I started this article a while back. I let it turn into a list of ideas that have come to me over the course of several weeks. Undoubtedly there are many more lessons than those listed. Feel free to comment.
photo by Phil Rhoeder
1. Haste really does make waste. Getting in a hurry when practicing only results in frustration. I've said it many times to my students; you have to feel like there is a million years to learn something even if in reality you only have five minutes. I guess absence of time restraints equals the absence of fear, which brings me to another point.
photo by dat'
2. Fear of mistakes cause you to make more mistakes. Of course, there's a time and place to be afraid. Someone breaking down your front door or a drunk driver swerving into your lane should illicit fear and be countered with appropriate action. The problem with fear is that it's all consuming. In an emergency fear gives you the focus to get out of there. In music performance and most other life situations, fear distracts you from the many tasks at hand. I don't know much about what people call the law of attraction, but I can say that focusing on fear draws you toward the thing you are afraid of and not toward the things you really want.
photo by mashleymorgan
3. If you decide to drive up the mountain, you've got to down shift. So often students get excited about a song that is not within easy reach of their playing ability. When they ask if they can learn it, I always say yes with a caveat. You can learn any piece of music if you're willing to go slow enough, break it apart, and not be discouraged by the small number of beats or measures you learn in a week. Obviously very few people are okay with learning 6 measures of a Beethoven sonata in one year. It would still be worth the effort, but you'd have to okay with running in 1st gear the whole way.
photo by quinn.anya
4. People don't like to see their mistakes. As much as it's important not to be fearful of mistakes, it's critical that you acknowledge your mistakes. A former teacher of mine is fond of saying, "you can't change what doesn't exist." Although there are multiple applications for this statement, an important one is that you can't fix a problem if you don't recognize you have one. Frequently students will practice doing the things they are already good at instead of working on the problem spots. Needless to say, improvement is slow at best. You must focus on the problem if you want to correct it.
photo by ruben alexander
5. People enjoy things they are good at. There is a chicken or the egg dilemma in music. Do you like music because you're good at it, or are you good at it because you like it? I say that if you're good at music, it's because you spent a great deal of time and focused effort practicing. Sure there are phenoms, and some people have more natural talent than others. But the number one ingredient to success is doing the work. Often students will be excited about learning an instrument, and when the new factor wears off they quit because it's not fun anymore. Usually they didn't do enough work to develop any functional proficiency on their instrument. It would be like a kid getting behind a steering wheel with no keys and saying that driving a car isn't fun. If you want to have fun at something, develop a level of mastery.
photo by Jon Tunnell
6. No Pain, No Gain...okay this isn't entirely true, and it's not always this simple. Few worthwhile achievements are easy, but there are plenty of meaningless achievements that are difficult. Just because something's hard, doesn't mean it's the right way to go. With that being said, I don't know of a good substitute for suffering. In the right situation, it's the only solution. When I practice, I aim to suffer as little as possible. I want to be efficient and make the best use of every physical motion. But sometimes there is little left to do besides sit patiently and work through a problem over and over again, shifting it around, slowing it down, and looking at it from as many different angles until I get it right.
photo by Aaron Smith
7. Einstein's definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting different result. Sometimes practice can feel this way. Notice in the last paragraph I mentioned changing my tactics and trying to solve the problem in different ways. Problem solving isn't about forcing your way through a brick wall; it's about finding a way around the wall. So, yes there is suffering involved in learning, but not needless suffering. Don't bang your head against the wall. You'll only hurt yourself, and the problem will still be unsolved. Work smarter, not harder.
photo by Paretz Partensky
8. Although every learning experience requires effort, and there's no substitute for a little suffering, there is such a thing as trying too hard. I tell my students about the funnel metaphor. There is only so much water that can travel through a funnel in a given minute. What happens if you pour the liquid too quickly? It overflows and makes a big mess. When someone is learning something new, they often go at it 110%, which is admirable. The good news is that you don't need to turn every minute into some herculean effort. The bad news is that if you do, it will most likely blow up in your face. And afterwards you have less energy remaining to continue working. Also, you may create new problems from the hasty but well intended overshoot. If you throttle back some of the intensity, not only will the answers sometimes come quicker, you don't wear yourself out and you can continue working for a longer period of time.
photo by pali_nalu
9. Learning is not a linear system, it's exponential. What this simply means is that we don't learn like this:
1+1 = 2
We learn like this:
In the early stages, 1+1 and 1x2 yield the same result, 2. But as time goes on, the exponential model outgrows the linear model. When students get discouraged it's often because they can't imagine ever getting good enough on their instrument to be able to play the way they want to. This is most likely due to the fallacy of linear learning. It's similar to compound interest. If we all grasped the power of compound interest(and had faith in financial systems I might add), we would all be investing heavily. Instead, people get discouraged by what looks like linear growth in the early years. The best way I've found to make it hit home with people is to remind them that it took until kindergarten for many students to learn their ABCs. In five more years, the student was writing paragraphs and learning spelling words. At age 15, you might be reading Ray Bradbury or Stephen King and writing term papers. At 20, some courageous souls might become novelists. Every moment spent practicing is an investment that compounds on itself.
photo by Jeff Golden
10. It's important to understand the Law of Diminishing Returns. Just like you can try too hard in a given moment, you can also try too long. Focus seems to be a learned ability. But there are always limits, and the solution for getting your focus is always rest. So, if you are practicing diligently, there will be a point when the effort you put forward starts to get you less bang for your buck. When this starts to happen, stop. Get up and stretch. Get a glass of water. Do something else for a couple minutes. Then you can get back in there. I used to practice regularly for 8 hours a day during certain times in my life. I've even done 12 and 13 hours before. By far, the first 3-4 hours are the most productive. Even with the knowledge of diminishing returns, the prolonged practice sessions are not the most efficient experiences. I teach young students about this by using the soft drink analogy. Your brain is like a glass into which you are pouring a coke. If you pour long enough and fast enough, there will be a fizz that threatens to overflow the glass. The solution is to wait until the fizz goes down. Then there's room to pour again.
These lessons are obvious to me when I'm working in music. I wish I could remember them the rest of the time. If I get some more of these collected, I'll add a second post. What are some life lessons you've learned in music?