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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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.

Let pressure make you better

Students often get bummed out about their performances, either onstage or just playing for me in their lessons. "But I played it so much better at hooooooome!" I know they did. And the difference between an amateur and a professional is that an amateur's playing suffers slightly with the pressure of performing for another human being, while a professional's playing actually improves.

Your own internal pressure gauge probably has fewer lines on it. Photo by eschipul.I like to quantify things that aren't usually measured in order to make certain ideas less mysterious, so bear with me here. Suppose you play a piece extremely well at home - you get an A. Then, when you perform in front of someone else, you become self-conscious. You are imagining yourself from the other person's perspective, which creates a feedback loop wherein you become self-conscious of your self-consciousness ("What if I mess up? What will she think of me then? Whoops, I just messed up - now what does she think?").

As a result of this discomfort, your "grade" drops down to a B. And if you are playing faster than usual, or you're playing on an unfamiliar instrument, or your bench/bow/footrest isn't adjusted perfectly, or you have physical symptoms of nervousness that interfere with your playing, you might drop down to B-minus or C.

One solution to this problem is to practice your piece until it is an A-plus. That is, work until your Comfort Score is a solid nine out of ten. Then track how long it takes you to reach that score from one practice session to another. Five repetitions? Three repetitions? Can you get a Comfort Score of nine on your first try? Once you can do this, your performance will be less likely to suffer in the presence of an audience.

Statistically speaking, it's possible I was messing up big time right as this photo was being taken.Being more comfortable with your music will not solve the problem entirely. You'll still have to figure out how to deal with the adrenaline flowing through your system. Skilled performers, instead of self-conscious, become self-aware. They use the adrenaline to attain a heightened state of perception, like in that long moment when an outfielder has already anticipated exactly where a pop-up is going and stands waiting patiently for the ball to drop into his glove.

Experienced performers feel the intensity of the audience's presence, but do not second-guess themselves - instead of hoping that they look good, sound good, and don't mess up, they focus on serving the audience well, which makes these musicians authentic and compelling. Doing this sometimes actually leads to weird mess-ups in itself, but not the kind that ruin a performance. Instead, these quirks contribute to the intimacy and immediacy of the moment. 

So how do you get to the point where you can do that? Playing at the A-plus, high Comfort Score level definitely helps - mastery allows you to let go of what your hands are doing. Then, you have to let go of what your thoughts are doing. This, too, takes practice.

Experience will contribute significantly to your ability to exhibit grace under pressure. The more you play in front of people, the more effectively you learn to transform anxiety into electricity. Be compassionate with yourself, and expect that in the beginning you won't play as well under stressful conditions. As a result, gradually, you will.

The two different kinds of mistakes

Musicians (particularly music students) sometimes get hung up on mistakes. "You played so well!" "Yeah, but I messed up on that one part."

Especially since so much of the music we hear these days is sanitized and computerized and auto-tuned within in an inch of its life, we lose perspective on our humanity as musicians and hold "no mistakes" as the standard we aspire to.

Wildflowers are neither flaws nor errors. (Photo: Per Ola Wiberg)This standard creates problems in learning and playing, because we're only looking out for wrong notes and lose our connection with musicality and emotion. We aren't in touch with how comfortable we are with a piece, we're only thinking about getting through it for the sake of getting through it. Play, mess up, go back to the beginning, play mess up, go back to the beginning.

What's more, fearing mistakes can create psychological reactance: we are trying so hard not to mess up, that we mess up. This is a negative feedback loop that affects students from beginner to professional.

It is true that a bad habit is difficult to unlearn. There are certain kinds of mistakes that become bad habits. Ironically, these are often created by the very attitude that seeks to avoid any mistakes. Steamrollering a piece of music with unrealistic expectations leads to rushing, tension, frustration, fatigue, all of which foster the type of mistakes that tend to stick. Let's call these errors.

On the other hand, there are mistakes that happen simply because you're a human being striving to accomplish something. These imperfections occur and can be brushed off with no lasting impact. We'll call these flaws.

The following table shows the difference between errors and flaws in several common circumstances:

Situation Flaw Error
writing an essay typo drawing a conclusion not supported by the facts
public speaking saying "um" saying something offensive
driving a car swerving around debris speeding through a red light
getting an injury bumping your shin on the coffee table hurting your back as a result of weak muscles and poor posture when lifting boxes
eating a couple extra cookies eating ice cream when you know you're lactose intolerant
healing scab scar


The relationship between each flaw and error is imprecise at best, and one could argue that any mistake is a result of carelessness or excessive speed. But there is a difference, which is that all of the flaws are generally things that could happen at any time, while the problems created by the errors are avoidable or caused by long-term issues. 

In music, flaws show up when you lose yourself in what you're doing, and when a piece of music is unfamiliar. They are superficial, and can mostly be ignored. They are the human element showing up in your otherwise mindful, methodical work. Sometimes they appear when you get tired, and as such can be indicators that it's time to give the instrument a rest.

Errors, on the other hand, flourish in tense situations where there isn't time to think. When you're going too fast, you have no time to exercise good judgment and your work suffers. "I always mess up at this part. I keep trying but I can't get it right." You can bet these ingrained errors, these deeper issues will show up in a performance situation as tension or, inevitably, mistakes.

What to do about it? Slow down, relax, be mindful, and take the music in small sections. Let go of the flaws, and do everything you can to avoid the errors.

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.