One of the most important chapters in The Practice of Practice–chapter 6–has nothing to do with practice directly, it has to do with what you think about musical talent. Is musical ability “natural,” a gift of genetics? Is it something you’re born with? Something you either have or you don’t? Or is musical talent earned through exposure and effort? Your answer will have a profound impact on your practice: your motivation to practice, how you approach practice, whether you persist in the face of challenges, and how deeply you learn when you do practice.
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.
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. 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. Anybody see the Smithsonian documentary on her? I think I’ll go check the Smithsonian app right now. Here’s the video of Yeime Arrieta Ramos:
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!
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.
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,…
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.
Most people would succeed in small things if they were not troubled with great ambitions. ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow A journey of one thousand miles begins with a single footstep. ~Confucius _________________ A few days ago I realized that posts for the last few months have been interviews, with little writing, and I miss writing, because…
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)
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.
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 (Hussein, 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! At the end of this review is a link to an mp3 of my improv group Meh! playing an improvised story with Nachmanovich.
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.