Monday Motivation: Keeping a Habit

Happy Monday, practice pals! It’s our final Monday Motivation! Today’s is short and sweet, inspired by Atomic Habits by James Clear

As I write this on the final Monday of our practice challenge, our students are on the precipice of a huge achievement – practicing daily for a full month. That’s no small feat! The dedication and hard work it takes to complete a full month of anything is worth validating. I’m sure there have been days where you weren’t feeling it, but you did it anyway. Congratulations – you’re almost there!

Now it’s time for the obligatory “don’t lose all the momentum you just built up” talk. How can we keep this progress going? I can’t exactly dangle the metaphorical carrot of a pizza party every single month (though that’d be fun).

Here’s a tip from Atomic Habits: Don’t let the “I don’t notice a difference” mindset take over.

Early on in the book, Clear notes that “outcomes are lagging measures of habits.” In an instant gratification society, so many of us give up on something because we don’t feel/see/hear results as quickly as we want to. We tend to underestimate the effect that small changes can have. But anyone who is highly skilled didn’t acquire all that skill in one sitting – they made tiny improvements day after day after day. It’s the 1% rule:

“If you can get 1% better each day for one year, you’ll end up 37 times by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1% worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero. What starts as a small win or a minor setback accumulates into something much more.”

What can you do to help your child continue their 1% daily gains? Here are a few of our tried and true tips:

  • Have a consistent routine. I enjoyed hearing about newfound practice routines from many of you over the course of the challenge. Part of building a habit is deciding when, where, and how something is going to happen. If you put practice time on your family calendar – good – keep it there!
  • Reinforce progress made. We can’t see the forest for the trees sometimes. As practicers, we are so entrenched in the work of making progress that sometimes we lose sight of how far we’ve already come. Remind your child of that! Something as simple as “wow, do you remember when that felt hard?” is huge.
  • Find motivators. Having a determined end goal for something – perhaps, a recital and a pizza party – can help the hamster wheel of practice and improvement feel a little bit more tangible. We can work together to create these goals, but, in case you didn’t know, there’s only 63 days between our February recital and our May recital. Might as well keep the momentum going!

You can hear a summary of Clear’s book straight from him by clicking here.

And, if you’re interested, here’s a reading list of the books referenced over the course of this month:

  • Mindset by Carol Dweck
  • The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
  • Grit by Angela Duckworth
  • Atomic Habits by James Clear

Happy practicing!


Monday Motivation: Ignition

Happy Monday, practice pals!

Our Monday Motivation for this week is about ignition.

Ignition is a concept discussed heavily in Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code. He referred to it as the “2nd Element of The Talent Code,” meaning that after deep practice, an ignition event is a huge indicator of long term success.

So what is it?

Ignition is an often serendipitous event that sparks a desire to learn something new.

For Dr. Suzuki himself, his moment of ignition to learn the violin happened when he heard famed violinist Mischa Elman perform Ave Maria. He said:

“The sweetness of the sound of Elman’s violin utterly enthralled me. His velvety tone as he played the melody was like something in a dream. It made a tremendous impression on me….I brought a violin home … I tried to imitate him. I had no score, and simply moved the bow, trying to play what I heard.”

For me personally, my ignition moment happened when my elementary violin teacher helped me play Twinkle at an instrument try out event for orchestra recruitment. I still remember it – I very clearly thought “this is the coolest thing I will ever do.” The rest is history.

You’ve probably experienced your own ignition moment. That sudden wave of “whatever this is, I wanna do it.”

Ignition is special. It feels like magic. Coyle himself recognizes that ignition is what inspires the action required to develop a skill, but that ignition cannot be forced.

You can nudge it, though. 

You can’t have ignition without exposure. So, create opportunities to expose your child to things. It obviously doesn’t have to be just violin – but that is my lane – so here are some suggestions:

  • Catch a live performance. The CSO offers concerts for kids regularly and there are free concerts at Millennium Park in the summer. 
  • Come to group class. Seeing how other kids play is what Coyle calls a “primal cue.” If a student overhears a peer playing something really well, they are often inspired to work a little harder the next time they practice.
  • Explore YouTube together. There’s access to tons of world class violin performance, both classical and contemporary. Here’s a playlist to explore
  • Don’t force it. Don’t hover. Let them be free to enjoy the experience and see what follows.

Happy Practicing!


Monday Motivation: Deep Practice

Happy Monday, practice pals! 

Today’s Monday Motivation is about the concept of “deep practice.”

In the neuroscience world, this concept has earned a few different names, including deep practice and deliberate practice. While the titleage varies, these terms all represent the same concept. Deep or deliberate practice is the kind of practice that helps us grow skill by setting goals, practicing through repetition, analyzing performance, and making adjustments. In application, this cycle of goal, attempt, analysis, and adjustment is constant.

This can be a difficult concept for young musicians. From my own experience, I was never taught the “right” way to practice. For a solid eight years of life as a student violinist, I assumed that just playing through my music assignments was practicing. It wasn’t until I reached high school and began preparing for concerto competitions and collegiate auditions that I learned that this kind of superficial practice wasn’t helping me make progress. It was just helping me plateau.

To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with “superficial” practice now and then. Playing just to play has its merits. Quick run-throughs of pieces can offer you a baseline on the status of your ability. But, without consistent, mindful, deliberate practice, our ability will essentially stay the same.  This was uncovered by psychologist Anders Ericsson in his research of several highly accomplished performers. He found that performers who practiced deliberately continued to grow and develop ability, while performers who didn’t only maintained their ability.

So, in the interest of making continued progress, the notion of deep practice speaks for itself. But here’s another reason why deep practice is essential: it legitimately alters your brain.

Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, has compiled decades of research and observations of what he calls “talent hotbeds” – organizations that have produced an impressive number of highly capable performers, athletes, and even chess masters. 

Coyle spends much of his book discussing the concept of myelination.

Yes, let’s briefly put on our science hats.

Myelin, if you are unaware, is the sheath of proteins and fats enveloping the neurons in our brains. Myelin is what allows our neurons to communicate with each other – the stronger the myelin, the faster the communication between neurons.

How myelin grows around our neurons

Coyle has learned that deep, deliberate, regular practice has the stunning ability to grow more myelin around the neurons of a particular circuit. For example, if we practice violin deeply and deliberately, the neurons in the violin circuit of our brain will literally grow more myelin, work faster. This helps us develop technique that feels easy and effortless. The key to growing myelin is deep and deliberate practice wherein skills are repeated until mastery is achieved.

So, see how deeply you can practice this week. Here’s a playbook for you:

  • Run through a song you’re working on to get a baseline. Try to identify any places for improvement. Ex: play through Pepperoni Pizza and notice what still needs improving.
  • Set a goal based on areas of improvement. Try to take small bites. If you notice that the pizza’s need to sound more staccato, play three pepperoni pizzas in a row with good staccato is a better, more manageable goal than play the entire twinkle with good staccato. Smaller goals are always better.
  • Work on it. This is where the need for repetition comes in – my rule of thumb for students is that if you can do it five times in a row correctly, you’re doing it right.
  • Play it again to assess if progress was made.
  • If progress was made, either dig deeper into the same goal, or set a new one.
  • Rinse, repeat!

Happy practicing!


Monday Motivation: Mindset

Happy Monday! 

Today is day 2 of our studio’s annual practice challenge. Each Monday of the challenge, we’ll be posting a little bit of Monday Motivation covering some of the neuroscience of practice, skill building, and talent development.

This week’s motivation covers the concept of mindset and motivation.

Dr. Carol Dweck has spent her career researching mindset and motivation. 
The summary of her findings over her career have separated mindset into two categories: growth mindset or fixed mindset.

People with a fixed mindset believe that all of their abilities are unchangeable and they are unable to improve. Because they believe effort does not make a difference, they often don’t try. These people tend to give up on tasks quickly, especially when they perceive the task to be too much of a challenge.

People with a growth mindset, however, believe in the power of “yet.” They believe in their ability to improve and eventually reach their goals, even if that goal feels out of reach to them in the present. People with a growth mindset are resilient and persevere to reach their goals, no matter what.

Dr. Dweck has found over the course of her research that when a growth mindset is carefully modeled and reinforced for young children, they make HUGE strides in what they can achieve.

In one study, Dr. Dweck discovered the role that specific feedback plays in fostering a growth mindset.

In the study, young children were given a low difficulty quiz. When they were graded, the feedback they were given was brief, but carried different messages. One group of children was told “you must be so smart.” The other group of children was told “you must have worked hard.”

The students were then given another quiz, this time much harder than the previous. This time, the children that were praised for being “smart” achieved less than the children who were praised for working hard. Dr. Dweck was so surprised by the result that she replicated the study several times. The result was the same each time: children who were praised for effort outpaced children who were praised for intellect.

The message is clear: ability is cultivated, not innate, and we can teach children to achieve by fostering the mindset that they can accomplish anything if they work hard.

My challenge to you this week during your practice time is to choose the feedback you offer your child carefully. Spend this week praising their effort rather than their ability and notice what changes it inspires in their motivation.

Watch Dr. Dweck’s talk on growth mindset below.

Happy practicing!


Suzuki Books Are Not Suzuki Method

I have some mixed feelings about transfer students.

I love new students of any variety, and transfer students are certainly no exception. Transfer students currently make up a good chunk of my student base. Without my transfer kids, I wouldn’t really be making a living at all.


I’m growing increasingly weary of the state in which my transfer students come to me.

My intro lessons are largely the same with these types of students – show me your bow hold, play the last song you worked on for me, can you play an A/D/G scale, etc. Nearly every time I have an intro lesson with a transfer student, I sit with a poker face that thinly veils my internal horror with the state of the student’s technique. Collapsed left hands, bow grips akin to an arcade claw game, instrument teetering perilously on the chest, and a tone closer to nails on a chalkboard than a violin. Without failure, I am astonished at what the former teacher “taught” the student currently standing in front of me, because to me it appears that the child has scarcely learned a thing except remedial lesson in muscle tension. I grow more troubled as I learn that the former teacher taught “Suzuki method” to the child – because to people who do teach Suzuki method it’s painfully clear that this is not the end result that Dr. Suzuki spent his life trying to produce.

This predicament certainly isn’t the child’s fault, nor the parent’s. I cannot fault the parties who often don’t have the expertise or experience with the instrument to know what a good private teacher can accomplish. The issue is with teachers who claim to teach the Suzuki method without putting the principles in practice, and with teachers who do not have appropriately high expectations for their students.

To my first point, teaching from the Suzuki method books is not teaching the Suzuki method. That’s just using the repertoire that Dr. Suzuki selected. Let’s be clear: there’s not anything wrong with this. A traditional teacher can do great non-Suzuki based work with the Suzuki repertoire, and for a violin teacher who needs a starting point, grabbing the Suzuki books is the path of least resistance because Dr. Suzuki already put the thought in for us. But simply using the book is not teaching the Suzuki method. There are philosophies of the Suzuki method that matter infinitely more than the repertoire – do one thing at a time, learn with your ears before your eyes, prioritize beautiful tone, establish a strong relationship between teacher, student, and parent, reinforce through review. When a student arrives for a lesson and throws the method book onto the stand to struggle through reading a Suzuki piece with terrible tone and horrendous posture, I know that the former teacher didn’t truly teach the Suzuki method, they just used the repertoire.

To my second point, I often ponder the priorities of my students’ former teachers. Maybe this is my education degree talking, but I have always felt that my expectations of my students are a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you expect that your students will play with correct posture and beautiful tone, and prioritize your teaching strategies to that end, you students will develop correct posture and beautiful tone. If you expect that your students will be able to read music effectively, you will prioritize your teaching strategies to that end and your students will meet your expectations. If you have no expectations for your students, or you don’t know how to prioritize foundational skills of successful violin performance, or you’re just taking students to help you pay rent, you have no idea what they should be able to do in six months, one year, five years time. What are students going to get out of lessons with you if you don’t establish your expectations of them and reinforce and build upon those expectations each week? What service are you really doing for these children and their families? I’ve always felt teaching with little to no articulated expectations is futile, and futility is essentially the antithesis of education.

Parents (and adult students!) – do yourselves and your child a favor and talk with prospective teachers about their vision for a new student and what they expect to see out of a student on a weekly basis. If they don’t have an answer, keep looking. If they can articulate their expectations for students without skipping a beat, and they see a clear vision for your child and are willing to put a plan into action, you’ve found a teacher worth working with.

Just some food for thought on this subzero Monday night in Chicago.


Music Education Is Not Just For Children: A Letter to Adult Learners

I’ll admit it: I have a huge Peter Pan complex. I don’t want to grow up. I never have. The phrase “adulting is hard” has left my mouth at least once a day since I graduated college. Pixie dust and Neverland sounds like a much better alternative to death and taxes, but hey, I don’t have much choice in the matter.

I’m certain I’m not living alone with this complex. I doubt anyone wants to be an adult, simply because it tends to be tedious and frustrating much of the time. There’s traffic, there’s laundry, there’s work, there’s bills, and I have to eat right, get eight hours of sleep, maintain friendships, and oh my god I have to make some attempt to exercise, too?! HOW DO PEOPLE LIVE LIKE THIS?!

We’d all rather be children watching cartoons and taking naps when we feel like it, but as we age our list of responsibilities snowballs to the teetering edge of insanity and we feel steamrolled by the never-ending wheel of daily tasks, so entrenched in the doldrums that few of us make time in our lives for things that bring us joy, fulfill us, challenge us.

The good news is that there are ways to escape from the tedium that adult life can be. Catching happy hour with a friend is a simple, easy way to decompress from adult life. Other options are more intimidating and time consuming, like learning an instrument.

It’s easy to think that music education is a child’s pursuit. It isn’t exactly heavily advertised as anything other than a child’s pursuit. I think the violin in particular gets a reputation for being an endeavor to be started as a early as possible to yield maximum success. If you see enough videos of prodigious four year olds playing virtuosic concerti with ease, you’ll start to believe that you aren’t equally as capable because your brain has lost its plasticity and you weren’t raised in a musical environment and you think you’re tone deaf and when would you really even have time to practice, and so on and so forth until the naysaying voices in your head tell you it’s impossible and you shouldn’t try. I think that’s a huge disservice. Music is for everyone, and music education should be, too, but that’s not often the message that’s sent to adults who “wish they took the time to learn an instrument as a kid.”

However,  I am the proud teacher of a decent number of adult students, ranging in age from their mid twenties to their early 50’s. Interestingly enough, each of these students seemed to be uncomfortably aware of this unfounded stigma. They showed up to their first lesson looking sheepish, acknowledging the perceived strangeness of teaching the violin to an adult almost immediately: “I always wanted to learn as a kid, but I never had a chance. Now I’m trying something new. No one knows I’m doing it, I’m too embarrassed to tell anyone.”

I want to take a moment to sing my praises for each of these adult learners. They’re doing life 100% right, but they don’t feel that way because they are immersed in the discomfort of a new and vaguely intimidating endeavor (most likely thanks to many viewings of said prodigious toddlers).

I am certainly not the first person to say this, but the best way to build a life that you will look back upon with satisfaction is to spend as much time as you can pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, willingly putting yourself in situations that challenge you. I understand it’s a struggle – we’re all creatures of habit, and introducing a new habit takes a whole lot of work. But I find that people rarely regret trying something new, regardless of how difficult they perceive the endeavor to be. Leaving the comfort zone and propelling yourself into something creative is especially valuable, because everyone needs an outlet and everyone deserves to work with something beautiful everyday.

The violin is a beast. It’s among the most difficult instruments to play. But, you know what else is hard? Running a marathon.

Has anyone felt embarrassed about successfully running a marathon? NO.

So why be embarrassed about choosing to play one of the most difficult instruments to master?

That’s bad ass, and I respect the hell out all of y’all.


“My Child Won’t Practice”

“It’s always a fight.”

“She just starts crying when I tell her to practice.”

I’ve heard this from parents more times than I can count, particularly parents of younger children. Practice becomes a battle, rather than a positive interaction between student, parent, and instrument.

This is always discouraging for me as the teacher because I know all too well that a power struggle over music practice is one of the least effective ways to motivate a child to play. The longer to power struggle goes on, the higher the likelihood that the child grows to detest the musical endeavor itself, and the higher the likelihood that the parent tires of the tantrums and concedes to just quitting. What could have been a fulfilling activity for the child is now a failed attempt at a hobby. It’s disappointing for everyone involved.

Continued issues with practicing can become a vicious cycle. Force the child to practice and practicing becomes a chore. When practicing becomes a chore, the child is less motivated to practice because no human is intrinsically motivated to complete what they perceive as a menial, daily task (I can’t remember the last time I felt genuinely motivated to do my laundry, and I’m grown). Then, with less practice, the child grows less and less prepared for their weekly lessons. They come, I observe the child has made little to no progress in the past week, and we have to repeat what happened in the previous lesson rather than building upon it. The child leaves, feeling defeated and ashamed that they were unprepared. The longer this goes on, the more the child grows to view their instrument as the catalyst for their embarrassment, and then the cycle repeats until they ultimately quit.

Fortunately, there are tools to break this cycle.

Part of it is my job: when I observe a student is making little progress due to a lack of practice,  I need to give them the “why.” I’ve found over the years that the more a child understands why we practice, the less they fight against doing it. Then, after a week of good practice, I draw attention to how much better they sound already to connect the dots between effort and progress.

Breaking the cycle is partially the parent’s job, too. I can say “practice, practice, practice” until the day I die, but reinforcement at home makes a significant difference in the development and retention of practice habits. Here are some strategies I have tried with parents to reinforce practice at home:

  • Keep a practice calendar, set a goal for minutes per day, or number of days per week, and then hold the child accountable for writing their minutes.
  • Turn practicing into a currency. You want to play Fortnite for 30 minutes? Practice your instrument or 15 minutes first. You want a sleepover this weekend? Practice Monday through Friday and you can. By offering the child a tangible, desired reward for their practice, you are offering them an extrinsic motivation that’s not simply “Mom/Dad will stop yelling at me if I just do it.” I find positive reinforcement always wins over “I just want them to stop nagging me.”
  • Build practicing into their daily habits. Kids these days seem to have jam-packed after-school schedules, from sports to clubs to playdates to tutors. Depending on your child’s schedule, find a way to tag 10-15 minutes of practice onto an already existing daily task. Have your child practice right after dinner, right before their shower at night, right after they get home from soccer. Find a way to piggyback practice onto a task they already do, and you’ll spend less time haranguing about the matter.
  • Just leave the instrument out, albeit in a safe place. It seems silly, but it works. This even works on me when I fall into a practice rut, and I’ve been at this for twenty years. Remove the hurdle of physically dragging the instrument out, leave it easily accessible, and you’ll be amazed at how quickly the subliminal practice suggestion works.
  • Find a practice buddy. If your child is in school orchestra, ask if they have a friend in class that they’d like to practice with. Find some simple music they can practice together, and arrange for a practice play date. Some of my best memories growing up are playing my violin with my orchestra friends. Make it social, and everything is more fun.

Practice doesn’t have to be a chore! The sooner we can collectively help our young musicians understand that practice is the key to their success, the happier we’ll all be in the long run.


Practicing Smarter

I came across this article today and I figured it would be worth sharing for students and parents alike:

A group of researchers at The University of Texas at Austin did a study on practice habits of top piano majors at the college to determine what habits led to the best results. They were each given the same three measures of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and told the practice for as long as they wanted to. They then came back the next day, after being explicitly told not to practice their excerpt overnight, and were told to play their excerpt 15 times without stopping. They were then ranked based on accuracy as well as musicality (expression, tone, character, etc).

What were the takeaways?

It seemed that practicing longer and increasing the repetitions of the passage had no bearing on the quality of their performance. What did make a difference was:

  1. Thoughtfully identifying and correcting the problem
  2. Varying tempo by starting slowly and then working up to performance tempo
  3. Practicing the passage until an error-free performance can be duplicated multiple times

This is important for young musicians to understand – you can practice 8 hours a day, but if you are not consciously identifying what you’re doing wrong and working to correct errors, it won’t make any difference. Start slowly, work out the problems, then practice, practice, practice it until you can play it without making mistakes. Practicing smarter wins over practicing longer.

Read the full study here.

Happy, thoughtful practicing!