What Does Success Look Like?


The first time my student R attended a workshop, she spent most of the day in tears. 

I was distressed, but not surprised.  At that point in her playing life, R had a strong negative reaction to every playing mistake she made, allowing each error to derail her progress through a piece.  Whenever she made a mistake, she became so flustered that it was almost impossible for her to hop back in.

Just a few years later, R was attending workshops throughout the region, making mistakes and finding her part again with aplomb. 

Mostly, this is a credit to R’s perseverance. Not everyone would stick with playing after an upsetting experience, but R was impressively determined.

But helping R also required me to use one of the most powerful tools any teacher’s arsenal- the power to define success.

What does defining success mean? When you define success, you identify, shape, and shift the parameters by which students measure their own performance. You help students choose -and use- the success metric that best suits their abilities and needs at any given time.

If you don’t define success, your student will do it for you.  The fact is that students come to lessons with all kinds of pre-determined success metrics.  Some are explicit- students know what they want to achieve.  But some are implicit- hidden definitions that can cause trouble along the way.  In addition, students’ success metrics can also be static- they don’t change over time as a student grows.

In contrast, a good teaching success metric is explicit and dynamic- both student and teacher know what success means at any particular time, and the definition of success shifts to match student needs.  One lesson, success might mean playing all the notes in time.  A year later, success might mean playing all the notes in time and in tune.

When she attended that first workshop, R carried with her an implicit and unhelpful success metric: Success, to R, meant not making mistakes.

What I needed to do was to give R a more constructive definition of successAfter that first workshop, we debriefed and made a plan.  From now on, 10 minutes of every lesson would be devoted to sight reading duets.  And R’s only goal during these sessions was to get back in.  No matter what.  No mater how long it took

She could exclaim, she could sigh, she could spend most of the piece trying to figure out where she was, but if she got back in by the final cutoff, even partway through the last note, R would have succeeded.  Later, we took the same definition of success into group playing sessions.

It worked.

Slowly, but steadily, it worked.

I moved out of state and no longer teach R, but I saw her recently at a workshop and asked permission to tell her story.  The workshop featured a student performance and I watched as, during the last movement of her piece, R lost her place- and quickly hopped back in.  It was a splendid moment-  over in a few blinks of an eye. 

The Power of Rest

It’s Christmas today.  I must confess I practiced. 

I also practiced on Thanksgiving.  And my wedding day.  And six days after my son’s birth.  I believe in practice.  It's sustaining and grounding and potent, and even though I don’t have as much space for it in my life as I used to, I still undertake to practice daily.

But this isn’t a post about the power practice.  It's about the power of rest.

Sometimes, we are forced to rest.  Perhaps you’re traveling all day, and your fellow airplane passengers would be less than 100% enthusiastic if you whipped out your sopranino recorder.  Maybe you have the flu, or jury duty, or some other of life's immovables.  Maybe you’ve injured yourself and need time to recover. 

Sometimes, we choose rest.  A day, a week, a month.  Short or long, we choose to carve out a space in which our fingers are still and our breath returns to its usual work of keeping us alive.

Rest is not a bad thing.  But it does require intention and purpose.

How do you know you need to rest?

Does playing hurt?  If playing is painful, either physically or mentally, that’s an indicator you may need to take a break.  Note that “frustrating” is different from painful- frustration is an intermittently necessary part of practice; pain is an unhelpful dead end.

Do you need a break?  Sometimes we can reach into a cul-de-sac in our practice, in which we've become so fixated on, or caught by, some detail that we cease to make progress.  Or we're simply tired. 

How to rest?

Set your parameters.  Before you undertake a rest, you need to make sure you know what that rest will look like and when it will end.  A rest with no fixed endpoint isn’t a rest; it’s a hiatus, and it likely won’t serve you in your quest to become a better musician.  Set a deadline- even if it’s a deadline for asking yourself whether or not you need to rest some more.   I personally tend to do best with a short rest- a day or two, a week at most.  You’ll discover how long you need.  Setting parameters on your rest also liberates you from guilt: You're not failing to practice; you're deliberately resting.

What kind of rest do you need? Often, you don’t need a break from music. You simply need a break from whatever kind of practicing or music-making you’ve been immuring yourself in lately.  Take a few days to try something new, like learning tunes by ear, listening to recordings, or even playing through things you like.  Meet your friends to play some consort music, go to a live concert- all of these changes can help you return to your practice revitalized and inspired.

So while I did practice today, my practice was different from my usual fare.  Instead of working on a piece I’m going to perform or honing on a specific technique, I’m simply reading, visiting with music I’ve never played and then moving on. 

It feels exploratory.  A little bit joyous.  Restful.

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© 2016 Anne Timberlake