On Having a Starting-Point

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When I sat down to write today, I thought I was going to be using the title ‘the problem with cleaning’ to reflect on the way that the process of cleaning can have the effect of raising your standards of cleanliness, such that the job is never done. It’s not simply that it’s only when you’ve removed the film of dust over everything that you can see the stain on the carpet clearly. It’s that as you give it attention, you just keep noticing more that needs cleaning.

But as I started to write, the thoughts felt awfully familiar, and the search function reveals that I reflected on this experience as a metaphor for rehearsing back in 2011. (I should add that today isn’t the first time since then I’ve done any dusting.)

But as luck would have it, that post from 12 years ago ends with another thought I have been mulling on recently, if not necessarily through the metaphor of housework. This is, that with big and complex tasks, like making significant progress in one’s musical skills, it can feel hard to know where to start, as there are so many things that need attention, and each in some way logically precedes the others. So, whichever you pick to start with, there is the nagging doubt that you may have picked the wrong one.

FlyLady’s (who I see is still going strong – I don’t believe I’ve visited that site since I linked to it all those years ago!) promises to help you get control over your domestic environment, and, by extension, your life, by giving (well, selling) you a clear method and starting-point, and thereby relieving you of that decisional paralysis and fear of getting it wrong. Start with a nice shiny kitchen tap, and work outwards from there.

In a different domain of experience, there are various technologies of the self that seek to address physical discomfort and/or dysfunction from a specific anatomical starting-point. For F.M. Alexander, the head/neck poise is the ‘primary control’ from which his technique works to coordinate the whole body. Reflexology, by contrast, maps the whole body onto the feet and addresses therapeutic needs throughout the body through this map.

Both of these examples are underpinned by philosophies that regard the body as an integrated unit, and one could, logically, therefore decide to pick any part of the body as a starting-point if the goal is to restore balance and integration. One is reminded of the Total Perspective Vortex in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which the immensity of the entire cosmos was extrapolated from a fairy cake. This suggests, comfortingly, that there may be no such thing as a ‘wrong’ starting-point; if everything is interconnected, wherever you start will take you to everything else in due course.

My experience of therapeutic massage however suggests that where the work is done and where you feel its effects can be quite different. Much as – to return at last to musical concerns – the places where you hear the errors may be at some remove from what is causing them. So it is quite easy to spend a long time working on something that is actually a symptom rather than a cause. (The majority of work on tuning in choral rehearsals falls into this category.)

So we have an apparent contradiction: the idea that it’s all interrelated and you can start anywhere seems somewhat at odds with the thought that if you start where the symptoms of difficulty are, you might actually be starting in the wrong place.

I think where I’m headed with this is the idea that, whether you have a methodologically predetermined starting-point (feet, sink, fairy cake), or whether you pick a different one every time, the important thing isn’t where that point is, but what you do in response to what happens when you start work. The key moment, that is, is when the material talks back to you and tells you what it needs next.

Different disciplines develop repertoires of techniques that guide this process of diagnostic dialogue, so that we’re not all having perpetually to reinvent the wheel for every new endeavour. But the techniques need to be wielded creatively, responsively, with attention to the here-and-now, not just applied routinely, if they are going to work their magic.

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