Every day we are offered choices. This food or that food. This activity or that activity. Every thing we decide to fill our time with means that we are choosing not to fill that time with other things. How do we decide what interests to devote our energy to? How can we manage our dedication to specific interests while still becoming the ”well-rounded” people we’re supposed to be to “get ahead” in our current society?
The desire to write about the topic of practice, passion, and dedication here and now, for me, stems from 1) recent conversations I’ve had with my partner about time management, 2) talks with friends and colleagues about overloaded schedules, too many directions, and the analysis paralysis of trying to choose which paths will lead to fulfillment and happiness, and 3) media offerings I’ve come across recently about getting things done and fueling your passions in life. It all seems to come back to the fact that time is precious and we all spend quite a lot if it doing things that really don’t contribute to our real goals.
Progress in anything depends on practice. If you want to become really accomplished at public speaking, baking cakes, playing golf, or playing the violin or viola, not practicing will ensure that you never meet your goal. Unfortunately, so many ideas, activities, and goals may interest us in life, we will undoubtably fall short on time to do all of them. Our choices are to either prioritize our must do’s and weed out the things that we’re really not attached to ever doing, or avoid choosing through remaining noncommittal. Simply, we can choose and try something on for size, or keep skipping from interest to interest, fantasy to fantasy.
Enter the perpetual window shopper: She buys a baking book, some supplies, and after a few modest attempts, shelves them for the new activity of rock climbing. He gets a Groupon for a month at a local golf club, buys some used gear on EBay and after a month of swinging his club around without a hole in one, decides he needs to wait for things to settle down at work to invest more time at golf. In the meantime he will focus on fixing up his antique car.
No problem. We all try things and decide to discontinue doing them. That’s life. But what if we simply like the idea of a new interest, and never stick it out long enough to figure out if it’s something we really want to do? Instead of methodically crossing ideas off the list and moving on, what if we simply keep piling on new ideas of things we’d like to do and accomplish? Maybe we’re not sure if we have what it takes to play golf or the violin? Maybe we decide to just dip a toe in to see? “I’ll take a couple lessons and see if it clicks.” No problem, but know that this is where the stories of baking, golf, and playing a musical instrument, especially a violin family instrument, begin to diverge.
Whether child or adult, we like the idea of playing the violin, making those beautiful sounds we’ve heard. Initially, however, we may not realize the amount of time and most notably, the consistency required to play well. The first month of lessons may consist of only holding the bow and instrument properly, some exercises to train the body for proper mechanics, and finally, playing on open strings. Some students may be ready, and some teachers may push on to more exciting assignments, but any teacher walks a thin line between allowing students to “move on” to new material and enforcing mastery of techniques. Focusing too much on perfection eventually may cause the student to feel defeated and loose interest while moving on too quickly creates gaps in the student’s technique. It’s tough. In all cases, with images of dazzling concerts in mind, or simply the idea of eventually playing for loved ones, few beginning students can expect to feel any obvious signs that this is “the thing” in such a short time.
What I’ve found can be determined in that very first month of lessons is a student’s level of dedication. In observing students in my private lessons studio and in youth orchestras since 1996, it seems to me that some students throw themselves into their interests full force, and some wait to get a signal, either internal or external, before “investing”. Some decide, “I’m going to do this” and they do it. Others “dip a toe”. The former type of student makes consistent progress, even if he or she does not have a natural gift for the instrument. I’ve seen it again and again. The latter rarely does, even if he or she shows incredible promise in the beginning.
In his book The Talent Code, author Daniel Coyle describes a study that illustrates the importance of the attitude with which a student approaches a new activity or interest. Beginning in 1997, Gary McPherson tracked 157 randomly selected young (7-8 year olds on average) music students from a few weeks before the beginning of their study through high school. After nine months the students progress formed a typical bell curve with some doing well, others falling off, and most somewhere in the middle. Was it that most people simply have average musical skills? Or was there another factor at play?
When McPherson began to analyze his data, he found that innate musical skills had nothing to do with it. Instead he found a direct correlation between a question he had asked the students before they started their instrument study and their end result. “How long do you think you’ll play your new instrument?”
Their answers were grouped into three categories: short, medium, and long term commitment, and you guessed it, their results reflected the ideas they had going in.
So what makes a child answer “I’m going to play my instrument my entire life” versus “I’ll see how it goes” or even “until the end of the year”? I suspect the attitudes from caretakers, siblings, and perhaps society modeled from a young age. Perhaps also some deeper knowing that this is or is not “the thing”.
What should be done with such information? With getting into a “good” college and finding a “good” job seemingly harder to manage then ever, is it even possible to strike a balance between finding and engaging in the activities one is truly passionate about and creating a well rounded person with all the “right” interests. Forget the avid artist, you’ll need at least three years of sports and some debate club to even think about making it in the world. Really? Has it really come to prying the paint brush from the next Monet’s hand in exchange for a soccer ball? I’ve actually had several parents over the years state point blank at the first lesson with me, in front of the child: “I don’t want him/her to get too serious about this at his/her age. He/She needs time to develop his/her interests.” Sad to say, none of those students practiced very much or lasted very long. Again, window shopping is fine, but especially as a teacher, I prefer actually exploring down the path to just milling around the trailhead.
With these constant pressures to check all the boxes in both kids and adults, is there even time to become passionate about anything anymore? The number and range of activities people cram their schedules with, especially in the last four or five years, makes my head spin. Every semester creates a giant, painful upheaval to my teaching schedule. The parent that does not call about the need to shuffle their lesson time and day has become the exception. I’m amazed that they can fit it all in! Swimming, dance classes, soccer, volleyball, baseball, art class, tutors, gymnastics... all in addition to music lessons and daily violin or viola practice. Yeah, that latter one doesn’t seem to happen quite as often as it once seemed to...
A couple years ago, when I questioned a young student about why she didn’t practice all week, she crossed her arms and with a sigh said, “I was so busy I didn’t even have time to PLAY!” She was seven. How will this seven year old find her passions in life if there is no room? How will she learn to become dedicated to what she needs to or wants to become dedicated to when she’s barely finished with one activity before being shuttled to the next? Check the box, dear. We’ll talk about it when that acceptance letter from Stanford arrives.
The adult students often aren’t much better at managing their time for activities. Besides working 40+ hour weeks and child rearing there just isn’t much time. Still, they really want to play violin...until they realize that it wasn’t hyperbole when I said it would take focused, daily practice to overcome the squeaks and intonation issues they dislike.
Now, recently relocated and taking some time off from teaching, I’m looking at where my role in this whirlwind of time management, passion discovery, and checking the boxes towards well-rounded human beings might lie. On the eve of turning 30 and having already spent over half my life teaching, I feel like I have unique insights to offer. Unfortunately, students who have the energy and dedication to really digest what I have to give are relatively few and far between. It’s not about just teaching prodigies. It’s about students and teachers joining together as a team.
What does one say to a parent that showers compliments upon you, about your teaching style and “how good you are” with his or her child”, but then follows up with a “even though he/she doesn’t practice at home, I just feel that coming here each week and being immersed in music is a good thing for his/her overall development.” I guess that might be true if the choice is between that and no music, but I can only teach so many hours a week. That means that at any given time a limited number of students have access to me. Is being paid to go over the same unprepared material week after week with a student really the best use of my time? When, as a teacher, is it time to pull the plug and suggest checking the music education box with a different instrument, or monthly visits to the symphony or a music festival? Let’s face it, whether or not you practice your golf swing or bake a few soufflés between pastry classes doesn’t hold up progress in quite the same way, and with quite the auditory discomfort, that not practicing your stringed instrument does.
The fact is, playing a stringed instrument well will take a lifetime to master. One can sound pretty good after a few years, but to really develop and master every aspect of technique and become a mature interpreter is a constantly evolving process. You will never reach the end of it. Thankfully!
So, if you are considering playing violin or viola, taking up golf, or learning the tricks of French pastry, ask yourself: How long do I plan to make this interest a part of my life? Will you “Practice every day you eat!” like pedagogue Shinichi Suzuki once said? If you find your answer noncommittal, weigh it against how much time you actually have in your life for said activity. If you have a lot of time, go for it, you may very well develop a passion for it along the way.
On that final note, if you are waiting for “the thing” to strike you, whether it’s your perfect hobby or your perfect career, realize that, like a garden, passion grows with watering. Waiting to practice when you suddenly become passionate about practicing may never happen. More realistically, working practicing into your daily routine and stacking up small successes as you learn a few tunes and your skills grow and develop, may very well lead you to the desire to practice more and a lifelong passion for the instrument. Ten years from now you may hardly remember your life before playing your instrument. It’s fine to “dip a toe”, but don’t keep standing there if you don’t like the temperature.