Minimalist Practicing, Part 2: No List = Practice Zen

June 30, 2010

Leo of Zen Habits is the undisputed King of Minimalism, pretty much.  In this post,  Leo talks about lists, specifically how to ditch them.  At their best, lists can be life savers, a brain on paper.  Or on Google Calendar.   At their more usual, however, lists can be annoying, unproductive and a way to waste or rationalize time.   Leo reminded me that “the only thing that matters is the actual doing.”

We shall return to Leo in a minute, but first I have a confession to make:  I am a Compulsive List Maker.  Maybe even an Obsessive Compulsive List Maker.  It could be a lot worse, so I guess if that is one of my worst faults, I’ll take it.

I joke that Advanced Maternal MommyBrain had something to do with my CLM.  In reality though, I make lists because it makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something as a WAHM.  I feel more Organized, more Motivated.  I’m not, but whatever.  And then?  And then!  Then there are days that I don’t want to do anything on my to-do list, even though I have spent a ridiculous amount of time outlining, revising, adding to, crossing out and otherwise mutilating streamlining my lists into Models of JulieEfficiency.  However, I am also fully aware that the world will not end if I sit and read all day, take a nap, or play with Eric.  None of those things ever appears on my to-do lists.  But I feel guilty anyway, because I “should” be doing something on the list.  If I’ve somehow managed to complete everything on the list, I feel guilty because I haven’t already started another list.

I haven’t always been a CLM.  When I was younger, I could easily remember everything — homework assignments, doctor’s appointments, my work schedule at the mall, changes on my paper route — without writing it down.  For violin lessons, I always knew what scale and etude to prepare, where I was in my review sequence and had a general idea of upcoming performances or events for which to prepare.  The steno book I carried to lessons, specifically to take notes in, ended up being a waste of money.

As an adult, my memory is nearly as good as it was when I was a child but I don’t trust the short term section as much as I used to.  I know by heart exactly what I need to work on in my own playing.  Those Things To Do never seem to change.  But I feel better writing down exact pieces or exercises I’m going to use, the exact things I’m going to focus on, the exact outcomes I expect to achieve.  I feel Organized, Professional and Teacher-y.  Like I know what I’m doing.  Because people expect me to know what I’m doing, to practice what I preach, to set a good example.  And then I get tired of writing and thinking and enter the practice avoidance zone go off to do something else, like read, take a nap or play with Eric.  Or if I’m feeling really squirrely, watch some TV.

And now, back to Leo, who has The Solution to the never-ending cycle of Compulsive List Making.  He suggests trashing the to-do list in favor of One Thing.  You do One Thing that is most important.  The definition of Most Important is that thing which you most want to do.  No force, no pressure. When you get it done, you move on to the next One Thing.

Yesterday, planting green beans with my son was the One Thing I most wanted to do.  Today it is reading (but obviously I’m doing something else, so I’m not taking advice very well, am I? Heh.)  Saturday, my One Thing will be traveling to Sioux City to see Steve Winwood and Carlos Santana.  (Because classic rock guitarists are perhaps my favorite research topic, rest assured that I will report back with details.  Maybe even pictures.  Woot!)  My One Thing isn’t always practicing.  I’m guessing that yours isn’t either.

Most older students know intuitively what they need to work on without being given specific Things To Do.  The problem is doing it.  Zen is synonymous with being mindful.  Paying attention.  Being in the moment.  Listening to yourself.  Being centered and balanced.   It’s really hard to do that if you’re distracted by too many things competing for your attention on a to-do list.

Sometimes practice sheets can be more crap-and-clutter than helpful.  So stop practicing from a list.  Try it for a week or two.   Practice, not because you feel like you have to, but because it’s the One Thing you want to do right now.


Minimalist practicing, part 1: Green Beans Edition

June 29, 2010

Last night we had green beans with supper.  Not just any green beans, mind you, but Eric’s Green Beans.  He helped plant them in a container on the deck.  He picked them, helped snap them and smelled them all day while they hung out happily in the slow cooker. And then we ate them. And they were yummo!  Even The Dad commented on how much better they tasted than the batch of fresh-from-the-store-imported-from-some-third-world-country green beans I cooked up earlier in the spring.  Normally, I don’t give a whit about green beans.  We happily eat them out of a no-salt-added can. (!!)  But these particular beans were so good that I am now fixated on green beans and solving the crucial question of how can I plant enough to get us through next spring.

And you are asking, so….exactly what do green beans have to do with practicing?

Not a darn thing, really.  But it was a good way to introduce today’s topic.  Penelope Trunk is one of my favorite business bloggers.  A while back, she posted the following:

“One thing at a time.  Most important thing first.  Start now.”

From a practicing perspective, this short, simple mantra can work wonders with organization and actual getting-it-done of your practice time.  I’ve done it myself, but I didn’t have the great phraseology that PT used at my disposal.

Here’s how it works in two simple steps.

Step One: What is the single biggest thing that would improve your playing?  What could you do that would have an immediate impact, something that would produce instant results, if you just did it? Actual practicing?  Intonation?  That pesky high-2, low-2 thing?  Tone production?  Even though there might be several things that fit this schema, take a guess and pick what you think would be The Most Important Thing.

Step Two: Start working on it now.  Not in an hour.  Not next week.  Don’t argue.  Don’t rationalize.  Don’t justify.  Just go do it.  Now.

Can you get much more minimalistic than that?

It’s really really easy to become distracted.  Keep in mind that focus is not something that we do automatically.  It is a learned behavior, and the only way to learn how is to deliberately do it. You learn to focus by ignoring the distractions and concentrating on One Thing.  Distractions keep you from your goal, no matter if it’s a musical goal or something else.  All successful practicing boils down to the ability to focus on one thing until you do it better.

I’ll talk more about One Thing practicing in the next post.  Meanwhile, I have two empty pots on the deck and a little boy who is dyin’ to get dirty.

Summer Practice: 14 Ways to UnFAIL

June 10, 2010

Just because it’s summer doesn’t mean that your violin case is allowed to become a dust-bunny magnet. Here are a few different ways you can practice that won’t eat up a lot of time, but that will keep you at least playing. Or thinking. You CAN relax the schedule without falling off the wagon.

1.  Switch roles. I read once that the best way to learn to do something is to teach someone else to do it.  So, if you are a student, try practicing like a teacher.  If you’re a teacher, practice exactly like you want your students to do it.  Sometimes what we say and what we do, regardless of whether we are students or teachers, doesn’t quite match.  Know what I mean?

2.  Come up with several different routines and swap them off. You might try: two-minute drills; choose a single technical or expressive point and follow it through several review pieces; memorizing; play along with the CD; start a music reading program; play scales and experiment with different bow strokes; improve your sound; have a new theme each week, like “hat week,” “animal week,” “alphabet week,” “composer of the week,” etc.; use your imagination.

3.  Review. Review is generally defined as going back through all previous repertoire and making it better than than the last time you played it.  I can’t overemphasize the importance of review.  I could make an entire blog that talked ONLY about review.  Dr. Suzuki did not say, “Raise your ability with a whole bunch of sort-of-learned new pieces.”  He said, “Raise your ability with a piece you can play.”  He also said he could tell what book a student was in simply by listening to how they played Twinkle.  Reviewing with purpose and attention is what makes you a better violinist.   Just as an orchestra is only as good as its weakest player, you only play as well as your weakest review piece.

4.  Do the opposite of what you did during the school year. If you practiced for 15 minutes a day during the school year, try 30 minutes.  Or do it twice a day.  If you practiced once a day during the school year, add a little extra time but do shorter sessions.  Or, my personal favorite, ditch the clock altogether and go til your brain crashes or your bow arm gives out.  You might be surprised at what you are actually capable of doing.

5.  Commit yourself to play something every day. It doesn’t matter what:  Twinkle A, major and minor scales in all 24 keys, riffs from your favorite Hendrix or Metallica songs, whatever.  Just play something.

6.  Commit yourself to listening every day. I have several pieces on my Rhapsody playlist just waiting for their turn.  The more you listen, the easier it is to learn your current pieces, keep review pieces at your fingertips and get motivated to learn more advanced pieces.

7.  Surprise yourself. Write the names of every piece you can play on small slips of paper.  Drop them in a container, mix them up, draw one and play it.  You could do this with individual composers as well, or with techniques that you’re working on.

8.  Surprise someone else. Plan an impromptu performance for someone close to you.  Make it a surprise.  Extra challenge:  book a performance at a local nursing home, group home or homeless shelter.  Extra super-duper challenge: take requests from the audience.

9.  Learn a piece the opposite way you normally would. If you’re stuck to the page, try listening.  Play it in your head, with no instrument.  If you’re aural, use the sheet music.

10.  Adapt a game you enjoy. It could be a board game, a card game or whatever you like.  Extra challenge:  adapt a game like Twister, Hot Cold, Name That Tune or Hide-and-Seek.  Make it fun and remember that games are not only for kids.

11.  Do the Ten Thousand Times exercise. Choose a technique or piece you want to master.  Count the number of days in your summer and divide it by 10,000 to come up with a daily figure.  Then use a stopwatch to see how long it takes you to do it.  For a couple of weeks, budget at least that much time for that task.  It will take less time to do as you get better at it.  [Note: you only get to count the right ones, so make every repetition count in your favor.]

12. Do extra listening. If you don’t listen, start.  I’m not kidding or exaggerating about the kind of spectacular progress you’ll make if you start listening, both to what you’re playing and to how you’re playing it.  I could write a whole blog devoted strictly to the importance of listening, too.

13. Practice verbally. Think out loud.  Your mouth is truly a wondrous thing!  Decide exactly what you are going to do.  Go a step (or half step) at a time.  Don’t leave out any steps.  Say it out loud, loud enough for your brain to register what you said.  Be exact and precise.  Then do what you said.  Then assess it.  Did you really do what you said?  Is there another way to do it?  Can you say it differently?

14. Make a practice contract. In order to gain something of value (greater ability, more satisfaction, etc.) you need to give something of equal value (time) for a specified length of time.  As a bonus for meeting your “terms” you could add a bonus or reward for extra motivation.  (hmmm…this might be good stuff for a future post.)

I’ll be using some of these myself.  If anything, it should be an interesting summer.

Do you have any tried-and-true things you do during the summer to make practicing fun or different?

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.

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!

Ability Limiters — Lack of Interest, Part 2: How Young is Too Young?

April 20, 2010

I have read and heard discussions about how young is too young to begin lessons and the “standard” answer basically is “however young your teacher is comfortable with.”  That may be true in theory, but I disagree with it in practice.

Many teachers have “guidelines” for accepting pre-K students; this is normal and expected.  There might be requirements regarding a student’s age, whether they are potty-trained, if they are in school or daycare (for socialization or just interacting with people who are not family members), observation requirements, and the like.  No single requirement carries any more weight than another, because each teacher sets up student success a little differently.  [Note: In my studio, I require parents of students under 4th grade to complete a five to six week course of parent training before we start lessons.  The sixth week is specifically for parents of pre-Ks, to discuss things that are special about pre-K lessons and learning styles.]

I can show anyone, no matter their age, how to do basic violin stuff.  The youngest student I’ve taught to this point had just celebrated her third birthday when she started lessons.  I’ve also had students in their 60s and 70s.  They all learned, so I’m pretty sure it’s not a matter of “teaching.”

I can work with any parent of any student, doing parent ed. until I’m dehydrated from talking so much.  I can show them videos or DVDs until my eyes hurt.  I can ask them open-ended question after question about how they think the lifestyle is going to work.  I’m honest with them up front.  I don’t promise things I can’t deliver.  Taking their money and stringing them along on false hopes and dreams is stealing, pure and simple.  I figure when someone comes to me for lessons, they expect to learn something, so I am all about getting it done, and having fun doing it.  But what I have found over the years of working with pre-Ks and their parents is that many parents are not honest with themselves about how much “lifestyle” they can handle.  They really want lessons, and are willing to go through whatever to get them.  They shake their heads yes, agreeing with Dr. Suzuki in principle, and give what they think are the “right” answers, the answers that they think their violin coach wants to hear.  It’s so easy to do this when you’re sitting with a supportive teacher, or group of parents. It’s hard to be honest when you’re discouraged and alone at home. [Note:  many teachers make this initial phase a very long one, stretched out six months to a year. It’s hard to really get a grasp of what is expected and what the teacher is trying to do in a short six week course.  I think this is a good thing because it removes all of the pressure to “get started” and impress the teacher with how well all the paper lessons have been learned.]

In practice, the scenario typically plays out like this:  shortly after things get past the super-easy-this-is-such-great-fun-because-it’s-new stage, they begin to feel overwhelmed, like they are in over their heads.  Then Home Teacher (usually Mom), gets bogged down in guilt and has trouble keeping the routine going smoothly, and the kids lose interest because the whole dynamic of the “home lesson” has been changed.  It’s not fun anymore.

In violin lessons for pre-Ks, the parent assumes the lion’s share of responsibility:  making sure the assignment is written down correctly and understood, scheduling the time and place for practicing and listening, juggling other commitments that might interfere with practicing, being the home teacher, following through on getting it done, transportation to lessons, etc.  All of that might be enough to unnerve any experienced Mom-of-Steel, but add in the responsibility of discerning between correct and “needs work,” acknowledging the effort while reserving true praise for the achievement, and therein lies the recipe for, the justification for, lack of ability.  “He just doesn’t like it anymore” is more often than not a polite way of saying “I can’t do this anymore.”  But it is also placing the blame on the child, which conveniently masks the fact that the parent created the environment that nurtured the dislike in the first place.  The child is only responsible for doing what the teacher or parent asks of him.  They can only be responsible for what we have taught them.  If we don’t teach them honestly and fairly, with the highest expectations for their success, I can certainly understand why it wouldn’t be fun.  But, any child who hears a parent offer the child’s dislike of practicing as an excuse has learned a lesson they won’t soon forget:  I can blame anyone else for my problems and it’s OK.

So then, wouldn’t it be more correct to say, “however young the PARENT is comfortable with?”  If the parent is not comfortable with that level of responsibility, how is she supposed to make it interesting and fun for her child?  Children can read their adults like books.  You can’t hide anything from them.

Adults sometimes have great difficulty coming down to the level of fascination, wonder and discovery inherent in small children.  We get bored, mainly because our “process” has been taught and honed and given much experience.  We have the benefit of time.  After the 50th repetition, chances are pretty good that we have learned it.  But ten thousand times? Yikes.  Yes, it can get (very) annoying to hear the same review sequence for months in a row.  But you can’t let on that it bugs you.  If you do, you make yourself out to be a hypocrite when the teacher finally hears and praises your child for that improvement she’s been waiting for for months.  Yes, I’ll admit, it can be long, tedious, even boring. Boooorrrrring.  But it is the process of getting there that is important.  The child needs the process, and so does the practice parent.  The product will come a the child is ready.

Now.  If only I could heed my own advice…

More Thoughts on Motivation, Part 4.5: “Eye” Stand Corrected. Ha.

February 8, 2010

Using one’s ears in greater proportion to the eyes is a logical way, maybe even first major step in learning to read music. The ears only have to worry about telling you if you’re playing in tune and making a beautiful sound; careful listening will also provide the solutions for mistakes. However, it is virtually impossible to learn to read music without your eyes. So, what does this post and the previous one have to do with motivation?

Let’s think for a moment about basic human needs. We all need to eat, sleep and be loved. We need to be accepted. Ironically, acceptance is usually conditional; whoever is doing the accepting sets the rules and requirements for said acceptance. Hence, a large part of our lives is spent in pursuit of acceptance. We do extra projects at work to show the boss that we deserve a raise or promotion (or at least not be fired).  We do homework and study for tests in order to be accepted into the next grade, or college, or just to show that we are “educated.”  Being able to read music is an acceptance criterion in classical music; it’s hard work and most of us work very hard to learn to do it with ease and grace.  So, we could say that acceptance is a motivational tool.

Sometimes, I think being a teacher is the hardest job in the world. As a teacher, I am constantly trying to persuade my students to accept my ideas (and accept me, by extension). But I am also a perpetual  student, always reaching, learning, trying to meet ever-higher expectations, striving for acceptance by peers, colleagues and higher-ups. And as I have discovered, expectations are ever-changing and different everywhere I live; life can become pretty depressing when it feels like you can’t meet anyone’s expectations. In the orchestral world, if you don’t meet expectations, you don’t work. Period.

[Random Thought: What I end up wanting to know is how does it make you a better person if you are always focused on how others perceive you? What someone else thinks? Why should I even care what they think? But that is a topic for another day. Ha.]

Are you still with me?

I got the rare and wonderful opportunity to go to a free teacher workshop a couple of weeks ago (the operative words being “free” and “Bach”). Our Fearless Leader was an internationally-known, locally based, soloist, recording artist and teacher. Because of semi-bad weather, I ended up being the only teacher who showed, which made for an interesting group lesson workshop . Luckily, several students magically appeared, creating a nice little talent pool for working on the “Bach Double” violin concerto (Concerto in D Minor, for two violins, strings and continuo, BWV 1043), and thus saving me from the very real mortification of having a private lesson in front of an audience (no warm-up + unprepared = boneheaded). Never one to waste a learning opportunity, despite my lack of preparedness, one of the most important points I took away was this:

Never, ever, give your fingers an opportunity to make a mistake. Never. Ever.

Light bulb ON. Dingdingding! Cue the harps! A Revelation from the Violin Deities!

I have never heard a teacher, Suzuki or traditional, say this, at least not in such a concise way. And I’ve heard, played for and observed a lot of teachers. I have a lot of time and effort invested in this adventure I call a career, a calling, a life path.

However, that nagging voice in the back of my head says that I’ve heard it before.

The concept, phrased more politely and positively, albeit a little more broadly, is a core tenet of Suzuki philosophy: “Create a nurturing environment”. The fact that I failed to understand immediately the significance of this piece of information showed me, plain as day, that my expectations, both personally and as a teacher, are too low. How can it possibly be nurturing to allow my students to struggle? To end up hating the violin (or me) because I thought it was important for them to see their folly in not doing it the way I suggested? Or to use their struggling as a character building exercise? To allow a student to experience frustration to the point that they quit because I pushed them too hard? “You made your bed, now lie in it” is not Suzuki. It isn’t nurturing. Not even if I point wave jump up and down talk until I’m blue in the face get moderately offended quietly wait until they are ready to ask for my help.

The sheer amount of work that I could have saved myself and my students by practicing that one simple rule idea is astounding. And embarrassing. How could I have been so ignorant? And dense. Yes, I just called myself stupid. With good reason. Sometimes, I need a baseball bat to understand because my skull is so thick. And yes, I know that berating myself is not very “Suzuki” either. However, I don’t have time to waste on soothing my ego, or on stuff like “Oh, sweetie, it’s OK. You’ll get it next time.” I learned something. It’s time to implement it. Now. I am much harder on myself than I am on my students. That’s about to change, because it’s not doing any of us any favors. Creating that nurturing environment means not permitting mistakes to get a foot in the door in the first place. Leo, the Zen Habits guy, says, “Your environment doesn’t control your life — you do.”

You should know that I don’t like rules. I’m a bit of a rebel when it comes to authority, stubborn, headstrong and independent. It’s not going to change anytime soon. Sorry, but it’s an intricate part of who I am, and I thrive on it. I want my students to question me, to come up with their own ideas. I don’t want them to do things because I said to, or because they’ll leave me for another teacher if they get bored. I want them to do things because it’s either the right thing to do, or because it is the easiest way for them to learn.  “Never, ever” sounds too much like a rule. “You are responsible for your success” sounds more like a personal challenge than a rule. Either way, how unfortunate that such a simple concept, so “Suzuki” in its essence, is lost in the work of being accepted. It puts nearly all the responsibility for the student’s success or acceptance squarely on the teacher, because it is the teacher’s job to teach the student how to practice. What the student chooses to do with this information is an entirely different topic, but this one idea — eliminate the chance to make a mistake — takes the wind out of any possible excuse for failure or sub-par performance.