What I learned from off-duty dancers

Have you ever seen a trained dancer out and about in everyday life? Walking down the street, standing in line at a coffee shop, and so on? If you did, you’d probably suspect right away that they were a dancer, because of – you guessed it – their excellent posture.

The amazing Misty Copeland and her enviable posture.

Owing to their rigorous training in the studio, dancers maintain that trained upright posture even as they go about their daily routine. This is not the same as intentional, artistic gesture, but is a kind of backdrop, a baseline that they carry with them always, as a result of persistent effort in rehearsal.

What if we applied this to violin playing? That is, that every time I picked up the violin, I strove to have as a baseline the most beautiful tone, the clearest intonation? It might very well become a habit…a baseline to draw from, so that in moments of performance, this baseline would be second nature, and one’s attention would be free to focus on higher-order musical and expressive concerns.

So I’m striving to learn from a dancer to maintain my musical discipline, even when I’m not performing.

The Ecology of Mistakes

I recall receiving admonishment as a child when crafting or baking, not to “throw out my mistakes.” That misshapen cookie was still edible; that cutaway construction paper scrap could be found useful in another project.

The other day while practicing, I was attempting a thorny passage up to tempo for the first time in a new piece. My fingers, seemingly having a mind of their own, followed a new finger pattern that I had not yet tried. When I got to the end of the passage, I was astonished at how well it had worked and how natural that “new” pattern felt. My “mistake” actually ended up being a better choice after all, and I decided to change my fingering to the new pattern.

Not all mistakes are as useful as the one described above. Most of the time, a mistake is not something that we wish to repeat. That being said, it can still provide worthwhile information, by highlighting an area of weakness that needs more practice, for example, or reminding us of where we need to focus our attention.

In either case, taking apart and considering our mistakes certainly helps make them less frustrating and makes practicing more creative and enjoyable.

“It Sounded Better at Home:” Achieving Repeatable Good Performance

Have you ever asked yourself, “Why did my playing sound better at home/in the practice room than in my lesson? You should have heard me on Tuesday afternoon – my neighbors thought it was Heifetz!”

Impersonating deceased violinists aside, it is frustrating when our efforts in the practice room yield less-than-stellar results. It can feel almost like all that practicing never happened! Here’s where the concept of RGP (repeatable good performance) comes into play.

Sports psychology researchers define RGP as the ability of athletes to consistently perform at an optimal level. Notice that it doesn’t state, “at peak level,” but at an optimal one. In other words, an optimal level is the best possible performance given the circumstances, which may be less-than-ideal.

So it would follow that the real challenge is to increase your optimal level on any given day, through practice.

What are the steps to achieve that? Below are a few guidelines.

  • Set an outcome-based, i.e., a measurable goal for your practice session or even a small part of a session. For example, “I will play measures 90-100 five times with 100% accuracy.”
  • Simulate a pressure-inducing environment by imagining an auditor or by recording yourself.
  • Use mental imagery to picture yourself performing the specific task successfully. Hear what it sounds like, visualize the movements involved. Define a path to execute the action.
  • Concentrate! Do your best to block out distractions. The more you practice doing this, the more adept you will be when you need it most.

Is Talent Overrated?

How many times have you heard someone say, “I can’t do that; I just don’t have the talent”?

In this case, talent is seen as a mystical endowment, a gift bestowed at birth. Or in less flowery terms, a “knack” for a particular activity.

But when you really look into the matter — examining the childhoods of geniuses with super-ability — you see a different story.

In Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overratedhe examines just that. Looking at research in various realms, as well as case studies, he tries to uncover what the source of talent might be.

Is it intelligence? Not necessarily, as evidenced by the fact that “some people have become international chess masters though they possess below-average IQs.”

Is it superior memory? Not so, because scientific experiments have shown that memory can be greatly expanded through proper training.

Is it some kind of physical propensity, such as faster reaction times or the right kind of body build? Not really, because “endurance runners, for instance, have larger than average hearts, an attribute that most of us see as one of the natural advantages with which they were blessed. But no, research has shown that their hearts grow after years of intensive training; when they stop training, their hearts revert to normal size. Athletes can change not just the size of their muscles but even the composition of them (the proportion of fast-twitch fibers to slow-twitch) through years of practice.”

Or, is it inborn? If so, this would suggest the existence of a “talent gene” – and to date, none has been found.

Well, what is the answer then, you ask? Drumroll……………………………………………………………………

……….it is deliberate practice, carried out for many years, and often starting earlier than the norm (for other practitioners of an activity).

That’s it, you ask? But what about geniuses like Mozart, who composed music when he was five years old?

Colvin examines the case of Mozart, only to find that “Mozart’s father was of course Leopold Mozart, a famous composer and performer in his own right. He was also a domineering parent who started his son on a program of intensive training in composition and performing at age three…he was deeply interested in how music was taught to children…he was highly accomplished as a pedagogue.”

Colvin goes on to note that many of Wolfgang’s early compositions are in fact compositional studies – arrangements of the work of other composers. The earliest work by Mozart that is today considered a masterpiece, his piano concerto No. 9, was in fact written when the composer was 21; in other words, after he had amassed some eighteen years of intense training.

Another groundbreaking fact to note is that, contrary to what many of us were taught, Mozart did not in fact write down pieces that had been fully formed in his head. “Surviving manuscripts show that Mozart was constantly revising, reworking, crossing out and rewriting whole sections, jotting down fragments and putting them aside for months or years.”

So, now that we’ve seen the incredible results of deliberate practice, one question remains: what separates those who partake in this type of practice from others? Since deliberate practice is difficult and a great time investment, what motivates people to do it in the first place?

Colvin proposes a few possibilities to this mysterious question. One is “the multiplier effect.” It purports that “a very small advantage in some field can spark a series of events that produce far larger advantages.” Take, for example, a young child who has better-than-average forearm strength to begin with, who then joins a baseball team, and receives positive feedback for his slightly superior ability, which in turn motivates him to work even harder, creating a self-perpetuating cycle. Also, the better he gets, the more he seeks out more advanced opportunities and has the chance to work with better players and coaches. In this way, each increase of ability is matched by a better environment, creating the conditions for superior performance.

Another factor that motivates people to engage in deliberate practice is believing that they are uniquely capable. “In all fields most of these young students were regarded as fast learners by their first teachers…Whether or not they were really faster learners than others is not known…As they began to receive recognition for the talent in the early years of instruction, the children’s investment in the talent became greater. No longer was the prime motivation to please parents and teachers. It now became the individual’s special field of interest.”

Colvin points out that “talented” youngsters are compared with others their age, not with the best in the field, using Tiger Woods’s youth as an example. By starting earlier than the norm, a child has the chance to amass more deliberate practice than their peers of the same age, creating a sense of “talent” and competence, which in turn fuels their motivation to continue to practice. As Colvin states, “Standing out at any given age is an excellent way to attract attention and praise, fueling the multiplier, and it can be done without relying on any innate ability.”

What do you think? Do you believe that talent is innate, or is it a result of the right mix of factors?

Catching the Wave: Flow

Flow is a mental state characterized by total immersion in the task at hand, coupled with a sense of enjoyment of the activity and an overall feeling of well-being. A lot of what propels musicians to pursue their art is that they can experience this state of flow.

Do you recall a time when you experienced this feeling? Maybe it was while finger painting as a child. Or becoming wrapped up in a video game for hours, not realizing how long you’d been sitting there, because “time stopped.”

Wouldn’t it be great to live life constantly in this state? Unfortunately, a flow state, much like creativity in general, cannot be forced or willed into existence. That being said, there are a few key components that make a person more likely to get into this all-encompassing state.

  1. Knowing what to do
  2. Knowing how to do it
  3. Knowing how well you are doing
  4. Knowing where to go (if navigation is involved)
  5. High perceived challenges
  6. High perceived skills
  7. Freedom from distractions

(Schaffer, Owen (2013), Crafting Fun User Experiences: A Method to Facilitate Flow,

Human Factors International)

For musicians in particular, this boils down to: playing a piece that is at once challenging and enjoyable, but that also falls within your own perceived skill level. Keep in mind that this can be either during practice or performance — you can experience this state at any time, and in almost any place!

Making goals, breaking goals

A new year, a new opportunity to re-evaluate our goals and set new ones for the year…what resolutions did you make this year?

We all know the drill: set specific, measurable goals and then define the steps to meet them. But what happens when the unexpected occurs, interfering with our goals?

Or what if we *do* meet our goals, but we end up missing the bigger picture or an even better opportunity?








Don’t get me wrong – goals have their place in motivating us to achieve new challenges. But, we need to distinguish between process and outcome-oriented goals. Both have their place for the fearless musician.

Outcome goals are, as their name suggests, focused on measurable results: to run a mile in X number of minutes, or to win Y championship. Process goals, on the other hand, involve an aspect of the journey: to take longer strides during a race, or to position one’s feet properly before a golf swing. Or it can even be, to keep one’s mind focused on the present during a performance.

During the training/preparation process, outcome goals can be most useful. They motivate the player to complete a training task, staying focused and interested in the practice session. This same outcome-oriented approach, however, can add unnecessary pressure in a competitive or performance situation, however.

In performance, by contrast, the player should choose a process-oriented mindset, such as listening carefully or staying focused on phrasing beautifully. In this way, the player’s mind will stay in the moment and avoid self-judging thoughts or other negative, potentially harmful mindframes.

This week, when considering your musical goals, can you find examples of both process and outcome goals, and make some of each?

Further reading:

Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead.


Intuitive Practice

Musicians, like athletes, are no stranger to the phrase, “No pain, no gain!” Many of us take physical exhaustion, discomfort and mental boredom as par for the course, and even as hard-won badges of honor for our labors. But experience teaches that in fact, pain can lead to injury, whether physical or psychological. There must be a better way to practice!

Enter intuitive practicing. This is not a hocus-pocus, light-some-incense-and-go-to-your-happy-place idea – it simply means, following your own instinctive sense of creativity and curiosity when you practice. Start off with a question – “Where is this phrase going?” or, “What if I handled it this way?” If you desire to linger on a particular passage, do so — as long as you are mentally engaged. If you are drawn to a completely different section of the piece, go there. Experiment with a different speed of vibrato, a more subtle diminuendo, a surprising change of color. This kind of intuitive practicing stokes the creative fires and encourages expression and engagement. And when your mind, emotions and senses are engaged, you are in an ideal state to create music!