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  • July 2014
    M T W T F S S
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Goals as Fractals and Guerrilla Practice

Hans Jørgen Jensen

Hans Jørgen Jensen

Hans Jørgen Jensen is an affable cello teacher from whose studio have come cello players who win in international cello competitions and garner spots in top orchestras around the world. He’s a wonderful teacher and an interesting, busy man. There were many gems to admire when he spoke with me about practice, but the one that sticks in my mind, the one that was powerful enough to make it a chapter in The Practice of Practice was the power of goals. Another chapter covers what I’ve called Guerrilla Practice: snatching a tiny fragment of practice when you can, either once a day or, ideally, throughout the day. Both are covered briefly below.

Setting goals “just right” is one of the most powerful and motivating techniques expert practicers use to get the most out of the practice session, even if you only have two minutes of practice time a day . When I asked Hans Jensen my favorite interview question, if there was one thing he would teach his younger self about practice, he said, “I would try to make my goals more specific: short-term, long-term, and having a big vision of where you’re heading with it.” He teaches his students to set clearly defined, concrete goals. He said, “If there is no dream, and if there is no vision; that’s what we need for having motivation.”

We know about long-term, mid-term, and short-term goals. Except for short-term goals, larger goals are abstract: it’s a challenge to know exactly what to do to achieve them. I envision goals as a fractal, specifically, a Sierpinski fractal, named after the Polish mathematician who discovered it in 1915. You can see below that even the tiniest goal is a part of the larger goal in which it’s embedded, which in turn is part of a larger goal, etc. Here’s the graphic from The Practice of Practice:


The trick for your single practice session is to break down goals even smaller than short-term goals. Immediate goals are what you want to accomplish for the time you have, whether it’s 5 minutes or 2 hours. Micro goals are one specific task you’d like to accomplish, say learning a tough phrase. Nano-goals are a single repetition, the goal of which is to play the repetition flawlessly.

Shrinking goals to the smallest size helps to make concrete exactly what you’ve got to do to improve in that one moment. Approaching practice like this will help you improve even if you only practice 2 minutes a day. One of Hans Jensen’s students was a graduate student strapped for time and she could spare only 2 minutes a day. His student was learning the Popper cello etude #38 (cellist Joshua Roman in the vid isn’t Jensen’s student). Hans said, “It’s a hard etude. It goes fast! I think she worked on it six weeks. At first, for the first two weeks, she only practiced one minute a day. Then we changed to two minutes. It’s really hard! One of the hardest.” Setting tiny, reachable goals was the technique that allowed her to learn the etude.

Kolossen i Frihamnen

Kolossen i Frihamnen (Photo credit: Eva the Weaver)

Goals combined with what I’ve called Guerrilla Practice are a one-two punch. I used to think that I needed at least an hour or two to practice, otherwise it wasn’t worth it. Hans said he used to think that, too, but he told me, very emphatically, “That’s totally wrong.” Hans said he had another student who got better lots faster than other players. When Hans asked him what he was doing to get so much better so much faster, he said he used short moments of down time to practice, mostly during group rehearsal warm-up time. Ten or fifteen minutes here and there really adds up.

To learn more about goals and many other helpful practice approaches, get a copy of The Practice of Practice. Buy a paperback copy and get the Kindle edition for free! If you have Amazon Prime, you can borrow a Kindle edition for free.

For more on Hans Jensen’s teaching, check out the wonderful documentary on Vimeo, Taste the Stringposted by Richard Van Kleek. All kinds of great stuff in there about learning to play, teaching, and life.

We’re all busy, but I know I can spare at least two minutes a day for an intense burst of practice. I bet you can, too.






Yeime Arrieta Ramos: When She Looks Asleep, Her Accordion Playing is Most Dangerous


Meet young accordion queen, Yeime Arrieta Ramos. Her playing is great, and her attitude is even better. I’ve been writing about Flow states lately, for a chapter in the motivation section in The Practice of Practice. Young Ms. Ramos could be a poster-child for Flow. She looks incredibly relaxed, and yet is playing some serious accordion in the shot above. One of her teachers says something like, “When she looks like she’s asleep is when her accordion is most dangerous.” The joy she has in playing is hard to miss.

I’d love to hear more about her history and how she practices. Her musical companions, who also seem to be around 10-12, are also pretty amazing musicians.  I think I’ll go check the Smithsonian app for the documentary right now. Looks like a good one. Here’s Yeime Arrieta Ramos in a clip from the documentary:

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Motivation to Live Your Dream

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Landfillharmonic: Instruments from Trash

“The world sends us garbage. We send back music.”

                       ~Favio Chavez, orchestra director

Those with love and passion and curiosity will see everything as useful in some way. Some call it the “enchantment with everyday objects.”

The next time you think you have to have an expensive instrument to make music, remember this video. I got all choked up. Brilliant!

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Thanks to Dan Coyle, author of The Talent Code, and The Little Book of Talent for calling my attention to this gem.

Motivation Station: Do Incentives Work?

If you’ve got 10 minutes, check out this quick animation from the good folks at RSAnimate about some interesting studies of motivation presented by Daniel Pink (taken from his book on motivation, Drive).

Even though the topic of this talk on motivation takes a business-oriented bent, I found myself using the ideas to assess my own relationship with practice and with music and with my other chief love, writing. Interesting that for mastery motivation he cites music, echoing my last post about Carol Dweck’s work.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Motivation might not be what you think….

Do You Have a Growth or a Fixed Mindset?

Research begun by Carol Dweck in the mid-1980s explored the repercussions of how we think about intelligence. She identified two ways of thinking about intelligence that people hold. Either we tend to believe that intelligence is a fixed thing: you’re born with a certain amount of smarts and that’s what you have to work with, or you tend to believe that intelligence is something that can be cultivated and increased. n the couple of decades since that first study, she has labeled these “mindsets,” and you have either a fixed or a growth mindset.

I came across this wonderful graphic that does such  great job of explaining Dweck’s theory in a small space and I wanted to share it.

The thing to remember is that we are complex creatures and this isn’t a black-0r-white distinction. We have both of these mindsets operating simultaneously. For me, learning about this was an eye-opener because it made me acutely aware of all the ways in which I had operated under a fixed mindset in the past, especially in high school which, if anyone’s keeping track, was nearly 25 years ago. Anyway, here’s the graphic. It’s from Dweck’s absolutely fantastic book, Mindsets: The New Psychology of Success.

It’s worth reading, but do keep in mind that it’s written from a pop-psych perspective and you might be better off reading her original (much shorter) articles. The material in the book is best summed up by the graphic below. I’ll post a review of the book sometime this summer, after the PhD is in the bag. In the meantime, I urge you to check it out anyway. Here’s the graphic:

Graphic of Carol Dweck's Growth v. Fixed Mindset, by Nigel Holmes

Resolutions, Goals, and Music Practice

The significance of a human being is not in what one attains but in what one longs to attain.
~ Kahlil Gibran


It’s the time of year that we think about goals more than any other, because what is a resolution but a goal writ large? When we think resolutions, we usually think big picture, end results, bold and dramatic changes. And this is a necessary part of the process, and for me, not only the most fun, but also the most fraught with booby-traps. The reason is that long-term goals aren’t usually something that can be brought about with one simple action; they’re reached through many small actions. This is the difference between a resolution and resolve: resolution is a long-term goal, and resolve is something both more immediate and more lasting.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Grand-master musician (tuba) and expert teacher Rex Martin talks about goals in terms of long-term, medium-term, and short-term goals. It’s the short-term goals that are the most concrete ones, because those are the things that we can do right now. It could be an abstract short-term goal like resolving to sit in your chair until you have a passage as beautiful as you can make it, or a more concrete but equally short-term goal to simply move from one chord to another on guitar (a frequent short-term goal of mine). It might even be something as simple as carving out 15 minutes to sit in the practice chair at all, regardless of what you actually do when you get there. It’s important to set goals that are so easy to reach that you’re (almost) guaranteed success, especially at first. But there is a danger: if your goals are too easy, too simple, you won’t be pushed much and your improvement will be slow at best. But on the other hand, if your goals are too ambitious, you’re doomed to failure in the short term.

In astronomy, we’re searching for other planets that might be earth-like in what’s known as the Goldilocks Zone: not too hot, not too cold, but just right. There may even be a galactic Goldilocks zone. As far as short-term, immediate goals go, the Goldilocks Zone is a goal that will make you work, make you think, make you strive a bit beyond your current abilities, but which you can achieve in the time you’ve got. If you’ve got 15 minutes, pick one easily-achieved short-term goal and pursue it. All this abstraction isn’t all that helpful, so let me give you a real-world example.

Yesterday I had 15 minutes to practice guitar, so my short-term goal was to play through a new Gypsy jazz tune I’ve learned, For Sephora and to play it without mistakes. But goals are funny D-hole Gypsy Jazz Guitarthings. They’re a bit like fractals: you can dive in deeper and find even more of them and they all have a similar structure. Thus, a short-term goal like this can be broken down even further into what I call micro-goals. Micro-goals are like atoms: just about as small as you can get and yet still have some kind of cohesion.

So I turned that short-term goal into a medium-term goal even though it only involves 15 minutes of time. In order to play through the tune without mistakes, I first focus on the areas that I know are tricky: In the B section of the tune, the chords move more quickly and in particular, there is a Gmaj7 to Cmaj7 to F# half-diminished passage that is the most difficult of the piece for me. That’s where I start, and I move so slowly that it’s impossible to tell what the tune is, and so slowly that it’s perfectly executed from the very beginning. I ensure that I make the changes perfectly, first from the Gmaj7 to the Cmaj7 a few times, then the Cmaj7 to the F#half-dimished a few times, and then, still going ridiculously slowly, through all three chords.

Already, you can see that each of those actions is a micro-goal in itself, all of which help to build up to my ultimate goal of playing the whole tune without mistakes (and in this case, a “mistake” also includes muted notes within a chord that muddies the clarity of tone). Approached like this, that 15 minutes is absolutely packed with focused effort. Toward the end of the 15 minutes, I begin to put the whole tune together, eventually playing the whole song. It might still be so slow that it’s just about unrecognizable, but that’s okay. My goal isn’t to play the tune up to speed (like the example below, played by the tune’s composer), but to play through without mistakes. It’s achievable but also a challenge because I know myself, I know my tendencies, and I know how much I can take in 15 minutes. After a week of only 15 minutes a day, I can play the tune almost up to tempo, and that is a thrilling thing for me. I love it! My long-term goal for this piece is to play all the parts live: rhythm guitar, trumpet on melody, and percussion, using a looping device (Boss Loop station). For inspiration, I watch the Rosenbergs play it with Birelli Lagrene (video below).

If you have experience practicing, you’ll know much better where that line is between too easy and too hard. If you’re a beginner, or just starting out, it’s better to set very, very easy goals at first, until you have enough experience that you can begin to push yourself a little harder and explore where your failure line is, where your Goldilocks Zone ends and you stray into the Too Hot Zone. At first, make your short-term goals low-hanging fruit. Make it easy! If it’s easy but a little challenging, it’ll be fun! But if, as a neophyte, you’re trying too hard and failing to reach your goals, you’ll be frustrated, dejected, and maybe even angry or depressed because it won’t feel like you’re making progress. You’ll feel like a loser, and nobody can continue in the face of that. Better is to set simple, easily reached goals to bolster your sense of progress toward your ultimate goal.

Here’s the Rosenberg Trio playing Stochello’s tune, For Sephora, with special guest, Birelli Lagrene. Stochello on lead guitar, Birelli accompanies the melody and takes a tasty solo, Nous’che on rhythm guitar, and Nonnie Rosenberg on upright bass. Good stuff! (find recordings of their music here)

Happy New Year! And good luck with your practice goals!

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

The Habit of Motivation and Barking Against the Bad

Lobby card showing Mary Pickford about to punc...

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Every moment of one’s existence one is growing into more or retreating into less.
~Norman Mailer (1923 – 2007)
If you have made mistakes, even serious ones, there is always another chance for you. What we call failure is  not the falling down but the staying down.
~Mary Pickford (1893-1979)

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Plumbing the depths of motivation is a long unending process. Previous posts in this blog contain other aspects of motivation, including some theories about why we persist in difficult tasks. Today I want to shoot from the hip and talk about my own informal experience with and opinions about motivation. No theory. No rigorously tested hypotheses beyond those done subconsciously or haphazardly. Just two things that are on my mind.

Of fundamental importance is the fact that, for me, motivation is not unlike habit. Habit seems to be an often overlooked but highly important aspect of motivation. It’s like habit is motivation’s subconscious. Even when I don’t really feel like practicing the habit of going to my room for at least 20 minutes a day kicks in, and off I go, djembe slung over a shoulder and my trumpet in hand. Like a self-imposed time-out I send myself to my room and do my practice. The difference is that I’m glad for the time-out and once it’s over, even if it’s only 15 minutes, I’m glad I did it.

Another important influence on motivation for me is the balance between critical listening, which is a nice way of saying listening for mistakes, identifying where I don’t get it whether it be something musical, technical, conceptual, or some other issue. Barking at the bad, as Emerson called it. Total focus on where you’re weak undermines self-confidence, which in turn digs out part of the foundation underneath my motivation to play, like a dog digging for a rat at the edge of my cabin. It’s not going to bring the whole structure down, but it does weaken the foundation and make it more vulnerable. For me, there’s got to be balance between spotting where I’m weak and celebrating my progress. If one were to overbalance one way or the other, shoot for more celebration. With focus on what’s getting better, both long- and short-term, I take on a sense of accomplishment, however slight, which feels good and motivates me to continue.  Implicit within that focus on the good, is an awareness of the not-good-yet, an indirect acknowledgment of the areas in which still need work. Posted on my practice room wall are pictures of musicians and my favorite reminders, like the following:

Don’t waste yourself in rejection, or bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of the good.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Have fun, happy holidays, and good luck with your practice!

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Book Review: “Free Play,” by Stephen Nachmanovich

Cover of "Free Play: Improvisation in Lif...

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In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.
~Charles Darwin


Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, by Stephen Nachmanovich

Pages: 197
Chapters: 22
Back Matter (10 pp): notes/sources, bibliography, illustrations list, bio
4 Sections: The Sources; The Work; Obstacles & Openings; The Fruits

(At the end of this review is a link to an mp3 of my improv group Meh! playing an improvised story with Nachmanovich.)

Free Play doesn’t deal directly with music practice, but it is nevertheless an important book for anyone interested in music (or other arts, or life). I strongly believe that improvisation benefits practice. To me, improvising is an essential musical skill, one possessed by musical greats (Hussain, Bach, Shankar, Beethoven, Duke, Mozart, etc.), and is practiced in musical traditions all over the world, as well as by young children who haven’t developed some of the fear associated with improvisation in those overly focused on the written notes. Remember when you drew letters over and over as a young child, taking great care (or not) with the shapes? Now imagine that despite all that practice time forming letters and sounding out words, that you never (ever) spoke extemporaneously. Crazy, right? To me, that’s about the same as practicing scales over and over until they’re memorized, but then never using that tonal material to improvise. Crazy talk!

Free Play is a great introduction to what improvisation is and how it can work. The book is chock-a-block with illustrations and anecdotes (including a talking tennis ball), and draws from spiritual traditions including Christianity, Sufism, Shamanism, and Zen. Despite the complexity of the topic, Nachmanovich’s style is conversational and interesting and you can tell the man is both excited about and dedicated to his art. It’s a short book, with a lot packed into its 200 pages. Some of the questions explored are:

  • What is the Muse?
  • Where does the play of imagination arise?
  • When are sounds music? (or patterns and colors art; or words literature; or instruction teaching)
  • How does the passion of life get coded into artwork?
  • How do we decode and/or recreate an artwork when the artist is no longer present?
  • How does it feel to fall in love with an instrument or an art form?
  • Why has there been a split in the West between improvisational and notational music-making?

Some of the themes in the book include but are not limited to:

  • playfulness
  • love
  • concentration
  • practice (yay!)
  • skill
  • using the power of limits
  • using the power of mistakes
  • risk
  • surrender
  • patience
  • courage
  • trust

The book is broken up into four sections, each of which will be briefly outlined below.

The Sources (6 Chapters: pp. 17-55)

After an introduction by way of a mythic story that chronicles how one musician came to be a Master, the first section continues to expand on what improvisation is and where it might come from, including the reasons why it’s important. Nachmanovich explores inspiration, the mind at play, the muse, and the dissolution of the self during acts of creation and the need to get out of our own way in order to let the Art come through us, whether it’s sound or some other medium. He covers archetypes like the Fool, the Trickster, the Child and the state of samadhi, when one is ultimately absorbed that the self dissolves into the infinite. Heavy stuff, but handled in a deft and interesting way.

The Work (6 Chapters, pp. 59-111)

This is the strongest section of the book, in my opinion and includes an eponymous chapter on practice. Most valuable for me was Nachmanovich calling our attention to the separation of practice and music-making, a distinction brought up by others, too, and an important thing to think about, as well as notions of perfection and what that might mean, how it can hamstring one’s music-making. Also incredibly valuable is his exploration of the power of limits and mistakes. The chapter Playing Together is really about improvising together, and is also worthwhile.

Obstacles & Openings (6 Chapters, pp. 115-160)

This section is about the ways in which the inherent creative impulse we have as children gets buried by living in the world, by criticism, by judgment, addictions (and not just to ingested substances but to ways of thought as well). This is balanced nicely with ways of overcoming some of these challenges, including surrender, patience, perseverance and other useful tactics. Nachmanovich stated in the introduction that one of the purposes of the book is to provide “a block-buster, a wedge for breaking apart creative blocks,” and this section fulfills that purpose most directly, while the rest of the book also fulfills the purpose but more indirectly.

The Fruits (4 Chapters, pp. 163-197)

This shortest section of the book explores what it can be like to create with freedom and how this can benefit not only the individual, but everyone and everything. He also explores tangentially, the slippery notion of Quality, and although he wisely doesn’t define it, he shows us why it is vitally important, and also delves into why Art is important to living a fulfilling life, whether one creates or enjoys it. The book ends with a celebration of the difficulty of the process and the joy of knowing that through struggle with issues and with ourselves, we can achieve breakthroughs that take us to a higher level of understanding and humanity.

This is a book I highly recommend, especially for those curious about or fearful of improvisation.

Two years ago, Northwestern University held a series of talks on musical improvisation and we heard from, and played with prominent thinkers in music improvisation including Pauline Oliveros, Ed Sarath, Victor Goines, and Stephen Nachmanovich. I invited Nachmanovich to come play with a free improvisation group I started–named Meh!–and we created an improvised story with music. One person started a story; the next person in the circle began to “play” the story musically and then all the others joined in. When that part of the story had been musically “illustrated,” the next person continued the story and the entire process repeated. Click the link to hear an excerpt of our resulting performance, “The Camel’s Journey.” Nachmanovich plays violin and voice. I’m on trumpet and percussion; Nasim Niknafs, piano; Ness Buder, sax; Eun Lee, clarinet; Racheli Galay, ‘cello; Daniel Arkfeld, saxes. Enjoy.

The Camel's Journey (by Meh! w/ Stephen Nachmanovich)

Nudge-Nudge, Wink-Wink, Say-No-More

Wink at small faults. Remember thou hast great ones.
~Benjamin Franklin

Wink-wink, nudge-nudge, know what I mean?
~Eric Idle (b. 1943, from a sketch by Monty Python.)


Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

It’s tough to change our behavior radically, or even significantly, and it rarely happens overnight. It’s possible however, to use our own natural tendencies to give ourselves a nudge towards utopia. Some real-world examples of the nudge-in-action are putting fruit at the front of the school lunch line instead of grease-laden pizza, because hungry kids (and let’s face it, adults, too) often grab whatever is closest to hand; or the new Illinois policy that changed the process for the organ donor program so that drivers have to explicitly opt out of being an organ donor instead of signing up to participate in the program, a simple change that could save the lives of many. These nudges are examples  from Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s book  Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. The basic idea is that we can leverage our human idiosyncracies to become better both individually and as a society. In the book they suggest useful nudges that help us behave or perform better than we might otherwise. Others nudges below are from A. J. Jacobs, author and personal experimenter extrordinaire.


A nudge I like to use in my own practice is to leave my instruments out and available. This makes it easy to pick one up and play it for a quick exercise or song, something that simply wouldn’t happen if I had to get the guitar/trumpet/conga/etc. out of its case in order to play. A cool tune by Tito Puente comes on, I step away from the computer and up to my conga and practice my tumbao for the five minutes of the tune and then I’m back to writing on the PhD degree. The same thing happens with my trumpet which I leave out whenever possible, as well as my guitars, which I have on stands, covered with dust cloths to keep them clean. This is an easy nudge I highly recommend.

The following nudges were thunk up by bestselling writer A. J. Jacobs (Know it All, The Year of Living Biblically, The Guinea Pig Diaries)


This one is new to me and I’m a little leery of trying it, buy I think I will anyway, just to see if it has an effect. One study showed that when a picture of eyes was on the wall, people behaved more honorably. Maybe this could be used to get us to practice those things we know we should practice, but don’t. Like all the scales I mentioned in the last two posts. If you’re trying to get your kid to practice, put up some pictures (or drawings–the eyes don’t have to be real) of eyes in his or her practice room.

Related to this is Thaler’s findings that people who eat in front of mirrors tend to eat less. You can (and should!) put up a mirror in your practice room. In addition to being a fantastic tool for checking posture, embouchure, and other important details of playing, a mirror might also boost your metacognitive ability, that is, your ability to monitor your own thought process. It may also help you to see yourself as a musician. Literally.

Another idea having to do with vision involves putting an exposed incandescent light bulb up in your practice room. A study on priming effects found that people exposed to a bare bulb (the symbol of inspiration and enlightenment) were more successful at many different tasks. A bare bulb might help you achieve the insight necessary to finally master that tough musical passage that has vexed you for days.

Say No More

The final nudge is to have a memento mori in a prominent place; a reminder of how fleeting and precious this life is, a reminder not to sweat the small stuff and to enjoy what we have, a reminder to take advantage of the time we’ve been given. This is something I don’t have, alas, poor Yorick, but which I think I’ll get soon. It doesn’t have to be an overt, macabre reminder, like a skull on your desk. It could be something more abstract, like a picture of a mayfly, or a footprint on a beach, or a rainbow. My own taste tends more toward the macabre, so maybe I’ll get a computer mouse made from the ribcage of a real mouse. Or perhaps I’ll get a skull and put a jester’s cap on it, or glue a trumpet kazoo to its mouth. Something to make me think and laugh at the same time.

I hope you can create your own nudges that get you that little bit closer to your musical goals. If you have some good ones, please share them!

I debated posting this video because for nearly the entire thing it seems sexist and a bit crass. Then comes the oh-so-quick punch line and the tenor of the whole skit changes as a result. Brilliant, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with practice and is just for fun, so feel free to skip it if you don’t need a chuckle.

Have fun, and good luck with your practice.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.


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