Aristotle Has Dirt Under His Fingernails!

“We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  – Aristotle

I love philosophy.  I like learning about various ways great thinkers throughout the ages have viewed this world and our place in it.  And I find it really interesting to see the progression from one philosopher to the next and how they built on, refined, or refuted the views of those who came before them.  So it is really interesting to note the differences between Plato and his student, Aristotle.  At the risk of oversimplifying, I’ll try to sum up a couple of their differences here in a few words: Plato was very much concerned with the eternal realities, things that are unchangeable.  To him, everything on earth was a fuzzy version of the perfect ideal, and it was this immutable, eternal ideal that held his attention.  Aristotle, on the other hand, preoccupied himself mostly with our world – a place that is in flux and always moving, growing, and changing.  He liked to get close to the ground, observe the flow of life and nature, and he was fascinated by the very changeability of things, and how they moved towards their potential.

There’s a wealth of wisdom to be taken from both Plato and Aristotle, but I want to focus on Aristotle for now because this quote really hits the nail on the head for us horn players.  There are two main reasons for this in my mind.  First, he recognizes that, “We are what we repeatedly do.”  We are the sum of our actions, he says.  Second, he reminds us that we can make a habit of bringing a certain quality to our actions – in other words, that it is actually most important that we bring excellence to all the little, daily things that we do.  If we bring excellence to the little things in life, it will add up to excellence in the “bigger” things.

Let’s back up a little bit….

Someone once told me that by the age of 25 we will have already formed our life-habits.  I only partially believe this.  I think that humans are more malleable than that and that new patterns can be established after the age of 25!  I do, however, think that the sooner we incorporate good habits into our life, the better, and that it does get harder to change our habits as we age.

As musicians learning to play an especially challenging and sometimes treacherous instrument, it is very easy to long for a magic wand.  I know I do!  However, what Aristotle offers us is, I believe, far better than a magic wand because it gives us the ability to develop a trust in ourselves over time.

If you are reading this, and you are my student, you already know about some of the habits that are needed if you want to become a professional musician.  A warm-up routine (getting loose and warm and ready to work) and a “daily dues” routine (where you touch on all of the skills you are working on or need to maintain) are absolutely essential daily practices both as a student and throughout a career.

But, just as important as the daily act of going into the practice room and going through your routines are the mental habits you bring to your practice once you are there.

Just as we can train our bodies to to move our air freely and efficiently, and just as we can train our fingers and chops to do all the technical things we need them to do, we can (and must!) ingrain those habits of the mind that are so important for a performing musician – careful listening, an awareness of our bodies and how they work, a mental resilience when things don’t go quite right, and courage to “go for it!” are some of the first mental habits that come to my mind.

Henry David Thoreau, another great observer of nature says:

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind.  To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again.  To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

What does this mean for you today as you step into your practice room?  It can mean many things, depending on where you are and what you want to accomplish, but everyone can start out by taking a couple breaths and slowing down and bringing your focus gently to the task at hand.  Sometimes if I’m distracted, I even keep a little notebook beside my chair so that if something urgent comes up in my mind, I can write it down with the purpose of paying attention to it later.

I think that, for everyone, it also means learning to be demanding of yourself in a way that helps you, not inhibits you.  In a sort of gentle, patient way.  If you find that your face is tense and your eyes are boring a hole through the music, or if you find that you’re saying things to yourself you would never say to someone else, you might want to relax your gaze, detach a little bit, and do some problem solving with yourself, as if you were your own teacher or your own best friend.

I like to imagine how Aristotle might go about creating a beautiful garden.  He would have a vision of what his garden would look like, and he would have investigated what it takes to create this garden.  He might have even employed a gardening teacher!  Knowing that all things follow certain processes, he would work in the garden daily to tend to his little plants and flowers.  He would pay great attention to the quality of the soil and all of the particulars of what his plants need.  As the plants grow, they sometimes need pruning and guidance – a stake to hold them up, for instance, or some sort of corrective measure.  But he knows that’s OK!  It doesn’t mean the plant is inherently weak or bad – it is just growing and developing and needs some support and guidance along the way.

Every now and then, he might miscalculate the kind of care something needs and a flower comes to an unfortunate end.  But – now he knows how NOT to do it next time, and he can try again.

For those of us tending our musical garden,  there will be lots of trial and error, plenty of starting over again, but the constants are: vision of what you are going for (we do still keep Plato’s ideal somewhat in mind after all!), a daily tending to the garden, and a respect and patience for the natural process of growth.  It’s also helpful to keep in mind that a garden is never a finished product.  There’s always something to be done, something to be tended.  But we still can, like Aristotle, take joy in observing those processes of growth and change.

I will most likely delve into more specific habits as time goes on, but in the meantime, enjoy some time in the soil!

Ideas for further reading:

7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey – this is a great book for helping you recognize what is most important to you in your life, organize time, and live intentionally.

Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy, Jostein Gaarder this a for-fun, whimsical novel that might interest you if you want to learn more about Western philosophy.



About Angela

French hornist Angela Cordell Bilger is a freelance chamber musician, orchestral player, and educator, primarily in the Philadelphia and New York City areas. She writes her blog with a special thought for her students who inspire the subjects raised here, and for all those looking to add a bit to their knowledge and experience of classical music.
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2 Responses to Aristotle Has Dirt Under His Fingernails!

  1. John Campbell says:

    So much wisdom that’s applicable to every aspect of life.

  2. Matthew Lemmel says:

    I confess that I don’t really warm up like I used to. Maybe I should….

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