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What is Anti-Perfectionist Practice? Part 2

The conventional way of viewing perfectionism is that it drives us towards excellence but torments us along the way. I’m starting to re-evaluate that idea. In my experience perfectionism holds me back from achieving excellence. Since I’ve started experimenting with non-perfectionist practice strategies, I have experienced more progress in the practice room and more performance successes. In my last post I promised to share some of these strategies.  Many of these ideas are not new, but putting them together under the umbrella of anti-perfectionism feels novel to me, so I thought I’d share in case it will be helpful to someone else.

A note for parents: this is not just for adult musicians. It’s really important to keep these ideas in mind as you practice with your children. We sign up for music lessons with all sorts of idealistic visions of the joy it will bring us, and it will, but learning an instrument is never a straight line. There will always be bumps and some practice sessions will not embody the vision you had starting out. That’s okay. If you approach practice with an attitude of improvement and experimentation for both yourself and your child – you will figure out ways to make it easier. We need to practice practicing. Practice itself is a learned skill and we can get better at it little by little.

Okay, here it goes:

Put the emphasis on improvement. This is sometimes called adopting a growth mindset.* A few years ago my practicing changed for the better when I started identifying areas of my musicianship I wanted to improve, brainstormed some ways of practicing those things, and systematically worked toward improvement. When improvement is the goal rather than achievement it changes the mindset completely and it’s so much easier to open the case each day (which in itself leads to more improvement).

Explore the art of prioritization. I have a sign up in my studio that says, “What is the ONE thing I can do RIGHT NOW that will make the BIGGEST improvement to my playing?” I like this sign because it doesn’t ask what 6 things I can do (even though there’s always a long list), and it doesn’t ask what can I do to FIX EVERYTHING COMPLETELY, no matter how much I would like that. And the RIGHT NOW part means I don’t get to rationalize putting it off by telling myself it’s too big to do today. All I’m looking for is one thing I can do now to work towards improvement. If I can’t decide quickly what’s most important I just pick one and start there. But if you know what you want to improve then sometimes the answer is very clear.

Adopt an attitude of experimentation. This is not the opposite of prioritizing, or of being diligent about doing the technical work you need to do – it just means approaching those practice items with a sense of curiosity. Ask yourself, “what if I tried it this way?” You can’t make progress on an instrument if you’re afraid of making a bad sound.** You need to be free to try things and discover for yourself whether they work. When you approach a technical problem as if you’re testing a hypothesis it’s not failure when the thing you try doesn’t work, it’s simply information.** It’s a clue. Practicing is much more fun when you approach it like Nancy Drew, trying to solve a mystery.

Keep track. I’m a big fan of practice journals and charts. Writing in a journal helps me get out of the all-or-nothing thinking of perfectionism and find the nuance. There are ALWAYS both successes and struggles in every performance or practice session, whether it felt like your best or your worst, and writing about them can help you see them more clearly. Practice charts are helpful for the opposite reason – they get you out of the nuance and into the yes-or-no question of “did I practice today?” If the answer is yes you get your sticker even if you didn’t become Yehudi Menuhin all in one day. If the answer is no then you know you need to find five minutes and do something.***

Set goals that are both big and small. This year I set a goal of practicing every day in 2019. That’s a big goal. But my definition of practice is small. I count “token practices”() (5 minutes or less) as practices. Committing to practice 4 hours every day in 2019 would be unrealistic, but touching the violin every day is realistic. I try not to let the token practices take over – it’s very important to me to protect my practice time – but I have to make allowances for reality and find a way to continue to commit to myself as a musician while dealing with whatever life throws my

Don’t abandon goals when you slip up. It’s August and how am I doing with my 2019 goal? I’ve missed 3 days so far. Does that render the goal a failure? To answer this question I have to ask myself why I set this goal in the first place. The real purpose of the goal was to make time for the violin in a year when I have a lot of other things on my plate (read: new baby). Have I achieved that? Yes. If I get to the end of 2019 having only missed 3 days I will be very pleased with that, but more importantly, I’m enjoying the musical growth I’ve experienced this year, which was the real purpose of the goal. That said, be careful not to use this principle to rationalize not practicing – I can always tell in my gut if I’m being honest with myself about whether I’m being true to the purpose of a goal.

There’s a lot more I could write on this topic but I think I’m going to leave it there for now. I’m curious to hear from readers – what do you do to combat perfectionism in the practice room?

 

*I’m very excited to read the Carol Dweck book on this topic. In the interests of non-perfectionism I decided not to wait until I had read the book to post on this topic. I am currently reading Angela Duckworth’s fantastic book, Grit, which includes some of Dweck’s research, and is a great  resource for learning to stick with a passion over the long term despite setbacks.

**Thanks to Nancy Dahn and Barbara Conable for teaching me this.

***Check out this Bulletproof Musician article about the efficacy of “self-monitoring:” https://bulletproofmusician.com/self-monitoring-and-how-happy-face-may-have-been-a-more-potent-practice-strategy-than-i-realized/

 

 

What is anti-perfectionist practice? Part 1

A few months ago I had a bit of an epiphany listening to the “Stop Trying to be a Perfectionist!” episode of the wonderful classical music podcast Per Service. At one point, one of the hosts says something to the effect of “People tend to think perfectionists always are really together, but it’s not true. This is why I never clean my apartment – because you can’t fail at something you haven’t started yet.”*

When I heard that I thought, “THIS is why I never practiced in high school.” (And also why I don’t clean more but that’s another topic.)

It was a big realization for me. I had sometimes suspected I was a perfectionist but thought I must not be because, surely if I were I would be much better at things than I am! In other words, I thought that if I were a perfectionist I would be more perfect.

Later in the podcast the hosts come to agree on a definition of perfectionism that goes something like, “the debilitating fear of failure where failure is defined as anything less than perfect.”* I would take that one step further and say that perfectionists equate imperfection not just with failure at the task, but failure as a person.

This is the kind of perfectionist I am learning not to be. Looking back I realize that the reason it was so hard for me to take the violin out of the case every day, even though I loved playing and had big goals, was that fear of failure. I couldn’t fail at something I hadn’t started yet.

Practicing is hard. Even when it’s going well and we’re in a state of flow and everything is wonderful it’s hard work. And it’s never perfect. No practice session is perfect, no performance is, no person is. So how do you work towards excellence and set big goals without equating imperfection with failure? That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out.

This is an important question for all musicians, and for teachers and parents too. We can unwittingly infect the young people in our lives with our perfectionism if we’re not self-aware about it. Looking back I realize some of my students have had these struggles and they probably learned them (at least in part) from me. We need to find a way to teach young musicians to set high standards and develop their critical listening skills without setting them up to perpetuate the perfectionism/procrastination cycle so many musicians know so well.

As I explore this topic I realize it’s also important not to get perfectionist about not being a perfectionist! We will slip up. I am still learning how to apply this new mindset in my own practicing and teaching. Learning not to be a perfectionist is a process of working towards a goal, and in true non-perfectionist fashion, the process is the important part.

In my next post I’ll talk more about some of the strategies I’ve been trying out for combatting perfectionism in the practice room and teaching studio. Stay tuned!

 

*In the interest of not being a perfectionist, I’m not going to spend an hour re-listening to the podcast to make sure I got the quotes exactly right. I paraphrased, you get the idea, and you can listen to it yourself if you like. I highly recommend that you do, it’s a very interesting discussion.

 

My approach to practicing – for myself and for my students

I ask my students to commit to practicing a minimum of 6 days a week as their consistent routine. While some people (professional musicians, other violin teachers) might be thinking, “why not 7?” others might be thinking this sounds like a big commitment. So I’d like to take a moment to explain how I came to the number 6 and why.

Having been both a committed daily practiser and a nearly non-practiser with no regular routine I have personal experience of the difference between those two approaches. I have also seen the same patterns in my students. When you practice daily you get a chance to build each day on what you did before, which builds confidence. There’s a little graphic that gets shared around in music teacher circles that illustrates this well:

Practice => success => motivation => practice

It’s really true. There is a wonderful positive feedback loop that happens (for both adults and children) when practice becomes a daily part of your life. It is simply easier to get the instrument out of the case when you have a fresh recent memory of what you worked on yesterday and what you want to follow up on today.

By the way, I used to take issue with the use of the word success in this graphic, but the more I think about it I think it’s the right word if we interpret it the right way. Success here does not mean fame and glory. Success in this context refers to those small daily successes that can make practicing so much fun. Feeling something that was hard get easier. Figuring out a possible solution to a problem. Hearing your sound improve. When we practice daily there are simply more of these small experiences of success.

In contrast, if a musician only practices a few times a week practicing is harder. Your brain and body don’t have a recent memory of what you’re trying to do, so it feels like you’re started from scratch all over again. This is frustrating and demoralizing and makes us dread getting the instrument out, which perpetuates the problem.

This is true even if your practice sessions are longer. If you practice for an hour 3 times a week you will experience less progress than if you practice for half an hour 6 times a week, even though your total practice time for the week is the same. Because when you practice 3 times a week, part of your practice time is spent trying to relearn what you did a few days ago, where when you practice 30 minutes 6 times a week you have much less need for that relearning time.

So when students are short on time I will always advocate they get the violin out every day for a short amount of time (even 5 minutes or less is better than nothing!) rather than wait until they have time for a long practice session. I call these 5-minute practices token practices and they are absolutely worth doing. When I skip a token practice I always feel the difference.

Are longer daily practices better? Yes, to a point. It’s important to stay within the limits of your mental and physical energy – practicing beyond that point does more harm than good. But if you have time and energy to spare then go for it. Multiple practice sessions a day can be a nice way to maximise time and energy if your schedule allows.

So, back to the numbers. Why 6 instead of 7? Because it’s not about being perfect. It’s about regularity. Some families find it’s important for them to have a day off to simply spend time together. Or there may be one day a week when you have a heavier schedule. Maybe you aim for 7 and then if something happens one day you get 6. Or maybe you practice every day except your lesson day, which means you’re still playing the violin every day – great! I want families to feel they can set a goal that’s realistic for them. I personally aim to practice 7 days a week because that’s what works for me. But I want to give my students some wiggle room to figure out a routine that works for them.

Will there be weeks when you go off the rails? Yes. I am understanding about occasional lapses due to illness, bereavement etc. If you have had a daily practice routine to that point then an occasional off-week won’t do much harm. But be careful about the slippery slope. If you find every week feels like an off-week it’s time to re-examine your routine. If I notice this happening I will ask you about it – we can discuss possible solutions together. And you are always welcome to raise it with me – please don’t try to pretend you’re practicing when you’re not. There is nothing more demoralizing than bringing a child (or yourself) to a teacher week after week without having made progress. That’s not how music is made. I expect my students to make a commitment to their lessons. If that’s hard for you I will help you, but I can’t do it for you.

When you first commit to practicing daily it may take a few weeks to get into that positive feedback loop. Sticking through those first few weeks is the hardest. But once you get into that positive cycle the rewards are wonderful. That’s when the fun starts.