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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