Losing The Excuses

July 14, 2010

I have another confession to make.

I like Jillian Michaels.  Jillian is one of the trainers on The Biggest Loser and is currently producing her own show, Losing It.  Controversial she may be, but she gets results.

On a recent episode of Losing It, Jillian said something that is also very apropos to violin study:

“You tell your body what you need it to do and it will do it.  You have the capability.  You have the potential….The only way to really fail is to give up.”

Being healthy is easy.  We already know what to do.  Unless you live in a cave, it’s hard to escape the constant droning from The People Who Know What Is Best For Us:  Exercise!  Eat Smaller Portions!  More Veggies!  Less Red Meat!  No Empty Calories!  Don’t Smoke!  Find God!  No Carbs!  Low Carbs!  Good Carbs!  Moderation!  Willpower!  Yikes!  We have way too many choices at our disposal, and way too many people getting rich off of our insecurities.

What our Keepers conveniently forget to mention is that, for many of us, the process is hard, no matter which one you choose. It’s hard to convince your body to do things that are good for it.  It’s hard to give up (or moderate) steaks and Jack Daniels, chocolate chip cookies and tortilla chips with ranch dressing (ahem).  Your body doesn’t naturally crave pain or stress, and it might even rebel for a couple of weeks, thinking you are depriving, starving or killing it.  But if you don’t quit, it will eventually adjust and move up to the next level.

Likewise, violin playing is easy.  Yes it is.  I’ve heard many people — amateurs, parents, non-musicians, “music lovers” and violin teachers — comment on how difficult it is (or must be), but I disagree.  Like with healthy living, it’s the process — the development of new habits and routines — that is hard.  In order to make the product (the playing) easy, we break down the process into small, manageable bits.  Even though our goal is to make all performance natural and effortless, experienced players can quickly forget how much work is involved, even if it doesn’t seem like work.  After we’ve been playing for a while, we stop consciously thinking about all the individual commands that our body needs to learn in order to be successful.  And our body adjusts and we move on to the next level as performers.

You tell your body what you need it to do.  One thing I’ve learned from training is that I can do a lot more than I think I can.  My body has the ability already to exceed what I’m asking it to do.  We shortchange our ability and endurance, limit ourselves with the word “enough”:  I’m not strong enough; I’m not thin enough; I’m not pretty enough; I’m not conditioned enough; I’m not smart enough.  We think we’re being humble and self-effacing when we say things like that, but in reality we are telling ourselves that we are failures in a “nice” way.

The same is true with practicing.  You tell your left hand and right hand what you need them to do.  It really is as simple as that.  They have no other choice but to respond.  Your hands have the same ability as Itzhak Perlman’s.  He doesn’t have some magical formula that makes him play better than the rest of us mortals.  He doesn’t wave a magic wand, have a fairy godmother, or yell “Ala-ka-zam” at the top of his lungs.  He doesn’t expect someone else to do the work for him.  He learned how to do it the same way you do:  by mastering the process.

And it will do it. As long as you focus on the act of doing, your body will reward you.  If you tell your ring finger to plop down on the third finger tape, with the inside corner of the tip contacting the tape and with a nice relaxed base knuckle, your finger better do what it was told, or there is something wired wrong in your brain.  If you tell your bow to seat on the string and travel steadily for four metronome clicks, it better do it because that is how your brain is wired.  It may not be pretty or graceful.  It may feel awkward.  It may look strange.  But your body will do what you tell it do, regardless of whether you are in the gym or the practice room.

You have the capability. You have the potential. Same principle, different phrasing.  Your body already has both the capacity to do the work, and the potential to learn to work more efficiently.  Exercise is simply training your body to use its resources in the most efficient manner possible.  Violin practice involves training your body to execute commands in the most efficient musical way possible.  The bow may travel for four clicks, but the steady part might take a few tries before it actually sounds even and your arm doesn’t shake from the effort to control the stroke.  Your ring finger might not land with absolute precision every time at first, but working it slowly and with attention will improve its accuracy and efficiency.

The only way the really fail is to give up. Much of the drama on Biggest Loser and Losing It arises from emotional blocks and walls that were created by giving up.  The ongoing plot in these shows, aside from the incredible amount of weight loss, is seeing the contestants re-engage with themselves and morph into new people, emerging triumphantly from the rubble of the emotional destruction.

Practice fail occurs when we settle for “good enough”, instead of continuing to review and refine both our commands and our execution.  When you give up, you stall out where you’re at.  You create your own walls.   And they can be really hard to break down.

Sometimes it is difficult and painful to work through issues, to push through to the next level.  The easy path would be to give up and pretend that everything is OK.   But in the end, you will be a better person and a better violinist for having had the courage and perseverance to lose the excuses.


The Cost of Choice

June 21, 2010

Beth Blackerby, owner of ViolinLab, recently described the experience of dealing with latent emotions that surfaced when she took on her first adult student several years ago.  She writes :

“…because I started as a child, I had never experienced what my adult student had: the burning desire to learn the violin; the self-propelling passion that comes from choice, the will to continue because it was what I wanted more than anything.”

I would like to thank Ms. Blackerby for raising this topic, because it is a tough one to discuss.  Most of us, musicians or not, are so busy with gigs, work, family commitments and life in general that there is little time for self-reflection.  But I can’t help but think that the feelings referenced in her beautifully-phrased, wrenchingly-honest quote are related to some factor other than age.  Why?  Because Ms. Blackerby described perfectly and precisely what I did experience as a child of seven, then eight, and finally nine, when I was allowed to start lessons.   I was prepared, ready and determined to do great things with the violin.  But when I failed to meet expectations — mostly my own — I was not prepared for the emotional aftermath.

Playing the violin was a choice, the first real choice I ever made.  I didn’t have to be prodded, cajoled, bribed or threatened to practice.   On the other hand, maybe choice isn’t the right description, because I have always felt compelled by something that I could not explain, driven by a desire that I can only describe in terms that are probably not suitable for younger audiences.   The childlike amazement and wonder, as well as pigheaded stubbornness remain some thirty-five years later, and I am no closer to being able to explain it today than I was as a child.

Playing the violin was also empowering.  People paid attention to me when I played, although at the time I couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about.  I was labeled “talented,” “gifted,” “special,” as if those words all meant the same thing (they don’t).   I didn’t understand why; I simply read the directions at the front of the book, did what they said, and checked my effort against the reference LP.  (The directions are, by the way, exactly the same today, but with more pictures.)   And I was sufficiently rewarded for my direction-following skills by moving through the repertoire at lightning speed:  all ten Suzuki violin books in about six years.   It took me a lot longer to learn that the more you achieve, the more people expect from you.

I’ve heard of students who “see the light” after they’ve been playing for a few years and suddenly outperform everyone in a studio.   As a teenager, I saw it firsthand in my own teacher’s studio.   One day, Kris was average, a couple of grades and a couple of books behind the advanced kids.  No one suspected a thing, because she was so quiet and did her best to stay under the radar. And then, out of nowhere, BANG! She killed at All-State seating auditions, earning Violin I, chair 4 (out of 40 first violins and 40 seconds.)  To the best of my fuzzy recollection, the highest I ever sat was Violin 1-9.  It was a clarion call for me, discouraging and painful.   Because I was in the second violin section that year (3rd chair) and she sat directly to my right, I was constantly reminded of how I failed to meet expectations.  Deep down, I knew I should have been sitting where Kris sat.  I had let my teachers and parents down.  I had disappointed myself.   I had been a horrible model for my classmates.

There is a cost associated with that passion, that desire to obtain regardless of any consequences.   The emotional toll of choice is not a topic of general discussion or debate during orchestra breaks.  I don’t know, maybe most other violinists don’t have problems with it.   Or maybe many do, but they are convinced that no one else would understand.

Outside the world of music, economists call it “opportunity cost.”  Psychologists label it OCD, and in “advanced” stages it can be crippling.  In my case, it manifested as depression. I was able to get it diagnosed and treated before it ended my academic and performance careers, but not before it cost me a marriage, relationships with other people I loved and respected, much emotional and psychological devastation, and deeply-rooted performance anxiety.  It is still difficult to admit it, much less talk about it, and it is much more complicated than I can discuss here.

The specialness has long since worn off.  I’m skilled, well-trained, not talented or special.  I am a realist, although my husband says I’m much too critical of myself.  (A musician he is not. But he makes pies and cakes and enchiladas for me.  And the programmer-slash-analyst in him doesn’t look at me like I have two heads when I ask a stupid computer question. So I think I’ll keep him.)   I am no longer willing to give up everything for the violin.  While I strive to be extraordinary and can easily hold my own professionally, the reality is that I am just an average violinist among thousands of other average violinists trying to buy groceries.

Dreams come and go, evolve, and help us grow.   Sometimes they even come true.   Dreams keep us alive, keep us motivated.   But they can become nightmarish in the absence of reason and sense.   And age has very little to do with it.   This I know from experience.

Achieving Excellence, Old School

June 14, 2010

At the end of the school year, I often find myself with an overabundance of thoughts about teaching, studenting, parenting, playing, and wondering about the whys and what-ifs of violining.   I am a Violin Geek, after all.   So, in honor of the beginning of summer,  I’m going to do a few posts based on ideas that wouldn’t ordinarily be something I’d post.  Sort of  like a politically incorrect “Dear Violin Diary” entry.  Please feel free to discuss in the comments if I stomp on your toes or otherwise offend you with my rambling.  Don’t worry, I’ll keep it at least PG-13.

Most of what I’ve been thinking about lately seems to be related to student performances.  I’ll start the mayhem that may ensue by saying that the standard is excellence, period.  All Suzuki teachers worth their salt know this.  We are immersed in it from the first hour of “Every Child Can.”

I have alluded to having a ton of fun early on playing the violin.  But there was a price for having fun:  you were expected to work for it.  We were exceptionally lucky in Des Moines and West Des Moines to have teachers who made it seem like we weren’t really working.  Everything we did seemed to spring forth magically from some inner spark we didn’t know we had.  All the teachers had a single common trait, even though they were all very different people: they made it easy for us to learn.  Orchestra was fun!  Unless you weren’t in your seat ready to play when the first bell rang.  Or when you had to miss a concert because of bad behavior, to which I can attest from personal experience.

As I reflect on my Suzuki past, various themes begin to emerge.  One of those themes is excellence from the beginning, many years before the SAA actually printed it in the ECC manual.  The Teacher — whether it was Mr. Brauninger, Mrs. Brauninger, Mrs. Naughton, Mr. Schneider, Mrs. Tatge, Mrs. Kutscher, Mrs. Pope, Mrs. Granias, or Mrs. Morgan (did I forget anyone?) — expected everyone to do it right, no excuses.  It didn’t matter if you were a beginner taking your first tentative steps, or a seasoned student studying the Mendelssohn concerto.

Everyone I played with in elementary, junior and high school orchestras, even though we were all at different levels in the repertoire, understood that bad intonation and backward bowing were not going to be tolerated.  If you were the culprit, it made you look like you hadn’t practiced, or worse, that you didn’t care.  If you were having trouble, you were expected to put in as much extra time as it took to get it right, or have extra lessons with the director to fix it.  Our teachers, in turn, had no problems pulling us aside when necessary and telling us — gently and with much encouragement — that we were not working to our potential.  The more advanced you were, the more was expected from you by the teachers and your fellow students.  You were considered a leader, whether you wanted to be or not.

In return for our commitment to excellence, we got bragging rights.  (I can brag about my high school, right? WDM Valley. Go Tigers!)  We consistently received  I+ large-group ratings at state music contests.  We placed significant numbers of string players in the Iowa All-State Orchestra, more than any other metro high school.  People wanted to pay us to come play at their events.  Other schools asked for our musicians to fill pit orchestras for their musicals.  We had a reputation for consistent excellence, and it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever been a part of, to this day.

On our all-city Suzuki concerts, if you didn’t have your portion of the concert list memorized and correct, if it didn’t meet the performance standard well in advance of the performance, you didn’t play it.  End of story.  This rarely happened; review was so ingrained in our routine that we rarely (if ever) knew in advance what was going to be on the program.  We lined up, the piece was announced, we played, applause, rinse, repeat.  Talk about overconfidence in our abilities!  Today, we think teachers who do that are disorganized, looking for trouble, crazy, setting their kids up to fail.

Our teachers made it impossible for us to fail.  The standard was objective and specific, and everyone had to meet it regardless of their ability level.  Excellence was the only card on the table; income, race, religion, area of town, where you bought your clothes or what you ate for lunch didn’t matter.  Excellence was The Thing that galvanized our pride in our program, our pride in performance, our desire to reach beyond limitations that we didn’t know we had.  No one ever told us we had limitations, because excellence was beyond limits.  Of course I can speak only for myself, but I think my fellow students from those days might agree.

Achieving excellence is not difficult, especially when it is the only option.  You learned to tie your shoes, right?  You learned to speak your native language, yes?  Did anyone expect you to fail?  Of course not!  You learned because you were expected to, and you were held to the same standard that every other person on the face of the earth is expected to meet, barring physical or psychological barriers, of course.  Our daily tasks and routines become excellent, yet we continue to improve, refine and streamline.  Likewise, playing the violin with excellence is not difficult if it is understood from the beginning that nothing else is acceptable.  Just playing isn’t good enough.  Excellence — not just technical mastery, but of heart and spirit, of love and joy, of sharing a common language — is the standard we are all held to, and indeed I think many of us aspire to.  I hope you do.

We as teachers, parents and coaches are in the success business.  Even the smallest effort, done with excellence, is a success.  Excellence is built from success.  Success is the result of excellence.  This is one of the core tenets of Talent Education.   We are fortunate that the SAA has provided lots of resources to guide and encourage us as teachers and parents.  Especially me, especially this time of year when I feel like I got it wrong a whole lot more than I got it right.  That is for another post.  Heh.

So…what is your opinion about performance standards?  Think about it, because I’ll be continuing on this topic…

Four Reasons Why You Should Take a Summer Lesson Vacation

June 7, 2010

Lessons can be stressful for students whose expectations are out of line with their current ability level.  Lessons can be akin to torture for students who have Absolutely. No. Expectations. At. All.  Teachers can also become stressed, especially when students are not meeting benchmarks, or even trying to meet even the lowest basic expectations (come to the lesson with your brain engaged in the “on” position).  Regardless of whether one is a student or a teacher, we juggle constant demands on our time, even when we are doing everything “right” and setting good priorities.   It’s OK to be stressed and tired.  But it’s definitely NOT OK to be wishy-washy, uncommitted, or indifferent.  If you’re not excited about practicing — if it doesn’t make your heart jump and raise your adrenaline a little to unlatch the case — it’s time for a break.   Sometimes, a summer off from lessons (not from practicing) is a good thing.

So why might a student benefit from a lesson-free summer?

1.  You genuinely need a mental break.  Violin study can be intense, especially for students who are motivated to reach concrete goals.  I am much more willing to accommodate a more relaxed mindset if my students ask nicely, have specific reasons for needing a break, and have a plan for what they’re going to work on in the interim, at least for the summer.   Summer is the time for you to decide the priorities.  Lowering the intensity (but not the expectations!) can make you feel like a new person.

2.  You have lost focus.  Lack of attention due to being lazy, zoning out, or from having too many things to concentrate on can allow bad things to happen with your technique.  Summer can be a good time to regain your focus by limiting the the number of things on which you have to concentrate.

3.  You have forgotten how to think for yourself.  One of my pet peeves as a teacher is the automatic “I dunno” in response to lesson questions. Students who take lessons can become too dependent on the teacher to have all the answers, or to tell them what to do, and the joy and fun of learning is buried in the rush to add pieces to one’s repertoire.   The opposite is also true, by the way: teachers can become co-dependent, or bossy know-it-alls.   Whatever you learn will stick with you longer if you work through it yourself instead of giving up when it gets a little bit difficult.  Or waiting for the teacher to tell you what to do.  If you want to play better, you have to be willing to do the work to make it happen.

4.  Your interest has gone a different direction.   When lessons become a chore, it’s time to reassess.   Are your reasons for taking lessons the same as they were when you started?  What is your motivation?  Are you excited, not only about playing and learning, but about the future and what you could be playing in a few months?  Why do you think you’re having problems?  Are you willing to put in the effort to not just play, but to play well, to the best of your ability?   If your teacher has a valid point about some aspect of your playing and you zone out every time it’s mentioned, or you aren’t actively engaged in fixing it, are lessons still a good use of your time and money?

I think all of these issues can be addressed by backing away from lessons and breathing.   (Deep breath in…don’t forget to exhale.)   I’m guessing that your teacher would rather give you a summer off and have you come back rested, focused and ready to work than to lose you as a student.   It is not the end of the world if you are stressed about lessons.  I get stressed about lessons.  And I’m the teacher.   It’s OK.   There are millions of musicians in the world.  People start and stop lessons all the time.

For the record, teachers occasionally need time off too, although the reasons usually don’t fall into one of the categories above.  This summer is the first since I started teaching that I won’t be able to teach.  In fact, I won’t even bother making practice plans because I will be physically unable to practice for several weeks due to surgery and an extended recovery.   At the moment, it doesn’t really matter to me because the surgeon gave me good drugs.  When I come out of my artificially-induced happy place,  I’ll be blogging about my away-from-the-violin practicing.

As you start your summer, it might be a good opportunity to develop or reshape your whole attitude toward violin study. In an upcoming post, I’ll talk more about how I plan to practice this summer, using the Four “Rs” — Relax, Recover, Reflect and Refocus — and how you too can make it work for your plan.

8 Reasons Why Summer Lessons Are Important

May 24, 2010

When I was younger, lessons were a year-round activity for me.  There were no summers off.  I grew up assuming that everyone else who studied an instrument, especially violinists, followed the same regimen.  And then I started teaching.  And found that most of my students, Suzuki or not, expected to have their summers off.

I do my best to encourage my students to take summer lessons.  Some times it works, other times it doesn’t.  But for the vast majority of students, summer lessons are a really good idea.  Here are a few reasons why.

1.  Less review in the fall. Classroom teachers on a traditional academic year see this all the time:  at least a month of review is necessary for most subjects before new skills and ideas can be introduced without mass confusion.  The same holds true with violin.  A period of review is necessary to get back in shape, reset the practice schedule and routine, and refocus goals before new things can be added.

2.  A happier teacher. Most students are super-excited to start lessons in the fall and are looking forward to working on something new, only to be asked for review pieces for the first month of lessons.  Talk about discouraging!  But take heart and save yourself some frustration: do your review over the summer, a little at a time, so that your teacher is impressed enough at your first fall lesson to assign something new.  Your teacher would much rather work on new things too, than to hear Minuet Two for the umpteenth time with the same mistakes it had in May.  What is she going to say about it that you haven’t already heard umpteen times?

3.  Breaking a good habit. Practicing is a habit you want to keep, not break.  Studies tell us that it can take up to 30 days to (re)establish a habit. Do you really want to spend time doing that?

4.  Automatic response. Summer lessons are generally felt to be essential for beginners.  The way the Suzuki series is structured, it usually takes until about the middle to end of Book Three for everything — all aspects of basic technique and their incorporation into all those pieces — to sound and feel automatic: natural, comfortable and easy.  Like you were born playing the violin. (One of the highest compliments a violinist can receive is “You make it look so easy!”) The first three books stress preparing the student’s mastery of the fundamentals for the more difficult standard literature in books four through six, and beyond.  It doesn’t get easy on fifteen minutes a day, or by taking the summer off.  Review and sufficient clock time make it easy and automatic.

5.  To be ready. You never know: someone, your teacher most likely, might call and want you to play at a demo, wedding, party or play-in.  In order to do your best and not embarrass yourself (or make your teacher wish s/he hadn’t asked you), regular summer lessons are a really good thing.  In this case, lessons translate into your teacher knowing s/he can count on you.

6.  Developing a routine. It is really easy to make or break a routine.  All you have to do is add or miss one day and you’re set.  You might think that routine is the same as a habit.  Yes, the words are synonyms, but I like to think of them as different sides of the same coin.  A habit is something done unconsciously, done without necessarily thinking about it.  Routine, on the other hand, is scheduled and done deliberately, with purpose.  Is a dance routine the same as a dance habit?  You can twinkletoe and pirouette all day without thinking, but a dance routine involves following a prescribed and very specific set of steps, in a specific order.  If you’ve developed a practice habit, that means that you simply practice on a daily basis.  A practice routine is a plan — the set of steps you follow — that helps you get better at the habit.

7.   Routine again. If you haven’t established a regular practice habit and routine, summer is the perfect time to do so in a no pressure environment.  Do it in baby steps, stick to the basics and make it non-negotiable.  Dr. Suzuki said, “Only practice on the days you eat.”  The routine part involves coming up with a set of things to do during your practice time.  Don’t get too mired in details or try to get fancy.  If you work toward mastering the basics — bow hold, intonation, and tone — you’ll have more than enough to keep you busy.  Your teacher will be happy to help you make a fun plan.

8.   Because the process of learning doesn’t go on vacation. We learn things whether we want to or not.  Why did you decideto take lessons? Do you remember? Have your reasons changed? Take the initiative and be proactive about learning.  You can teach yourself some very important and useful lessons about patience, perseverance and careful, honest, thoughtful hard work.

Series: An Ode To My Teachers, Part 3 — The Bow Hold

May 18, 2010

Public apologies can be risky, especially when the intended recipient doesn’t have much of an online presence, but remains extremely active and is highly respected in a local community.  I would love to divulge this teacher’s name.  However, I also don’t want to embarrass her or imply in any way, shape or form that she was a bad teacher, because in fact the the reality was quite the opposite:  I was a really bad student.  Influence can be felt and experienced many different ways, and the lesson here is that influence is only as powerful as what you choose to do with it.  For a long time, I did not choose well.  Part of growing up sometimes involves the learning of really difficult lessons.  I am including this part because it is one of those difficult lessons I had to learn, and its far-reaching effects turned out to be such an integral part of not only what I do, but of who I am.

My teacher had a 180-degree different teaching style than Mr. B, and her expectations, while the same as his, were articulated much differently. I pushed her patience to the last frazzle during some of my lessons. For many years after I left her studio, I tried to blame my difficulties with the violin on things she didn’t teach me. To put it another way, I tried to absolve myself of the responsibility of learning anything. If I was required to do any actual work or expend any effort, it became the teacher’s fault when I came up short. She became the perfect mental scapegoat for the excuses I concocted. I ended up becoming a quasi-expert in the art of self-fulfilling prophecy.

For whatever reason, the main focus of lessons became my bow hold. I understand most of the whys and wherefores now, but actually, very little has changed over the years about my bow hold; it is still nearly identical to its 1980s counterpart.  At the time, I was convinced that the fixation on my right hand was holding up My Progress and the process of Getting First Chair At Every Available Opportunity. How was I supposed to master the Flesch Scale System! Rode! and Bruch!! if I had to constantly monitor the offending fingers on my bow! The horror of it! I sometimes think that if she had explained the reasons why it was so important, I might have grasped it on some level. But then I remember that I was The World’s Most Immature Violin Student Ever. So, in retrospect, it was a wise choice on her part to let me continue digging my hole, week after painful week.

Despite this gloom-and-doom portrait I’ve sketched here, there were in fact some good times. That Memorex tape I’ve mentioned in previous posts was made in her living room. She often let me choose my own pieces when I finished the Suzuki repertoire, something that she didn’t allow most of her students to do. I wasn’t very good at choosing, but she never batted an eyelash. She learned those pieces along with me. I felt better at All-State seating auditions knowing that she was a judge, probably rooting for me. And she secured a couple of college auditions for me which resulted in scholarship offers. These memories have affected my teaching, mostly for the better. I used my time in her studio as a guide later for determining technical skill acquisition levels, and as a general how-to-get-along-with-teenagers guide.

If I had done what she asked, would things have been different? Would I have played differently? Would I have made different life choices? I stopped playing violin in 1988. (Obviously I didn’t stay quit, but that’s another post. Actually a book, although I’m pretty sure that if I wrote it, no one would buy it. Heh.)

Did she give up on me? I don’t think so. I think I gave up on her. And I’m sorry I did, because I learned more from her than I ever gave her credit for. Thank you, Teacher.

To be continued…

Summer Practice Schedule FAIL: What To Do

May 13, 2010

A recent article by Erin Doland reminded me that summer is fast approaching.

Do you have the same problems I do with summer practicing?  Shhh! I’m not supposed to admit that as a teacher, but … news flash!  The whole practice organization problem doesn’t necessarily go *POOF* and disappear when you hit “Song of the Wind” or the Fiocco “Allegro” or Mozart’s fifth violin concerto (Suzuki Book 9) or a Master’s degree.  Case in point: nearly every summer, I make this detailed plan with many things to investigate, work on, drill and perfect, and tons of questions to research.  And a few days into it, I miss a day.  Or two. Or thirty.  It’s OK, though.  I’ve got Plenty of Time.  August is still a long time out.

Um.  Sure.  Too bad the audition committee doesn’t see it that way.

Even though I am “supposed” to know better, I encounter the exact same issues that any other student does.  The art of practicing is a balance among several skills, including listening, discernment, planning, implementation, and time management.  None of us is perfect; therefore none of us has the perfect balance of these skills.  The problem happens when one or more parts of the balancing act go awry and we run out of time or motivation to repair or restart it.  Some students find themselves experiencing icky mental issues like feelings of panic, depression, or worthlessness.  They take their failure personally, instead of assessing the Plan.  In my case, judging by the amount of Serious or Epic practice FAIL over the years that resulted in rejected auditions, if I took it all personally and decided I was a worthless person because of it, I’d likely be in a mental institution.  There will be other auditions.  I will do a better job preparing next time.

A wonderful benefit about summer is that you can be more relaxed or a little less intense with the scheduling.  It’s one thing to be relaxed to the point of not having a set schedule — I have tried this before, but it is a little too relaxed for me — but it’s another entirely to fall off the wagon.

Erin writes, “…eventually your organizing system will fall apart. How you respond when this happens, however, will determine how much anxiety, stress, and clutter paralysis you will feel.”  I hope Erin won’t mind if I share her ideas with you, substituting the word “practice” or its variant when she mentions clutter and adding my own observations and comments in brackets.

Remember these four things when you are dealing with practice schedule FAIL:

Keep Things in Perspective:

  • Failure only happens if you never recover. You only fail when you give up entirely and abandon all practicing for the rest of your life. You’re not failing; you’re learning.
  • Being organized takes practice.  Don’t expect professional practicing results without years of practice.
  • Who cares?!  Unless your health or welfare are at risk, not practicing is not the worst thing in the world.  Watch 30 minutes of the national news to help put things in perspective.
  • Embrace the mess.  Since you will eventually get off your bum and get back to practicing, take a day (or seven) and enjoy the chaos.  Let go of the stress.

Find Motivation:

  • Determine why you want to practice.  If you don’t know why you want to practice, you’re going to struggle with every attempt you make to stay on track.  [You must have a goal.  It is non-negotiable.  And the discipline to build a habit.  Practice is a habit, a learned behavior.  If you don’t know why you’re practicing, why are you wasting time on it?]
  • Ask for help. Call a friend. Call your teacher.  [Call a different teacher. Look at online message boards and violin student groups.  Join a newsgroup or mailing list.  There are as many options available as there are excuses.]
  • Plan a performance. Nothing gets me moving faster than knowing there will be people coming to hear me play.  [Or having a performance planned for me, such as an orchestra concert.  Many people come just as much to watch as they do to listen.]
  • Acknowledge that you’re procrastinating.  Simply admitting to yourself that you’re avoiding a task can help get you motivated to change.
  • Plan your entire schedule using a single piece as your “project” focus.  Pull out your calendar, determine the scope of your project, create action items, and block off time each day to reach your goal.  Being specific (and realistic) about what you will want to accomplish helps to alleviate the overwhelming Cloud of Doom and realize you can get things back to normal.

Get Started:

  • No excuses.  Follow your project plan and just do it.
  • There isn’t an easy way.  You will have to do the work.  However, the end result is definitely worth it.


  • Create a routine.  If you don’t have a chart of your daily practice routines and responsibilities, now is the time to establish one or evaluate your old one.  [If your plan isn’t working for you, change it.  Take away your excuses.  Aside from basic physics, there are no absolutes in violin practice.  Whatever works for you is the right way, even if it doesn’t work for anyone else.  Your teacher will be able to tell if it’s working by the amount of progress you’re making.]
  • Try a weekly plan.  One of the easiest ways to practice and keep from stressing out about what you need to do is make a weekly plan that spreads your tasks out so you can see how what you do today affects what’s on the schedule for tomorrow.  [Remember to schedule a regular day off once a week or so.  Your body and brain will thank you.]
  • Declutter your time and your practice space.  [The less you have to do, or feel like you have to get done, the more time you can spend concentrating and listening to yourself.]  The less stuff you need to practice with makes less you have to clean, organize, store, and maintain.  [Minimum equipment is preferable, but make sure that whatever you have available is stuff that you actually use.]
  • Enjoy the calm.  [Way too often, we focus on the failures.  Regurgitating mistakes tends to make the average person cranky.  Focus instead on the positives.]  Take some time to reflect on how different you feel when you feel like you’ve actually accomplished something. Remembering this feeling, and enjoying your time with the violin, are great motivators to keep you on course in the future.

Here’s hoping that your summer is filled with happy, relaxing, joyful, positive progress!