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!

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.