed up halfway through the first page, I was still moving very quickly forward through these notes. I had to forgive myself for the mistake and deal with an intense physiological burst of shame in the midst of hurtling forward with these sixteenth notes, making a conscious effort to let it go and make the most of what was still in front of me. To continue playing ‘con brio’ even after the public shaming of error and the knowledge that I could end up playing so fast that I would loose control, that, reader, is vulnerability for me.

Dave Leon is the founder and director of The Painted Brain.

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