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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Talent, Schmalent, Part Two

Baseball Beth (@ervarela) sent me this great Mozart quote in response to a conversation on Twitter:

"People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times." - Mozart in a letter to a friend

Those who have worked incredibly hard in athletics, the arts, or any craft will nod knowingly, while the rest will think it's false humility on Wolfgang's part. Oh well...if everyone understood that ninety-something-percent of what is possible is within reach of anyone, I'd have nothing to write about.

Feel free to call the non-ninety-something-percent "talent." Just don't use it as an excuse for not doing whatever it is you wish you could do.

Hat tip to Beth for pointing me to another great resource: an interview with Malcolm Gladwell on the subject of talent, a topic covered at length in his book Outliers.

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.

On not giving people their money's worth, and also benevolent dictators

I think I know where my tendency comes from, as a teacher, to try to fill every moment chock-full with Productive Learning Experiences. When I was a freshman public school teacher, it was fear of the administration, and as a teacher of one-on-one piano and guitar lessons, it's the whole being-paid-by-the-hour thing.

Now, I'm the administrator of my own school, and I have a bunch of preschool kids attending a group "music camp" where the primary purpose is either:

having fun through learning music, or

learning music through having fun.

Whichever way you think of it, it's not appropriate nor effective to try to manage every second of the kids' time.

Instead, it's desirable to create an environment that has a strong framework, and then trust the kids to fill in that framework with their own choices, ideas, and actions.

I know that sounds like a concept you'd find in an education textbook that would never work in the real world. But student-centered learning really does work. I learned about it through Peggy-Jo Wilhelm, my amazing music education professor at the University of Maine.

I discussed in a previous post some of the specific activities and techniques I use with young children. This morning at camp, we incorporated the rhythm cards, resonator bells, and several other activities into our centers, where kids get to move from one activity to another at their leisure. Sometimes you will find three or four kids on one center; sometimes a child moves restlessly from one center to another; sometimes a child spends the entire time on just one activity, mimicking the way I did it and then adapting it into a different, equally valid game. I steal their ideas all the time.

Behavioral issues disappear (no "sitting still" is required). Other behavioral issues crop up, usually related to sharing. It is so fun as a teacher to sit back and witness the kids independently explore rhythm and  melody, sound and pattern. You become a facilitator not a dictator.

Of course, the dictator role is important, too.

"My turn is next!"

"Who's in charge?" I say.

They point to me. It is so important that I be in charge. It is vital that I have enough adult and teenage help so that I don't become frazzled, so I can maintain the benevolence in my benevolent dictatorship. It is crucial that I have the power, so that I can set the pace and foster the culture that allows me to share that power.

So I decide whose turn is next. But once that understanding is in place, we can go beyond turn-taking. I might present a new song, a new instrument, or new idea, and then just wait. Stretch the moment out. I leave little spaces where the kids can chime in, making suggestions, asking questions, relating the new thing to their own life in a way that often seems nonsensical to adults.

In classroom management, one of the first things I learned was to keep a fast pace. Don't allow any downtime, and the kids won't have a chance to get into trouble. Well...yes and no.

As a beginning teacher, a slower pace meant I was looking at my notes, or trying to remember the melody of a song, and generally creating a petri dish for mischief. But I've learned that activities need breathing room. Sometimes I can let the kids see me thinking, deciding. Sometimes I can try something new that I haven't planned out, allowing the kids to lead me. Sometimes we can take a few minutes to rest, singing a quiet song or having a quiet conversation. Doing that with a bunch of five-year-olds is incredible - it is such a different use of their energy.

Looking around Swiedler Hall, you might think the kids are running the show. No - at best it is a federation with the occasional illusion of democracy. And ideally, the ruler does not have to demonstrate her power.

Moments ago, a child of six came into the room, sobbing. Tara to the rescue: "Are you ok? What happened?" He could barely speak, so she went to investigate. She came back and said, "Uh...Smoothie King cleanup on Aisle One." Apparently he had dropped his smoothie all over the rug, and his teenage sister hollered at him.

his afternoon workshop was beginning, but the child was inconsolable. I led him away from the scene of the crime to a cool leather couch in the back room. "Here, this is a comfortable couch. Just relax, and when you're ready, you can join the camp. Here's some Kleenex."

I went back to work, keeping my eye on the boy. His sister came and went. Tara came and went. In the meantime, the kid stretched out and took a twenty-minute nap or so. Presently, he came to, and went of his own accord to join the session in progress.

My mind went to that neurotic place ("His mom is paying for this camp! He shouldn't be napping! Too much downtime!"). But as I continue to detox from all that school- and work-related baggage, I'm uncovering the sweet truth: the joy of leadership is to build the trust that allows the sharing of power, and the joy of sharing the power (i.e., teaching!) is to go beyond time, lesson plans and even subject matter to the core: discovering and celebrating our mutual humanity.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go clean up the remains of what appears to be a strawberry smoothie, and then teach a piano lesson or four. Thanks for reading.

The worst mistake a music teacher can make

The worst mistake a music teacher can make:

Deciding that a student "just doesn't have it."

"Alas, this poor soul was born without the talent necessary to become a musician. I'll collect my fee, but I really can't do anything with this one."

This is such a depressing idea. If this is where you begin, why even bother being a teacher? And if this is where you end up, you are seriously burned out and should take some time off.

There have been times in my career that I've struggled in finding the best way to reach a student. There have been times when I was frustrated at a student's lack of practice or progress. But instinctively, for self-preservation as much as compassion, I've avoided thoughts that allow me to take myself off the hook and blame the student.

Once you go down this road, it's very difficult to find meaning in the work of teaching. All of a sudden, you're deciding the destiny of a student based on your assessment of ability. You become a judge, rather than a teacher.

This is an incredibly destructive attitude. For many teachers, "None of my students has the dedication and talent I had," becomes a self-satisfied, self-fulfilling prophecy that stunts their own growth as educators and musicians. Obviously, the student herself suffers as well, since she's put her trust in a mentor who doesn't believe in her.

Photo by Erik CharltonIf you are a teacher who is tempted into this thought process, it might already be too late for your student. However, you can work on it. Consider that the student might have a unique learning style that you are not tapping into - for example, he can learn very well by ear and has trouble reading notes. Or he might have certain personal qualities, such as determination or a great attitude, that will make up for a supposed lack of talent.

While it is unfair to blame failure on the teacher and credit accomplishments to the student, neither is it acceptable to blame a student for lack of aptitude and at the same time claiming faultless teaching methods. Focus on yourself and not the student, and do what you can to improve your own work. 

Whatever you observe as weaknesses on the part of the student, figure out how to strengthen their underdeveloped ability by breaking its necessary elements into achievable steps. Many things that people dismiss as innate talent (sense of pitch, sense of rhythm, expression, "feel") can be explicitly, systematically taught by a teacher who is able to calibrate her expectations down to very tiny increments of forward progress.

In acknowledging that anyone can get better at music, you might have to confront some uncomfortable realities about your own talent, accomplishments, and weaknesses. You don't have to be stuck where you are, either.

Somewhere along the line, you might have encountered a judge masquerading as a teacher. It's time to silence that critic, and in so doing, let a more compassionate, creative voice speak up. Instead of, "maybe she just doesn't have it," how about, "I charge myself with the responsibility of awakening this person's musicianship."

Harder, and worth it. If you can't do that, maybe you just don't have what it takes to be a teacher.

How do you know if you'll get better?

Times are tough. Sometimes, it has nothing to do with the times - it's me. It's my own private struggle.

Like right now. My business, my school, has been growing at a good clip for the past couple of years, but each phase of growth brings new challenges. There have been so many times when it felt like I couldn't keep going, that it wasn't worth it. Now is one of those times.

In my former studio at Virginia-Highland Church, January 2007Every time I've come to what seemed like a dead end, I decided to keep on pushing through. It's been painful, grueling, exhilarating, and I still can't say whether it's been worth it. I still don't know how it will turn out. I do know that I'm learning a lot, and that every time I think I can't work harder than I'm already working, I discover grimly that it is possible.

This business experience definitely parallels my musical experience. A student recently asked me, "How do I know if I'll improve?" He was working on songwriting. I had told him, "keep writing songs, and eventually you'll write good ones."

"But how can I be sure my songs will actually get better?"

"That's a very good question," I said. "But, I mean, how can you not get better? You're working so hard on this in a focused way. It's inevitable that you'll succeed."

I pointed out to him that by coming to a music lesson each week, he is opening himself up to input from another person. Without that input, his songs might stay the same, but being open to the influence of an outside perspective will allow his work to change and progress.

I do the same in my career - I consult with trusted advisors (of which I'm fortunate to have many), read The Dip and other brilliant books over and over again, and listen a little harder to what my business is telling me. And I keep going.

Be open to the wisdom of others, and keep at it. You can't help but get better, in music and in life.

As for me: I'm going to continue pushing through my discouragement, fear, resentment, and confusion. I'll follow some good advice and visualize a desirable outcome for myself. A better existence is in my crosshairs, and I do have the tools to get there. I'll let you know how it goes.

The "Neglected Backyard" approach to overcoming perfectionism

I live in an Atlanta neighborhood called Reynoldstown. It's a bit transitional, literally on the wrong side of the tracks, and has a mix of races, ages, and collars. Some homes are rentals, and some are owner occupied. There are apartments and single-family homes.

I closed on my home in late February 2007, when everything is still dormant from winter but the daffodils are just about to come up. Hmmm, what are all these viney things I keep tripping over in the backyard as I explore my new property?


A New Neighborhood, a New Nemesis

Turns out it was kudzu, that notoriously invasive blight upon the southeastern landscape. I also had japanese honeysuckle, which has lovely-smelling flowers but is also invasive and destructive. These plants stifle biodiversity by choking out the other species, and left unchecked they will cover any and all surfaces exposed to light (and even some that aren't).

After some research (especially this fabulously helpful website by a group in Spartanburg, SC), I learned that the only way to truly eradicate kudzu was to cut out the crowns. These are knobby root structures that store the nutrients for the kudzu during the winter so it can come out swinging in the spring and wreak havoc and ruin everything.

After having acquired the necessary equipment, I took several hours on a Sunday and cut out all the vines I could find, just to get a little more control. Those suckers can grow more than a foot per day under ideal conditions.

Casualties of war (kudzu crowns on my deck)Then, I went out almost every day for the next six weeks or so and spent an hour cutting out as many crowns as I could find. It was like a big game of Whac-a-Mole, because even when I thought I had found all the new growth there would be more. And once I'd gotten all of it, there was more the next day.


No One Cares

Sometime in June, I started winning the war against kudzu, and it probably won't ever return (unless it comes under the fence from my neighbor's yard, because hers is a mess).

Which is part of the point I want to make here: there are very low standards for garden maintenance for my neighborhood. Some people have cute little landscaped lawns with flower beds, and some people have a packed-dirt front yard with a chain-link fence around it. Some people have a new Beemer parked on a nice neat concrete slab, others have a rusted-out 1980s sedan with kudzu growing into it (I told you, my neighborhood is transitsch). So even though I made improvements to my backyard, it was just for my own benefit - there is no peer-pressure in in my part of town.


Anything is Better than Nothing

New bambooNow, nearly three years later, my yard has some nice bamboo along the back fence (the non-invasive kind), some clematis, and a couple magnolias that are growing nicely since the kudzu was killed. However, it still needs a lot of work.

This is not a story about how my yard went from being overrun with kudzu to perfectly manicured. It's a story about how I set out to achieve a goal and, whenever I felt like it, did a little something to get closer to achieving it.

It's a story about not setting my standards too high, too fast.

It's a story about how any progress toward a goal is can be helpful.


Set the Bar Low

Yes, my friends, be underachievers - but be achievers!

For example, I wanted to start blogging more regularly. I'd been trying to do this for four years. Finally, instead of trying to do it every day or on some fixed schedule, I decided this fall to do it whenever I wanted to.

I reasoned that, just like my backyard, anything I did would be an improvement.

Penelope Trunk helped, too, by giving me permission to start before I got organized. And now I have built up some momentum, so I'm posting more regularly. I have managed to completely avoid negative feelings about not doing it, which keeps the entire experience a happy one.

When I was cutting out kudzu crowns, I made a game out of finding them. "Aha! You may have cunning means of survival, but you are no match for my handsaw!" If I had known at the beginning how much time I would spend successfully ridding my yard of kudzu, I'm not sure I would have had the happy attitude. But doing a little bit every day was tolerable and fun, and not doing it would have meant stasis, not failure.


The Neglected Backyard Approach to exercise, flossing, practicing an instrument, what-have-you

The Neglected Backyard Approach works in a lot of areas. It helps you to forgive yourself for not knowing the things you didn't know you needed to know, by resolving to do better next time.

It helps you get out the stupid free weights and start moving your arms up and down. It helps you to learn an instrument by acknowledging that any time you spend playing the thing is going to help you learn it over the long run.

It helps you to not do things, too: turn off the TV, put down the cigarette, and so on.

Think in terms of tiny incremental improvements. Kaizen. Progress, not perfection.

The Neglected Backyard Approach might even help me deal with the neglected backyard itself: it's mid-January and I still haven't raked up the autumn leaves. I can't rake the entire thing, but I might do twenty minutes worth. It's a nice day.

I don't care how many years you've been playing

What matters is what you've accomplished during the time you've been studying your instrument, regardless of how long it took you. And even that doesn't matter unless it matters to you.

In any case, I hope you've been doing other things during that time, like holding down a job, raising children, eating, and what-have-you. Hey, why not keep track of how many hours you've been actually playing? That would be some useful information. Or would it?

I don't generally care for "resume currency": the type of information that would appear in a third-person bio. And as a rule, I dislike third-person bios unless you are so important that there's a Wikipedia entry about you.

Maybe it's because I went to state universities and public grade schools, or because, as one of four children, I didn't have the kind of upbringing that allowed me to begin violin lessons at age three, or because I don't have an advanced degree; whatever the reason, I consider details about someone's age, education, and the rest of their curriculum vitae to be not very important. While at times this attitude has been naive, it has also at times allowed me to escape the status quo and find my own way in the world.

So, the number of years (or hours) you've been playing is just a number. But people want this number because it helps them figure out where you are, and where they fit in. People use your number to rationalize their own choices.

When both of my maternal grandparents passed away from lung cancer in the same month (having been divorced for forty years, by the way), people asked me, "Were they smokers?" The real question was, "Could this happen to me?"

Below, some of the questions musicians get asked in this vein.

Question: "How long have you been playing?"

Subtext: "How long will it take me/my kid to get as good as you are?" or "How long have you been playing compared to me, and how do I rate against you?"

Question: "How old were you when you started playing?"

Subtext: Same as above.

Question: "Did you come from a musical family?"

Subtext: "If the answer is yes, then that explains your talent, and explains why I could never have been a musician."

Question: "How old are you?"

Subtext: "How do you compare to me when I was your age?" or "Where do I want to be when I'm your age?"

Question: "How long did it take you to learn that?"

Subtext: "Should I even bother?"

I have worked with a great many students in my career (How many? For how long? Meh.). I've learned that their struggles, slumps and triumphs cannot be measured in years.

It would be helpful if there were some external metric we could use to assess whether we are succeeding, whether we are in the right profession, whether we're playing the right instrument, whether we should even keep going. Since there isn't, I recommend the following:

"If it sounds good, it is good."

"If it feels good, it is good."

And, “The art of music is divine and effective. It is the food of the soul and spirit. Through the power and charm of music the spirit of man is uplifted." - 'Abdu'l-Baha

And of course, "Hail, hail, rock'n'roll!" - Chuck Berry

I don't care how many years you've been playing. Just keep playing.

Scales are for snakes

Don't waste the limited amount of time you have on this planet just playing the notes of a given key in sequence (i.e., practicing scales mindlessly).

Do writers warm up by typing "the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog" for thirty minutes before getting to their real work? Nope. Writers might use warm-ups to get their creative juices flowing, but the warm-ups they use are not mindless repetition.

The best way to warm up as a musician is to play actual melodies. Actual songs. And save the scales for the cold-blooded members of the animal kingdom.


Music is only songs. To learn music, you learn songs.

I mean “song” in the colloquial sense, which includes any piece of music even though not all musical pieces are sung.

This is a pretty simple idea, but it took me years to figure out. I thought I had to learn exercises, warmups, scales, riffs, chords, improvisation, ear training, history, and theory as separate, discrete subjects. No - these musical elements only exist in songs, in service to songs, the way the organs of the body can only live and survive when they are performing the function for which they were created within that organism. And while the body can only exist in health when all the organs are performing their functions correctly, you don’t need to monitor these processes unless something goes seriously wrong. And if you are listening well (to your music or to your body), you can often figure the solution to a problem based on the context.


I had one of my best gigs ever last night. I had a really good time, and I think it showed.

I spent the early part of the day doing some practicing – as opposed to playing. It was not a joyful act. I thought I had changed, but there I was on gig day falling back into the same old patterns. I felt pressured to do better than I had in the past, to succeed, to push myself, to perform new songs, to impress; I ended up feeling inadequate and bored.

I decided to take a break and go play in the yard. I noticed a few mulberry trees a little over a foot high around the south side of the house, growing fast and distinguishing themselves from the rest of the weeds. I decided to transplant them along the back fence, where someday they might help to cover up the view of the apartment building behind my house and provide a little more privacy.

As I worked, my mind continued to sing the songs I had been working on. Sometimes the singing in my mind spilled out of my mouth. I had a pleasant time in the ninety-five-degree heat – that’s what singing is for.

I went back inside and puttered around the house. I thought about why I signed up to play at Limerick Junction on a Sunday evening, for free, in the first place. I guess because as a musician, it’s my job to play music for people – whether I want to or not, sometimes. In the past, I’ve always been glad I did it – I meet new people, I get out of my comfort zone, I stay in the game, I try out new songs.

I came back to an idea that’s worked for me in the past: instead of thinking I had to come up with some amazing, epic set, I should just sing a bunch of songs. Songs I happen to feel like singing tonight. Songs I like, some of which I wrote. No pressure, no epic statement: simply transmitting the joy of making music.

So that’s what I did. I went upstairs to the guitar and played this time – refreshing my memory on a few things and tweaking others. And then I got ready to go, and went, and just got up there and did it.

And while I was onstage, I remembered another reason I perform: because the audience makes me able to do things I didn’t know I could do, or didn’t know I would do. I surprise myself. It’s an exciting collaboration.

Feeling at the top of my game, I decided last night that I would wake up early this morning to play. I did it, and I think I’m going to do it again tomorrow. I memorized a Schumann piece, reviewed some Scarlatti, and learned the intro to “Martha My Dear.”

There’s a freshness and ease to my musicanship lately which is showing up in my playing, practicing, performing, and teaching: I am inhabiting the world of songs. It doesn’t matter what instrument it’s on or what era it’s from or whether I wrote it or not – whatever song I am working on, I want to get wrapped up in it. It may seem an insignificant concept, but it took me eight years to get to this point. And this is where I’m going to live from now on.

Mission statement

“The art of music is divine and effective. It is the food of the soul and spirit. Through the power and charm of music the spirit of man is uplifted. It has wonderful sway and effect in the hearts of children, for their hearts are pure and melodies have great influence in them. The latent talents with which the hearts of these children are endowed will find expression through the medium of music. Therefore, you must exert yourselves to make them proficient; teach them to sing with excellence and effect. It is incumbent upon each child to know something of music, for without knowledge of this art the melodies of instrument and voice cannot be rightly enjoyed. Likewise, it is necessary that the schools teach it in order that the souls and hearts of the pupils may become vivified and exhilarated and their lives be brightened with enjoyment. ” – ‘Abdu’l-Baha