Practicing by Glenn Kurtz

“Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music” by Glenn Kurtz

Over the holidays I returned to a book I first read some ten years ago.  Glenn Kurtz’s Practicing:  A Musician’s Return to Music is, in its simplest form, a memoir of a young child prodigy on the classical guitar who attends the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music and then quits playing in his early 20s when he realizes he won’t be the next Segovia.  Fifteen years and a career change later, Kurtz returns to the guitar and finds, in the process, a richer love for music.

But like all good memoirs, Practicing is so much more than a simple life’s story.

Kurtz has been practicing since he was eight years old, but it isn’t until he returns after his hiatus that he begins to understand all the richness of the various aspects of preparing for performance, or life.

“Practicing is training; practicing is meditation and therapy. But before any of these, practicing is a story you tell yourself, a bildungsroman, a tale of education and self-realization. For the fingers as for the mind, practicing is an imaginative, imaginary arc, a journey, a voyage. You must feel you are moving forward. But it is the story that leads you on….From the outside, practicing may not seem like much of a story… Yet practicing is the fundamental story. Whether as a musician, as an athlete, at your job, or in love, practice gives direction to your longing, gives substance to your labor.”

When we hear of practice, we tend to think of artists, but Kurtz makes the point that practice is universal.  “Each day … practicing is the same task, this essential human gesture — reaching out for an ideal, for the grandeur of what you desire, and feeling it slip through your fingers.”  Because we will never reach our mind’s ideal, we take a risk when we stretch.

“Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure… Every day I collide with my limits, the constraints of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. Each morning when I sit down, I’m bewildered by a cacophony of voices, encouraging and dismissive, joyous and harsh, each one a little tyrant, each one insisting on its own direction. And I struggle to harmonize them, to find my way between them, uncertain whether this work is worth it or a waste of my time.”

“Every day you go to the gym or sit down at your desk. The work is not always interesting, not always fun. Sometimes it is tedious. Sometimes it is infuriating. Why do you continue? Why did you start in the first place? You must have an answer that helps you persevere… Without telling yourself some story of practicing, without imagining a path to your goal, the aggravation and effort seem pointless. And without faith in the story you create, the hours of doubt and struggle and the endless repetition feel like torture.”

However, Kurtz continues.

“When you truly believe your story of practicing, it has the power to turn routine into a route, to resolve your discordant voices, and to transform the harshest, most intense disappointment into the very reason you continue….Limitation is the condition of our lives. What matters — what allows us to reach beyond ourselves, as we are, and push at the boundaries of our ability — is that we continue. But then everything depends on how we practice, what we practice.”

Running Dog Guitar Ought-3

My Running Dog Guitar Ought-3…the guitar where I don’t spend enough time practicing (photo credit: Running Dog Guitars)

In his return to music, Kurtz found his limitations but then began again to push.  To continue.  We all have routines that make up our work, but if we approach them with the story of who we are and what we wish to be, they can be turned into a route for our lives.

Here’s to focusing beyond the inevitable disappointments and looking to the route that gives meaning to our work and our lives.  Here’s to practicing.

Have a good week.

More to come…



Four restful days on the Patuxent River in Southern Maryland brought our summer holiday to a close.  We used this time for unwinding from our western travels, reading, talking as a family – but mostly for being.  The sunset on the river was illustrative of the four wonderful days of weather we experienced…nary a day when the AC was required…but it also struck us as appropriate for an end-of-summer-holiday post.

We’ve been fortunate enough to have access to this retreat for nine years, and there are some traditional activities we’ve taken on during that time.  While our visit was shortened this year, we were still able to visit Cone Island at Solomon’s to buy the traditional “Monster” ice cream cones that Andrew and Claire showcase below.  It just wouldn’t be a summer without a Monster!

Candice and I were also able to finish some reading over the weekend.  Candice completed an out-of-print book she bought on Amazon entitled Nourishing the Soul:  Discovering the Sacred in Everyday Life and said it was transformative in its insights.  The book is a series of 24 essays grouped into topics such as Mapping the Territory of the Soul, the Individual Soul Journey, and Soul and Community.  She recommends it highly.

I finished a small but insightful book I purchased on a whim at Maria’s Bookshop in Durango (motto:  “Independent Bookstores for Independent Minds”) entitled Practicing:  A Musician’s Return to Music by Glenn Kurtz.  On the surface this is the autobiographical story of a prodigy who takes up the classical guitar at age 10, graduates from the New England Conservatory of Music, moves to Vienna for a professional career, quits when he realizes that he’ll never make it to the concert stage, and then after a decade-long hiatus, takes up the guitar again with new insights and appreciation.  He weaves this story around a single practice session undertaken upon his return to the guitar.  But as Samantha Dunn wrote in her Los Angeles Times review of the book, “Practicing is a fantastic example of what memoir as a literary form can best deliver:  a person delving honestly, profoundly, and fearlessly into one aspect of life, not necessarily coming up with answers so much as struggling in the face of life’s big questions.  The core of memoir is the writer moving into deeper levels of self-understanding and awareness.  Magically, although it is a personal journey, it becomes universal, elevating all in the process.”

As I read Practicing I thought about the real musicians in my family – my brother Steve, my son Andrew, my daughter Claire.  They would all read this (well, perhaps Andrew & Claire in later years) with a great appreciation for what Kurtz goes through as a musician.  I enjoyed it on that level, but most of all I took pleasure in the graceful writing and insights that do, in fact, become universal for anyone who has dreamed of achieving something big and has had to deal with the disappointment that comes when one falls short.  Here’s an excerpt that – for me – captures the grace of this book:

Practicing can be a dream world in which you escape the reality of time.  You believe that you have everything to do over again, that you have all the time in the world to achieve perfection.  And every day we must practice.  There is no other way to improve.  Still, practicing, by itself, cheats you of half your life.  Even if you are your only audience, music lives fully only in performance.  Performance brings all the strands together, for a moment, joining the many conflicting voices with which music speaks – the joy, the frustration and anger, the loneliness, regret, and sudden elation.  But unlike practice, every performance has an end.  And without an end, music is just a fantasy….

You must make the music of today.  You have to perform what you hear, what you feel, what you can grasp, today.

At least that’s what I tell myself.  It’s taken me more than ten years to let go of the story of my failure and find a new one I could believe in, this myth of growth and return that helps me continue.  I started practicing again because I felt I could do it better this time.  Now, whatever my fingers allow me to play, I sit down to practice the fullness of my doubts and desire, my fantasies and flaws.  Each day I follow them as far as I can bear it, for now.  This is what teaches me my limits; this is what enables me to improve.

I think it is the same with anything you seriously practice, anything you deeply love.  For me, it was music.  The guitar.  But whatever “music” is for you, if you practice for real, eventually it will show you everything that is within you.  Because as accomplished or as disappointed as you may feel now, you don’t know what remains concealed in your hands.  Maybe you’ll never grasp all of it.  What you want may never yield to your touch.  And yet maybe one day a performance will surprise you.  Maybe today your music will reveal all the joy and disappointment, all the love and the fear you are capable of, your whole life, the true concord of your own heart.

I suspect that you don’t need to be a musician to glean something of value from Practicing.  I found it to be a wonderful little book.

More to come…