I used to work in the corporate world, and there was nothing I hated more than being dragged into a mandatory training session conducted by the Human Resources department. To anyone who works in Human Resources, sorry about that. It’s not you, it’s me. It’s just my personality; I hate being told what to do, which is kind of ironic when you think about it, since I am a teacher. On the other hand, I may be in denial, but I don’t think my teaching style is authoritarian.
But back to Human Resources. There was actually this one guy that got my attention, and it was psychologist Steven Covey, whose seminal work, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, resonated with me. Two of his ideas in particular have always stuck with me:
1. Vision: begin with the end in mind. In the context of piano lessons, to me this means orienting your practice around what you want the lesson experience to look like. A cynical person could say, “Yeah, you just mean be ready for your lesson or else you’ll be mad at me.” But what if we got more specific:
Above all, make your home practice a goal-oriented activity. Rather than saying to yourself, “I’ll sit down for ten minutes and see what happens,” say, “I’ll practice until I can play the 8-bar B-section of this piece with correct rhythms, notes, and fingerings, at half tempo.” If that doesn’t work, set a goal that does work. But make it a daily goal.
Your lesson time shouldn’t be a prison sentence, but if you don’t get real and figure out the rhythms, notes, and fingerings for yourself, my studio is nothing more than a “House of Corrections”. (I stole that joke.)
Ideally our time together at lessons is spent on technique and artistry, NOT figuring out notes and rhythms. There will always be a few gotchas, but this shouldn’t be the “main course”.
Back to Dr. Covey:
2. It takes six weeks to develop a habit. Practice should be a habit. Not an obligation. Covey said it takes six weeks to develop a habit. Think of that! That’s a long time. He fine-tuned this claim: it takes three weeks to develop the habit, and three more weeks to make it stick.
In the face of everything we’re dealing with right now, how do we make this happen??? To me, the “sweet spot” is “a little bit every day.”
Another of my favorite authors in the self-improvement arena is Julia Cameron. She was a TV writer but her claim to fame was a book called The Artist’s Way. It was a recovery-based approach to making art, which was attractive to me when I read it because at that time in my life, I needed an antidote to constantly feeling overwhelmed by obligations and judgements.
My big takeaway from her was “Let go of the quality — take charge of the quantity.” Or, more famously, “Just do it.” But I like Ms. Cameron’s version so much better because it’s more specific and frankly a lot kinder. “A little bit every day” is kind. “Just do it” has a what’s-wrong-with-you, are-you-lazy vibe to it. “Just do it” just doesn’t work for me. “A little bit every day” works better. Another nice version of this is “If you love something, do a little bit of it every day.” I got that one from my friend Bruce Bell-Myers. Maybe he got it from a coffee mug. I don’t care. I like it because it just exudes mental health. You can love something and enjoy it without being attached to it (in either a positive or negative way).
Not everyone is going to be a concert pianist or rock star. I do hope, though, that everyone who takes piano lessons with me can be a lifelong musician. Ironically, the musicians I respect the most are the ones who don’t try so hard, and aren’t in such a big hurry, and a lot of these folks are juggling a lot in their lives — they are parents, students, co-workers, activists…
Not trying so hard, not being in a hurry. These qualities translate very directly into music: they draw you in. They listen. They are generous. They are laid back. They doesn’t get ahead of the beat. They let go and above all, they ask: what does the music require of me?