Shortcuts

I believe in shortcuts.

I don't mean shortcuts that undermine what you're trying to do, like risking your life by rushing through a red light, or compromising your health by taking diet pills to lose weight, or never changing your strings so that your guitar sounds like broken windshield wipers. 

I like shortcuts that result from drilling down to the core essence of what you're trying to accomplish, allowing you to get maximum results from minimum effort and time.

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How to get great results with anybody (including yourself)

I'll never forget the first Collegiate Chorale rehearsal I attended. Rob (or Berg, as he is affectionately known to his high school students) conducted the entire rehearsal in silence. He used gesticulations, exaggerated facial expressions, the piano, and the chalkboard to get his point across.

Since Rob, with his expressive features and tireless enthusiasm, gives the impression of a cartoon character come to life this was amusing, unsettling, and highly effective. And clearly memorable, since it's been well over a decade since that day and I can recall it in such detail.

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How to be successful: self-talk lessons from a two-year-old

I am fortunate to be involved in the lives of many small people. Though I've never had a baby, I have friends, clients, and family members at every stage of the child-rearing game and am intimately familiar with its details.

In particular, I am lucky to know many excellent mamas who treat their very young children with respect and dignity, allowing them to make age-appropriate decisions as often as possible.

A mama of a little girl who has recently turned two shared a story that we can all learn from as we strive to accomplish great things in life. Great things such as weaning and potty-training.

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Start at the end

Here we go! Another one of Casey's ridiculously counter-intuitive posts. Start at the end. It doesn't get more contrarian than that, does it?

This is the way I was taught to practice, and I continue to do it because it works. Time and time again I share this practice technique with my students, and I can always tell when they follow my directions because their playing sounds smoother and more confident. Learn how and why starting at the end works so well. Don't worry, we won't be going backwards.

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Turns out that thing only you can do is also the hardest thing you can do

"Find something you love and let it kill you." - Derek Sivers

Thoughts of inadequacy and self-doubt had better not get near my most important work. (Library of Congress photo)I've been hooked on House since 2007 when I crawled into bed exhausted in the middle of the afternoon after Eclectic Music's first-ever November recital. I decided to reward myself (for pulling off the recital, not for crawling into bed) with a TV episode downloaded from iTunes. I remembered seeing promos for the premiere of House during the legendary 2004 ALCS and it looked interesting, so I thought I'd give it a try. Seven seasons later, I am still along for every DDx and going-into-a-commercial panicked use of the crash cart.

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Selling students on classical music

Grieg's hairdo is a little passe but that 'stache could work today.Yesterday I read Chris Foley's post on "The Real Problem with Classical Music" in which he describes a student's reluctance to learn music by composers with "weird" names. In the comments, Chris says, "My issue in the article is how to get younger listeners to relate. They're having trouble identifying with the music and the composers. What can we do to help them?"

Before I share my thoughts on that excellent question, I want to address the idea of weird names. There is no such thing as a "normal" name, and I hope that Chris' use of that word was, as he suggested later, satire. Anglo names are not any more "normal" than Ugandan, Persian, Bosnian, Japanese, Indian, or Afghani names. Some names may be less familiar to you based on your background, but it would be decidedly ethnocentric to suggest that one name is more normal or less weird than another.

Okay, now that I have that out of the way: How can we help kids identify with classical music and classical composers?

Educate students on the current classical music scene. That's what Chris did by posting a Jennifer Higdon video. Giving students concrete proof that the word "composer" does not mean "dead European dude" is a great way to bridge the relevance gap.

You could also get into relatable performers who are breathing new life into the old stuff. There are hot shots like The 5 Browns, role models like the "From the Top" kids, and perhaps even some young and vibrant musicians in your local scene who can help you make the point that art music is still alive and relevant.

Exposing your students to the world of modern classical music is as easy as messaging YouTube links back and forth. YouTube can also be a great resource for study - you'll find different versions of a piece, filmed in concert halls and living rooms around the world for your perusal, appreciation, and analysis.

Find out what your students do like, and make the connection. Lots of kids actually have no idea what they like ("I just listen to whatever's on the radio") but sometimes you get lucky and they'll mention a favorite song that you can do a quick harmonic analysis on, which you can then link to something that the student is working on. It could be something as simple as "This piece in the key of Ab and so is 'Pumped Up Kicks' - notice how the Fm chord appears in both," or it might be a little more involved, such as comparing a "rock opera" like The Who's Tommy or Green Day's American Idiot to a song cycle of Schumann or a Verdi opera. If you expect your students to be open-minded when it comes to classical music, it behooves you to approach pop music with the same attitude.

Educate yourself on the current popular music scene. To take a step further, dig a little deeper into popular music. I don't necessarily mean the Top 40 charts - there's no way to know what will stand the test of time. However, if you dig a little deeper you will find career-oriented musicians who have something to say, who are making actual art. Paste Magazine is a great resource if you're starting from scratch, as well as the college radio charts and actual college students. Radiohead, Wilco, The Flaming Lips, Aimee Mann, and Ron Sexsmith are just a few of the artists who are considered to be "pop music" while enjoying critical success and multi-decade, influential careers. Keep moving toward the cutting edge and you'll find that the best young bands around continue the centuries-old process of learning from the masters of the past as they blaze new trails.

Nice mutton chops, Franz!Turn those dead European dudes back into real people. My favorite thing about playing eighteenth- and ninteenth-century music is how it brings to life people I could never have connected with otherwise - they died before I was born, spoke another language, and and aren't even on Twitter. But for a student who is intimidated by the appearance, name, or old-fashioned-ness of a composer, you'll have to do a little more work to humanize him. "Hey, 'Johann' is just a German version of John or Juan. And did you know that Johann got in trouble when he was a young church organist because he kept changing the music around and adding notes here and there? And for hanging out with a girl in the organ loft?" Sounds like a typical teenager to me.

Allow for personal taste. I'm in heaven playing Grieg, Bach, Scarlatti, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Scott Joplin. Telemann, Haydn, and Handel leave me cold. Like Chris Foley's young student, I'd have trouble picking out a sonatina because there are so many crappy, phoning-it-in sonatinas and a handful of delicious ones. Life is too short to play Czerny, that's my motto. Perform music for them from a variety of eras and let your students find composers they love.

In summary: Show your students that the classical music of the past is still relevant, and the current art music scene is happening. And if it's not happening in your neck of the woods, maybe you and your students can do something about it.

Lessons learned from Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, 1955 - 2011.Moments ago, I found out that Steve Jobs has passed away at the age of fifty-six. I was moved by this news far more than one might expect, considering I never met the man.

I'm typing this on my Apple MacBook pro, listening to a song on iTunes via Apple TV, sitting next to my Apple iPhone. Obviously, the work of Steve Jobs has had a huge impact on my life.

But beyond the fancy gadgets created by Mr. Jobs and his team, I've been greatly influenced by the legendary leader of Apple as a human being. His vision, entrepreneurship, passion, determination, and his flair for innovation - these are all traits I have cultivated in my own life and career by following his example.

I learned from Steve Jobs the power of focus. From his iconic dad jeans and black mock turtleneck to the sleek black beauty of the iPhone that never leaves my side, Jobs' minimalism allowed him to zero in on the things that were most important to him, in his work and in his life.

Steve taught me that less is more. Apple has an aesthetic that brings to mind the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: "Perfection is achieved, not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away." My phone doesn't have a blinking light to let me know when I missed a call. There's no logo on the front. It just sits there until I need to use it. Sometimes the killer app is no app at all.

It is easy to lampoon these high-end products as overpriced toys for elitist yuppies, and their marketing as ridiculously self-important, almost messianic. But...moments ago, in the dark, I pressed a little button on my keyboard that turns on a tiny light under each one of the keys. No instruction manual was necessary. These intuitive, human touches give Apple gear a remarkable elegance. It's a unity of form and function you find in well-made musical instruments. Design matters.

Music matters, too. From the time I was about ten, I loved how a Sony Walkman and a great cassette tape could make a moment go from banal to cinematic the moment I slipped on my headphones. I'll never forget an evening when I was about fifteen, riding the school bus back from some event or other in the darkness of rural Maine and seething over some perceived injustice regarding an unrequited crush and a disloyal friend in a seat nearby. But I had "She's a Rainbow" and "Remember" and the chance to create my own narrative about this moment and my sure-to-be-amazing future.

Then there were the good times in the kitchen at Bosch Baha'i School where Dave, Sarah, Jessica, Jesca and I would take turns pulling from our gigantic faux-leather binders of compact discs to share music with each other as we prepared meals for the guests and cleaned up after dinner. The Color and the Shape by the Foo Fighters will always remind me of those California nights.

All those CDs skip now, and my old mix tapes are worn thin. It hardly matters - largely because of Steve Jobs. Finding the right song for the right moment is as easy as a couple clicks or swishes (my husband makes a game of how few characters he can type into iTunes and find his song). Jobs changed the course of his company and an entire industry with the iPod, banking on the personal connection that people have with their music. I'm not a teenager anymore, but I can still feel like one anytime I want to. And since my entire career revolves around music, it's highly validating to see just how important it still is to people, as measured by the success of iTunes and the iPod.

As a CEO, Jobs was not only a visionary and a lovable geek but also a perfectionistic egomaniac and an FTC-baiting bully. But when I'm unsure of the next step to take with my own business, I look to leaders like Steve Jobs to remind me that dedication to something you believe in is more important than being liked or being comfortable. Pursuing a challenge means risking loss and disapproval, but sometimes it's gotta be done - especially when the alternative means a compromise that pleases no one.

Steve Jobs followed his passion and trusted his gut, and wasn't afraid to be different. A college dropout with a strong drive to learn, he was dedicated to growth and authenticity. I have the greatest respect for a person who can stay true to himself even in the public eye, as the leader of a public company. Speaking to Stanford University's class of 2005, he famously said:

For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something...almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.

...Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Thanks, Steve. You have been a great teacher and a profound inspiration to me. My heart goes out to your family. Peace.

The right and wrong way show a child respect, as demonstrated by the New York Times

Of course, one way we show children respect is by dressing them in ridiculous and adorable costumes to amuse ourselves at their expense. (The Field Museum Library)If you'd like a child to learn something from you, you better stop being so amazed that they can learn anything at all.

From time to time, I hear a new teacher say something like, "Wow, that kid is only eight?" He's going to be an incredible guitarist!"

First of all, that's not how it works. Just because you started at fifteen and this kid started lessons at seven does not necessarily mean that, at age fifteen, he's going to play like you did at twenty-three.

But more importantly, there's no reason to burden this child with an external standard to compare himself to. He is doing a great job now, and he has his own road of progress ahead of him just like anybody else, one day at a time.

Trying to project a future for a child, however benign your intent, is not helpful...it just comes off like that awful "Mommy, What Will I Look Like?" business that Lindsay started on Arrested Development.

By not comparing a child to other people, you avoid discouragement, false confidence, arrogance, hopelessness, and envy. Or at least, you might postpone it a little.

We respect children by appreciating where they are developmentally and giving them appropriate challenges, as well as appropriate praise for their efforts.

We disrespect children by giving them inappropriate praise, challenges that are too big or too small, and treating them as though they are small, quirky adults.

Earlier this year, Anthony Tommasini, the chief music critic for the New York Times, wrote a series of articles in an attempt to choose the top ten composers of all time. This thoughtful project encouraged responses from many readers, including the son of two professional viola players, a Manhattan eight-year-old named Lucas Amory. Tomassini featured the child's letter on his blog.

Note how Tommasini shows respect for Lucas' opinions ("Lucas has a passion for the Romantics so Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Schumann appear on both his lists") without being self-conscious or clever about it. He acknowledges that it's the child's budding critical thinking skills that set him apart at age eight, not simply the fact that he's writing to the Times or that he's into classical music. Tommasini writes, "He clearly understands the difference between all-time greats and personal favorites — quite impressive for an 8-year-old."

Since people generally do not point out the developmental milestones of adults, Tommasini demonstrates here that he understands his role in fostering Lucas' further growth as a human being. Understanding the difference between fact and opinion, especially with regard to art, is impressive for an eight-year-old. By praising this, he is encouraging conversation between Lucas and his parents on the subjects of critical thinking, art criticism, and beyond.

Lucas Amory's illustration.Lucas illustrated his list with a picture of Tchakovsky and Schumann competing for the top spot. The drawing is clever, funny, and cute. But Tommasini doesn't tell us (or Lucas!) it's cute - he just includes a print of the letter in its entirety and lets the audience enjoy the natural, un-self-conscious sweetness of a child instead of calling attention to it.

On the other hand, a video produced a few day after the letter was initially published is cringe-inducingly awful. From the simpering interviewer to the self-important editing to the soul-crushing length of it, it's a terrible production that disrespects the child by inflating his ego. They actually ask him to spell the word "precocious," and they actually included the footage of him spelling it, with the interviewer's embarrassingly surprised and delighted response. They also baited him by asking about Lady Gaga's music. His nasty response should not have been encouraged or included. It's certainly not Lucas' fault at age eight - the grownups should have known better.

There's more - for instance, they asked Lucas questions that were sent in by Twitter followers, which I personally was uncomfortable with (he's a celebrity expert at age eight?). "Why are you so awesome?" is not a good question to ask an eight-year-old, and following it up with, "A lot of people are impressed with your knowledge," is not helpful either. You can see that, to his credit, he really didn't know what to do with that and handles the ridiculous and immature interviewer as graciously as he can.

A bright spot was the chance to hear Lucas play Bach. He plays with an impressive and unforced artistry and technique. It is truly special to hear a child play so beautifully and be so deeply engrossed in the music. Of course, the producers unwisely cut off the end of the piece.

Lucas is special because of who he is, as we all are - there is no need to use him as any kind of example. In the video, Lucas was unfairly objectified - he was playing the role of "precocious child" the way a young woman might play the role of "video vixen" or "bikini babe." Shame on the Kaufman Center for allowing this to happen. I hope Lucas Amory continues to pursue his varied interests and develop his budding intellect away from the watchful eyes of the cameras.

Every child deserves respect. Glorification and indulgence - whether it's a silly video, too much ice cream, or too much power - is not good for kids. Let's set limits on what they can have, love them for who they are, praise them for who they are becoming, and give them an opportunity to show us what they can do - on their own terms.

How it's supposed to feel

Most of what you do should feel easy.

If it's not, you're taking on too much. Either your task is too big or you're moving too fast.

Break it down.

Breaking things down is a challenge in itself. It forces you to think critically about what you're doing - looking for the main ideas, sorting priorities. If you make that the hardest part, actually carrying out the tasks won't be such a headache.

This has immediate application if you're learning a piece of music. I'm trying to keep it in mind as I set about writing a book.

Where will it help you most to slow down and break it down?

 

 

Going off the book: Jamming for beginners

This past weekend I had the pleasure of being part of two jam sessions at two wonderful dinner parties. It was nice, considering how much I've been writing about music lately, to actually play it. Jamming with other people is one of my greatest joys in life; one of my dearest wishes as a musician and educator is for those who long to be able to do it to realize how close they are to being able to!

October 2010At Saturday night's party there was an exuberant nine-year-old violinist. We played some of the classical music and fiddle tunes he's been working on, and then we threw him into the soup.

One of my favorite songs to jam on is Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" - it's built on an extremely simple four-chord loop, the melody is very simple but can be embellished, and the loose country feel supports any number of layers of instruments and vocal harmonies.

"Okay! Here are your notes: D, E, F-sharp, A, and B." The D pentatonic scale. I wrote it down for him. "All of these notes will sound good. If you want, you can pick just two notes."

Many musicians have given little thought to individual notes on their instrument: where to find them, how they function together, how to create a melody. My young friend was no different, but soon located D and E and sawed merrily away as we began, lounging half on his back on the couch with his head propped up on a cushion, feet up on the coffee table. He sounded great! We sang and played several verses and choruses of the song, all of us getting more adventurous as it went on.

As the night progressed, everyone from adults to toddlers played various percussion instruments and sang. We all had a blast. The next night, my husband and I jammed with two highly competent amateur musicians on songs by Shelby Lynne, Wilco, Jackson Browne, and Three Dog Night. It was a perfect, warm, fall evening out on a friend's screen porch. Two guitars, an acoustic bass, and a djembe, all by the light of a single candle. Looking for songs that everyone knew how to play would have taken all night, but it's always easy to find common ground when you're willing to play something you know but have never played before, or something that's completely new.

Whether you're an accomplished classical musician or a total musical novice, you might find yourself standing on the sidelines instead of joining in the action. Below are some tips for joining the band.

Start shaking, tapping, or hitting something. One of the easiest ways to participate is to play percussion. Back when I was in elementary school, I'd lurk around my dad's band, whose extremely loud practices took place in the living room so they were tough to avoid (If you can't beat 'em...). My big moment was in "Day Tripper" after the guitar solo when the drums stopped and it was just a wild shake of the tambourine.

Ideally, there are some shakers and tambourines and maybe even a drum lying around. If not, the back of a guitar that's not being used makes a great drum. Raid the recycling to find empty bottles...small ones can be filled with dry beans to create a maraca, while large ones can be smacked with a hand or a stick. You can also whack the bottles themselves against your leg, the table, or the floor. Of course, body percussion (stomping, clapping, snapping, etc.) is always good.

You can keep time with the beat, but the music breathes more when you strike only on the two and four (for example, [one] TWO [three] FOUR). If you're playing a shaker, remember that you have two directions - things are more interesting when you move back and forth ("chicka chicka chicka chicka") instead of just down ("chick chick chick chick"). Experiment with rhythmic patterns to find a groove that feels right.

Sing. If it's a song you know, go ahead and sing along with the melody if it's in your key. If the range of the melody is not comfortable or you don't know the song (or someone else is dominating the melody), you can try some harmony. Try some of the techniques described in my post on harmony singing.

Viva la pentatonic. This five-note scale takes the fear out of improvisation. In a given key, all of these notes will sound good, even if you play them all at once.

Working with beginners, I like to use resonator bells if possible, which allow you to isolate the pitches that you want making it virtually impossible to hit a wrong note. Otherwise, I'll point out the notes on the instrument that are "safe." The piano is a good place to start if bells are not available.

For musicians who know how to play but aren't experienced with improvisation, I write down the notes for them which they are then able to locate on their own instruments.

To determine the pentatonic scale, play the major scale in the given key and subtract the 4th and 7th scale degrees. In other words, play 1, 2,3, 5, and 6 (and 8). This can also be done with the relative minor (play 6, 1, 2, 3, 5, 6). Do, re, mi, sol, la.

For example, if you're in the key of C major, your pentatonic scale is C, D, E, G, A in any octave.

Play root notes. If the pentatonic scale seems like Greek to you (Psych! It is Greek) back way off and play root notes. This means that for every chord of the song, you play the note it's named after.

A chord is just a group of notes. Doesn't it make sense that a chord called "G" would have a G in it? Luckily, it does. So every time the G chord comes around, you play G.

This strategy can work in a few different ways. First of all, if you're a less experienced musician this allows you to play along with a simple chord progression. In "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," the chord sequence is D-Em-G-D. So, while the rest of the musicians play the chords you would play the notes D, E, G, D respectively.

Another use for root notes is for more experienced musicians who find themselves with an unfamiliar instrument or a bass guitar in their hands. Root notes are a great way to warm up and explore the instrument while contributing to the overall sound of the band.

A third use for the root note strategy is to familiarize yourself with a song you haven't played before. If you can recognize the chord that someone else is playing but you don't have time to get into position for it, aim for the root note. Since most pop, rock, and folk music is inherently repetitive, you'll be able to play a little more with each go-round.

February 2010Learn the language. If you want to go beyond following along, you'll want to learn the language of music, which is basically music theory. Out of a seeming universe of possibilities, the experienced musician sees just a handful and can narrow it down to one in an instant. Here, I'm not talking about the infinite variations and permutations that enthusiastic players might cycle through as they expand the sonic vocabulary of a song; I'm talking about the structure that underpins this exploration which follows predictable, accessible rules.

It is so amazing and exciting to witness a child making use of new musical knowledge within minutes of its acquisition. The advantage that many children have is simply fearlessness. I hope I have made you a little more comfortable with the idea of jamming. Your contribution to the musical soup will be appreciated and valued regardless of your level of experience! When things are really cooking, no one can tell who's who anyway.

Finding the sweet spot that makes learning addictive

Can you start by balancing on the board in the sand? (Santa Cruz, California, October 2010)Whatever you are working on should be easy but not boring. Interesting but not frustrating.

The best progress takes place in the sweet spot where things are just challenging enough to be engaging. If you're a tennis player, you'll have the most fun with someone playing close to your level of ability. You don't want to play with a total novice, but on the other hand it's no fun when every serve is so strong that it zooms by before you even know it happened.

There is an art to choosing just the right level of difficulty. Video games are very good at continually calibrating themselves to your ability at any given moment, which is what makes them so addictive.

Whatever skill you want to learn, make a game out of making it a game. That is, figure out how to make it as engaging as possible. As Mary Poppins said, "In every job that must be done there is an element of fun/you find the fun, and snap! The job's a game."

Start with the right material. At the bookstore or library, you put down the book that doesn't grab you right away because it's too dense, but you might also skip over something that looks too trashy or fomulaic. Don't feel guilty about rejecting Ulysses - maybe it will be just the right thing in the future.

When you've got something you can sink your teeth into, you know. Get good at finding that feeling, whether you're a pianist working through classical repertoire, a Spanish student looking for instructional material, or a fencing enthusiast seeking an opponent. Insert Goldilocks reference here.

Make your progress visible. We all rubbed our fingers raw trying to snap our rooms clean with magic, so that is eliminated as a possibility (unless you got it to work for you, in which case please let me know!). But even without magic, many of us don't mind cleaning when we can see the results with every swipe of the rag or push of the vacuum cleaner. Make your progress visible and you will find yourself conditioned to return to a given task.

To get a better sense of your evolution you might take before-and-after pictures, videos, or audio recordings. You could also create a chart or graph of your work over time.

Be a statistics nerd. The drama of an apparently dull moment of baseball can be heightened when the announcer shares a stat like, "He has a .129 batting average so far this season, but a .401 career batting average when facing this pitcher." All of a sudden we're invested in the outcome of this slumping second-stringer's at-bat.

You can geek out on statistics in order to set goals and motivate yourself to grow. In running, a sport where it's just you and the clock, you will find more depth and nuance when you can design workouts that have a specific target in mind based on past performance and future goals. You would play with various combinations of speed and distance (tempo runs, interval training, long runs, negative splits, etc.) in order to optimize your performance for a specific race.

As a musician, you might use a metrononome to track the tempo at which you can play a given phrase comfortably. You could also document how much of your piece you learn each day. I like to track the date a student begins a piece and the date that piece is mastered. As the student breaks through a plateau, we can compare two equivalent pieces and point out that one took two months to master while the newer one took just two weeks.

Avoid unnecessary repetition. If you understand a math concept, you should do a few problems to solidify your understanding today, a few more tomorrow, and a couple at the end of the week. A page of twenty-five problems is busy work if it too easy, and impossible if it you can't even do the first one.

If you don't understand the concept, you'll need to break it down into smaller pieces, look at it from a different perspective, or rebuild the foundation by reviewing previous material. Repetition won't help.

"What's your practice strategy?" I ask. "I'm going to play it over and over again until I get it right!" my student says brightly. No! Play it correctly the first time, and you'll only need to play it a few times to make it solid. If you can't play it correctly the first time, it's too much. Break it down, take it slower, or both.

Use rewards. My students love getting stickers. Not only do they enjoy picking out just the right one (there is an inverse relationship between the age of the student and the amount of time it takes to choose a sticker), they enjoy the closure that it represents ("You have fully mastered this piece!").

Even as an adult, you can reward yourself for the acquisition of a skill or the completion of a goal. Even better, give yourself positive reinforcement for the little steps along the way. Karen Pryor, in her excellent book Don't Shoot the Dog!, tells of using tiny bits of chocolate to get herself out the door and on the bus to an evening class.

While the opportunity to perform onstage might be seen by many musicians as a punishment rather than a reward, applause is certainly a nice way to be acknowledged for all your hard work learning a piece of music. In the meantime, dessert or some down time (TV, a novel, a game) can be a great way to reward yourself (or your child) for a focused practice session. Over time, you will condition yourself to look forward to practice because you'll associate it with the pleasure at the end!

There are many other ways to enliven the process of learning something new. When learning a new skill, apply strategies and techniques from something you're already good at. The more you can make it a game, the more you'll want to play!

Quit before you're ahead: a partial concurrence (guest post from Michael McGill)

This morning's post earned a thoughtful response from my friend Michael McGill, a musician, artist, and teacher.

I think where people go wrong is with rigid thinking: They assume that they have to stick with something even if it's not working or their gut is telling them to stop...or they don't notice that it stopped working for them a half-hour ago. And they might think, "I'm just not cut out for this," and scrap an attempt at something new instead of digging in deeply to a creative pursuit as Michael explains below.

Michael's post:

The Casey article on “quit before you’re ahead” and the discipline of stopping was well-written and thought-provoking. My thoughts:

There are certainly areas of effort in which to quit before you’re ahead. These are  activities that risk “mindless repetition” and boredom (or even injury!), like practicing music or running.

Michael and I with a pickup band at the Eclectic Music Open House Party, January 8, 2011.Areas where you definitely DON’T quit at “normal,” approved times: creative areas like songwriting. In these areas, the rules are exactly the opposite: if you don’t stretch yourself, making an effort to “get into a different headspace,” nothing new will be achieved. At best, you’ll be a mere formulaic song-factory. Tired clumsy fingers are actually good for songwriting, because slick facility is bad; and in the mental realm, you have to keep coming at it from new directions, and that sometimes requires long sustained effort, and sometimes long goofing around, bouncing the fledgling song in the air like a beach ball and batting it around. Once in a while a great song comes rolling out in a brisk and cooperative manner, and in a reasonable amount of time. But don’t be counting on that.

Areas that involve both sides of the brain, like recording and band practice, fall somewhere in the middle, because exhaustion and mistakes (downside) and breakthroughs (upside) both will occur; but beware of always stopping band practice at the usual hour, because good things happen in the realms of sonic mix and interpersonal dynamics well past quitting time. A band (if it’s a good and interesting one) is a very delicate mechanism: when this guy’s voice gets hoarse, that girl’s playing gets a little smoother to compensate; when this bassist’s fingers get tired, that drummer pushes him a little harder. The results can be magic.

***

Thanks Michael! Can't wait to play with you again.

Quit before you're ahead

After last night's post on the discipline of stopping, I was still thinking about whether I had made a point worth making. "Am I talking about moderation? Everyone knows that moderation is a good idea. Am I saying, 'Quit while you're ahead?' Well, duh."

And then I realized: What I'm really saying is, quit before you're ahead. Just when you start to see results, have the discipline to let it go for now.

I ask a lot of questions when I'm teaching. "What strategy are you going to use to practice this?" I'll query, hoping that she'll be able to articulate the concepts I've been drilling over the last eighteen months.

"I'm going to keep playing it until I get it right!" she says confidently.

"NO!" I say, pretending to be a severe turn-of-the-century schoolmarm. "You will play it correctly the first time, and then repeat it only as many times as necessary!"

We don't want mindless repetition. That is bad. Either play it for fun or play it for results - if you've got neither of those, just stop. And of course, the same goes for running. There is a nimbus of good stuff just outside your comfort zone, but if you venture too far outside of that, you have reached the point of diminishing returns. The trick is that, for most of your training, you will end your run feeling like you could have done more. And that is good.

Or is it? I'm probably an expert at teaching music lessons (I've put my 10,000 hours into that for sure), but I'm not an expert at running. I'm just an experiment of one. But I know that last night, when I stopped running at 1.64 miles, I felt like a stronger person even though my legs have gotten weaker.

Where else should you quit before you're ahead?

Attention Conservation

Attention is finite. To the degree that you can focus, you can conserve your attention in order to accomplish what matters.

In the image below, a flashlight is trained upon a page of sheet music. It's illuminating most of the page, dimly.

Now, we move the flashlight closer to the page:

As you would expect, the beam of light gets both brighter and smaller. The flashlight bulb puts out a consistent amount of light, so as it covers a smaller area it is more highly concentrated.

You can see where I'm going with this: your attention behaves the same way. The more focused you are, the less attention you waste, making you more effective. It's called concentration, get it?

This may seem like a no-brainer, but many players do not behave in a way that reflects an understanding of this concept. They start at the beginning of a piece of music and hack through it until it's over or until they run out of steam, whichever comes first. And then - horrors! - they might just go back to the top and try again.

A better approach: focus all of your precious attention on a tiny section and polish it until it shines. If you're doing it right, you'll be totally exhausted well before you learn the whole page. That's okay - there's always tomorrow.

Attention: A limited resource that you can make the most of by improving your ability to focus.

Can you think of any applications of this concept beyond learning a piece of music?

It's not the what, but the how.

The Snow vs. My Father and His Snowblower - the score will always be perfectly tied.

Lots of us consider repetition to be backsliding. "Last time I ran this route I was five seconds per mile faster!"

But how did it feel? Maybe this time you did it with less rest, less effort, a stronger form, and shorter recovery time. Maybe you just had more fun.

If you're revisiting the same musical piece you played several months ago, perhaps it is now smoother, more fluent, and more confident.

Even when you compare apples to apples, you might not be considering all the variables.

Of course, even if there is truly no change in your position or ability, the how is still what matters. You always have control over the most important aspect of it: your attitude. And sometimes that's all you can control.

Bold moves: clever, ridiculous, necessary

I just made a very bold move. I did it because I couldn't think of a good enough reason not to, and I was thrilled and freaked out by the possible outcomes of doing it. So whoosh! Off the cliff.

Pacifica, CA, October 2010I love the idea of laying everything on the line in business and marketing - my risk-o-meter is broken. But when it comes to making art, I am much more conservative.

The only reason I can think of is that the results are much easier to measure in business - really, the concept of a calculated risk doesn't make sense in art. Success and failure are easier to define.

I've been focused on business for so long that I've buried my musical goals pretty deep, or in some cases transferred them to my music-related business. But now I'm suddenly giving it some serious thought - what were my goals? Why did I not achieve them? And more relevant: What risks, too uncomfortable to consider, did those goals represent?

Among other things, I spent my twenties as an aspiring songwriter and performer. The great thing about being out of my twenties is that I can examine them as a thing separate from myself, like a movie (Casey's Twenties, a new film by Gus Van Sant) and see themes that I didn't recognize at the time. I see black-and-white thinking, distractability, a limited understanding of my strengths and weaknesses, a lack of solid planning, and a tendency to get stuck on things that require money or outside help.

Ironically, if I had treated my music career like a business, I might have achieved some success. I would have been able to view some of the things that actually happened as steps on the way to success if I'd only had the courage to define what that success would look like.

On the other hand, I also had trouble just sitting down and making music for fun. I don't need to make a damn statement. Nobody really knew about my music but me, so why didn't I just play? Perhaps I'd accidentally stumble upon something good. Or at least interesting.

Of course, it's not over. If I can figure out what I want out of my music career, I can make a plan, set goals, and be ready to leap when I find something that matters enough to scare the crap out of me. And just have a good time at the very least.

What do I want now? I don't really know yet. Michael and I went out on New Year's Eve and busked for a half-hour in Piedmont Park. That's rather bold, when you think about it.

Nothing to Show For It

I did a yoga DVD this afternoon. The instructor said at the end, of savasana (corpse pose), that it was one of the most challenging asanas. That's the kind of statement that's practically begging you to roll your eyes - I mean, how hard could it be to lay down on your back and relax, especially after a tough workout? But I know she's right.

As a music teacher, I see that my students have the same challenge. "You're trying too hard," I say. "Let it be as easy as playing one note [I got that from Kenny Werner]."

But to try not to try - you can't. You just have to let go, and then you're not holding on to anything so you panic and grab tighter. But if you keep coming back to it, you'll make progress.

Look for tiny increments of progress. Set micro-goals. Slower is faster. Don't use momentum. Clearly, this is an issue I have a lot to say about.

And where will all this careful, easy, mindful practice get you? Perhaps nowhere anyone else will ever be able to see. Perhaps you will literally have nothing to show for it.

What if there's no way to make your mark? (Tybee Island Sunset, November 2010)A slightly stronger pinky finger. A throat that clenches almost imperceptibly less on the high notes. The ability to play a cadenza with just a bit more surefootedness than you had last year.

Of course, meanwhile, your brother/friend/teacher/enemy can do it all and more, and better, while hungover on two hours of sleep.

It's almost enough to make you give up. For some, it is enough.

I've been thinking about writing an ebook about piano - like, Seven Ways to Be More Awesomer At Piano or something - so I googled a few "learn piano"-related phrases.

Yikes! It was like being solicited by a prostitute when you're looking for true love. Promises of "100s of times faster than other courses" and blinking ads and long-form sales letters. Not the right marketplace for my message of slow and systematic and taking a year to learn to uncurl your left pinky.

The worst part was the realization that those websites with their comprehensive courses in two easy payments of $39 are better than anything I've ever come up with, and it's possible that I will never create anything to rival them in scope, marketability, or even quality. But after a few minutes of feeling like a character in a Sofia Coppola film, I got my shit together and felt okay about just being me again.

Just being me: as in, I don't actually need to accomplish anything visible in order to be myself. I can make all kinds of little changes that you'll never see and never value, and that's okay.

Tybee Island Sunrise, November 2010The reason I was doing yoga in the first place is because I hurt my foot during a run on Christmas Day, and I can't run. I love the way running feels, but I especially love the way I can measure things - how many miles away from home I can get, how fast I go, how much better I did than last week. Now that I'm not running, I have nothing to measure except my perception of how much strength, speed, and conditioning I am losing.

Yoga is the opposite and the antidote: don't measure, don't analyze, don't compare - just keep breathing and observe. It's just you and your body and your breath - and you are whole and complete as you'll ever be.

Today, for a moment, in savasana, I got it - just for a second, I felt the way it would feel to surrender completely and dissolve into the earth, like the actual corpse I will someday become. The knowledge moved me to tears: I don't need anything else but what I have, and I don't need to be anything else but what I am, ever.

What is the point of my business?

As my business develops, I am thinking about how I got started and where I hope to go from here. I started teaching music lessons because those were the skills I had. What would I do if I were starting a career based on the skills I have now?

I am passionate about music, and I'm passionate about education. Of course I'm passionate about music education. But I'm thinking: Why? What is the point?

The ideas I get the most excited about sharing have to do with effectiveness - doing the most with the least. Fixing problems that most people miss. Finding shortcuts that sharpen and strengthen. Uncovering the principles that underlie all effective methods and applying them in innovative ways. This is how I teach, this is how I run my business, this is how I run my life. Classic NT personality type.

However, my job in business is not to scratch my own itch to make things more effective, efficient, and excellent. It is to serve people, and often the most effective way to do that is a principle that contradicts some others:

     Figure out what people want, and help them to get it.

In some cases, I have to help them to figure out what they want. And in some cases, I have to help them to figure out that there is something worth wanting. And in some cases, I have to figure out that what they want is not what they say they want...or not what will help them to achieve their larger goals. It gets confusing and murky in there, but as long as I still have some guiding principles to go by, we're fine.

Here's what I believe:

  • Music is a means of self-expression and connection.
  • Self-expression is a means of self-development.
  • Life is a process of self-development.
  • Self-development is discovering and enhancing your ability to be of service in the world.
  • Being of service means connecting with others through who you are, what you create, or what you do.
  • Connecting with others, whether directly or indirectly, helps them in their own journey of self-development.

What's exciting about music is that it's a direct and immediate connection - that's what makes it so powerful. But sometimes, in the process of developing a musician, we discover that their most authentic means of self-expression is another instrument or another medium entirely. That's okay - that's the point.

So, the point of my business is clear: to encourage and develop self-expression for people of all ages. Our most obvious way of doing that is through music, and that's enough for me right now. But obviously, I love playing with the larger ideas, and I hope that others can find something here relevant to their own work.

Slower is faster (whether swimming or getting shot at)

I believe very strongly that the principles which make you successful in one area can and will apply to other disciplines. This makes teaching music lessons very satisfying, because I'm sharing strategies and habits of mind that are useful beyond the instrument.

One example of a skill that is relevant in every aspect of life is learning to slow down. Slowing down leads you to reconsider saying things you'll regret in an argument. It helps you prevent injury in athletic training. Slowing down reduces your risk of death on the highway. It prevents you from spilling your coffee all over your laptop. You'll also trim the time it takes to learn a new piece of music. Slower is actually faster in the long run.

When practicing music, a slower pace/speed/tempo gives you the mental space to work on technique, expression, fingering, rhythm, and melodic accuracy all at the same time.

The right "slow" is different for everyone and might change day-to-day, regardless of what the metronome or clock says. However, using an external means of marking time can help you to slow down if you use it to pace yourself rather than push yourself.

A brutal rule of thumb: If you're still messing up, you're still going too fast. You'll know when you're going slow enough because you'll feel totally in control of everything your body is doing. It's like that scene in the Matrix where Neo can see the bullets coming at him and thus, avoid them. True slowness is mental, not necessarily physical.

For some people (regardless of age) it takes many failed attempts at a specific task before they are willing or able to dial down the tempo to what is truly comfortable. Heart rate, stress level, room temperature, distractions, and good old ego can get in the way. Slow is a feeling, and it takes practice to go inside yourself and find that quiet, calm place.

I recently took up swimming again after over a decade away from the sport. I'm in pretty good shape from walking and running, but lap swimming is a totally different physical experience. I assumed I wouldn't be very good at it at first, and I was right. But I thought if I took things slowly, I would succeed.

The first time out, at the Piedmont Park pool on Monday, I swam one lap of the crawl and then found myself huffing and puffing at the side of the pool. Another lap, and more huffing and puffing. Another lap, and I was done. I was going slowly in the macro sense - I didn't try to push myself past the point of fatigue, because there's always tomorrow. However, in the micro sense, I was basically sprinting across the pool and didn't know how to slow down.

I consulted my favorite coach, the Internet, and learned why I was having this problem: the crawl is the fastest swim stroke! Paradoxically, if I want to learn to swim faster and better, I cannot do the crawl because it will exhaust me too quickly. I reasoned that working on slower strokes will allow me to build up endurance over the course of a few weeks, and then the crawl will not be as intense.

So, this morning I took the bus to the MLK Natatorium before dawn. I dropped into the water and swam ten laps doing the breaststroke, backstroke, and elementary backstroke. No clinging to the side huffing and puffing - I built the recovery into the swim, and it worked! Twenty minutes of continuous swimming, and, most importantly, enough mental and physical energy left to come back tomorrow and do it again.

Culturally, we are all speeded up: kids in a million activities, quick cuts in advertisements, blah blah blah. Playing music goes against that trend. It takes awhile to learn an instrument, it takes awhile to learn a given piece of music, and it takes awhile to sit in that chair and slow yourself down enough to string two notes together correctly. It is worth it. There are benefits that come from learning to slow down instead of muscling through, and they show up in unexpected places: the track, the pool, an urban roof-top showdown.

Breaking a habit

Ali, an eight-year-old piano student, was having trouble keeping her wrists level. She kept resting them on the piano case while she was playing, thus creating tension and restricting motion. Every few seconds, I had to either verbally correct her or gently nudge her wrists up.

Because I secretly desire to be a mean piano teacher rapping knuckles with a wooden ruler, I did this:

The tape is sticky-side up, fastened with a piece of folded-up tape on either side.

This turned out to be an immediate, complete solution to Ali's problem. She never touched the tape, and I never had to remind her not to. She simply decided that she didn't want to get stuck to the tape, and reminded herself to keep her wrists up.

Proof that to break a habit, everything you really need is in your own mind.