10 Rules for Students and Teachers

Sometimes attributed to composer John Cage, these rules were actually created by Sister Corita Kent, in 1967-68, and later taken up by the art department of LA’s Immaculate Heart Convent whee Sister Corita went to school.

Maybe the list is attributed to Cage because he’s quoted in rule #10…. Here they are:

Johnny Cash on Failure

“You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.”

Here’s another iconic image of Johnny Cash. I love this one, and like to think this is a good representation of my own attitude towards failure. The story of the image is told by Alex Selwyn-Holmes on his interesting website Iconic Photos. After the quote is a 1959 video of Johnny Cash playing Folsom Prison Blues.

Resolutions, Goals, and Music Practice

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.

The Fruits of Practice Sound Like This: Maurice André

One of the most foolish and embarrassing musical moments for me came in my senior year of high school at a music festival in Alaska for which I played (mangled is a more appropriate term) this piece that Maurice André plays below so beautifully below: The Concerto in Eb by Johann Nepomuk Hummel . I was unprepared for the demands of this very difficult piece, attempted it without help or a teacher (there were no accomplished classical trumpet players in Sitka), and with inadequate practice (I was still flailing away at the piece just before the performance, yet another lapse in judgment). Anyway, the poor adjudicator complimented my accompanist, the wonderfully helpful Peggy Brandt, but that’s about all he could say. It still stings. The only good thing is that I learned a thing or two in the process. It reminds me of a hilarious recording of the Hummel sent in for pre-audition to the Boston Symphony. Hear it here. (from trumpet bloopers)

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

It’s tough to change our behavior radically, or even significantly. It’s easier to give ourselves a nudge towards utopia. Some real-world examples of the nudge are putting fruit at the front of the school lunch line instead of 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 wording 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 saves the lives of many. These nudges are examples from Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. In the book they suggest useful nudges that help us behave or perform better than we might otherwise. Others are from A. J. Jacobs, author and personal experimenter extrordinaire.

Book Review: The Musician’s Way, by Gerald Klickstein

I’ve read (and re-read in many cases) most books out there on practice and this is one of the best, hands down. Klickstein is a classical guitarist who performs throughout the U.S. and internationally and is a professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

My favorite 2 aspects of the book are…

Remember Your Thrills On Blueberry Hills

Turns out drinking blueberries boosts memory and improves learning. A recent study from the American Chemical Society said that, “These preliminary memory findings are encouraging and suggest that consistent supplementation with blueberries may offer an approach to forestall or mitigate neurodegeneration.”


Planning is an essential part of your practice session. Imagine the planning that went into the video above, and ask yourself how much planning goes into your practice sessions. Every book I’ve read on practice, and every research article that looks into what musicians do when they practice mentions the importance of planning out your practice session. This includes broader plans like goals, as well as more specific things like exactly which pieces or skills you’re going to tackle and how you’re going to tackle them. This planning stage is only one part of a 3-stage process used by most of the people studied by McPherson and Zimmerman in a 2002 study. Here’s what it looks like:

It’s not about you…

Motivation is the grease and the ball bearings in the wheels of our music practice. Without motivation, absolutely nothing would happen. It’s as essential as the breath you breathe. Thing is, motivation is a slippery notion that tends to slip away when you try to wrap your mind around exactly what it is, where it comes from, and how it works. There are the usual things like listening to great music, going to see musicians live and talking to them if possible, but this is surface stuff. Motivation goes much deeper. There are two important aspects of motivation I’d like to throw out for you to chew on: goals (specifically what researchers call goal orientation), and your implicit theories on both intelligence and “talent.”

Your Plastic Brain (redux)

Learning changes your brain structure. My neurons underwent some serious alteration this weekend, all naturally induced, thank you very much. One of the world’s foremost grand masters of the djembe, Mamady Keita (vid to follow), was in Chicago to give beginning-, intermediate-, and advanced drum workshops. I’ve never had a djembe lesson before. I signed up for the beginner session and would learn very quickly what “beginner” actually meant to this crowd. Good thing I didn’t know that Keita’s definition of “beginner” is most people’s definition of, “I know what I’m doing.” If I’d known this, my stomach would’ve been in even more of a knot about showing up with little to no real djembe experience. Nothing like a good challenge to get you to really pay attention.

Circle (of Fifths) Your Wagons!

If you’re practicing a melodic instrument, the circle of fifths (also called the cycle of fifths or circle/cycle of fourths) is a fantastic tool to help you navigate most musical waters. It’s a tool that helps to explain how music moves harmonically, and applies to almost all forms of tonal music. When you practice your scales or chord progressions, this guide can help you practice them in the way that you’ll find them in actual performed music. If you practice scales in this order, you’ll be doing double duty: not only will you be getting the scales/chords under your fingers, but you’ll be practicing the order in which you’ll find them and you’ll be getting the sound of how these move from one to the next into your consciousness.

Let Your Dim Light Shine

It’s hard to maintain a belief that you can get a lot of joy out of doing something at less-than-professional levels when you’re surrounded by a culture that tells you otherwise, but I would like to say that not only is it possible, but it’s the norm. If all musicians in the world took a survey on this issue, we’d find that there are many more happy amateur musicians out there than there are happy professionals. We should all let our lights shine and celebrate not the intensity of the light, but that it shines at all.