Towards the end of my life as an aspiring professional flute player, I would often experience the musical equivalent of being "all dressed up with nowhere to go." I practiced diligently, and though I could play the repertoire rather well, to a point, it was never really satisfying. I always imagined that playing for other people, on a very high level, could give me the kind of satisfaction that seemed to be missing from my personal experience playing the flute, but it never quite seemed to work.
I often found it difficult to play phrases that made sense on the flute. When I recorded myself practicing, I would often find that I wasn't holding notes quite long enough to make phrases sound satisfying (why couldn't I hear them while I was playing?). Getting from point A to point B in a piece of music never seemed to involve the closest distance between two points, and there seemed to be nothing I could do about it. I certainly had practice strategies (many learned from string players), but I couldn't seem to overcome my problems with bridging the gap between what I heard in my head and what came out of my instrument.
I remember talking with Joel Smirnoff back in the early 1980s (it was when he was in the second violin section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and a few years before he started playing in the Juilliard Quartet). He told me then that he always knew exactly the way he sounded, and that he never needed a tape recorder to verify anything. I always coveted the ability he had to hear himself clearly, in real time. I thought it would have to be kind of a supernatural feat for me to actually hear myself, to actually experience my own satisfying music making, in real time.
I finally can.
It has taken me a good 17 years of violin and viola playing to build a technique equivalent to what I had after playing the flute for five. I have worked like crazy to build up enough string technique to play the music I want to play, and all that practicing is finally paying off. I can now make it purposefully from point A to point B in a musical phrase. What is most interesting is that I don't need any kind of outside validation in order to believe it or appreciate it. I also have more "space" to pay attention and take in the "now." The satisfaction is mine, and I can share it if I choose to.
Some of this new-found sense of experiencing the musical "now" has to do with simple age and experience, but I also think that a lot of it has to do with violin playing (and viola playing) itself. Practicing seems to clarify the "now" and "here" that exists physically in string playing (it only seems to exist conceptually in wind playing). There is real distance involved with getting from one place to another on a string instrument. Shifting is a spacial experience that involves getting from point A to point B in space as well as in time. Measuring the fingerboard with your fingers involves dividing up physical space, and bowing involves complicated measurements of space and time (that eventually become unconscious, like the motions involved in walking).