Practicing like Confucius
Do you know the story about Confucius learning to play the Chinese lute?
One day, Confucius receives a new piece of music from his teacher. He practices it over and over until he can play it with his eyes closed. Then the teacher returns with another piece for him tackle. Confucius politely declines, explaining that he has only learned the notes but has not grasped the musical expressions. The teacher consents, and leaves him to his instrument.
Several days pass while Confucius works on dynamics, phrasing, and such. The teacher comes to hear him again, and deems him ready to move on.
“But I’ve yet to discover the meaning behind the music,” Confucius replies and goes back to practicing.
When the teacher next returns, Confucius’ playing is now imbued with feeling. Yet he defers once more, explaining that he still wants to gain an understanding of the composer himself.
Days later, the teacher checks in again. This time, he finds Confucius no longer plucking diligently at his instrument, but sitting in deep contemplation.
“I know now what kind of man composed this piece,” Confucius finally says. “He had a dark complexion and a towering stature. In his life, he had the greatest aspirations… Dare I say, he’s no other than the noble King Wen?” (founder of the Zhou Dynasty around 1,000 B.C.E.)
“Remarkable,” the teacher exclaims. “This piece is indeed by King Wen himself!”
In the Spirit of the Sage
At Shen Yun headquarters, we’ve been working on the new 2020 program since June. After months of nonstop rehearsals, I find Confucius’ story especially inspiring.
To be honest, as a dancer it’s impossible to be perfectly chipper 24/7. There are times when you’ve over-stretched, over-kicked, over-jumped, you’re completely brain-fried, or you’ve gotten up on the wrong side of the bed and can’t manage two spins without kissing the marley floor. At times like these, practicing the techniques you need to work on for the billionth time may not seem like the funnest thing in the world. And one more rehearsal to synchronize every movement of a group dance may drive you into an unwitting stupor.
But to channel the enthusiasm and dedication of Confucius! It really makes me think:
If art is “an expression or application of human creative skill and imagination”—thank you, dictionary—then practicing to improve should be a most enlightening experience. Confucius could not rest until he mastered a song technically, deciphered its every nuance, meditated over its artistry, and practically channeled the composer’s spirit.
The difference between simply playing the notes or just completing the movements, and actually embodying the very soul of a piece makes a world of difference—to the artist but also to the countless listeners or spectators who will eventually witness his performance. From this perspective, there could be discoveries to be made at every turn.
Next time I’m in rehearsal for the [can’t say yet] dance, I will remember Confucius and try to throw myself into my role without reserve. Whenever we put on the costumes to practice the [you’ll find out soon] dance, I’ll don the disposition and charm of the dancers of that magnificent era as well. And as the music sounds for [still a secret], I will strive to do every movement as a true [undisclosed role] of distinction.
Counting down, there are about three weeks until the Shen Yun 2020 performance tour begins. Meanwhile, I will treasure the time we have left and practice like Confucius. And may every endeavor bring insight and reward.