The Joy of Getting Better
Among the many -many!!- reasons to play the recorder is the visceral delight of improvement. As we get older and dig ourselves into our daily ruts, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for us to set our minds to something, work hard at it, and make progress. After all, how much better can you really get at merging into traffic, reading the newspaper, or cleaning the stove?
Improving on the recorder offers a sense of mastery and personal satisfaction and pays real musical dividends, enabling you to increase your enjoyment of playing both by yourself and with others.
Yet, over the years I've watched multiple students struggle with the sense that they are treading water when, in fact, they're improving by leaps and bounds. A sense of progress can be elusive when you're working hard every day.
Fortunately, there's a clear solution. Together, my student and I pay attention to how- and when, and why- we're measuring progress.
*Where are you going? When students come to me with the general goal of improving their playing, I work with them to drill down to some specific goals. It's tough to see whether or not you're moving forward if you're not sure where you're going. Perhaps you want to learn the bass recorder, or improve your airflow, or play better in tune. Whatever your goals are, write them down: The act of putting them in writing -and referring back to them- helps focus your energy.
*Find your starting line When you're practicing regularly, it's easy to focus on how far you have to go and forget how far you've come. Take the time to notice, and record, where you are when you start. This might mean writing down how long you took to learn a piece in bass clef, or timing how long you can blow a note smoothly, or recording yourself playing a piece you're working on.
*Celebrate your miles Returning to pieces you've worked on before can be an electrifying way to measure progress and inspire you to keep moving forward. Try letting a piece rest for at least nine months before picking it up again. If you've been improving, you'll notice a difference in how you approach the piece, whether that's technically, musically, or both.
*Find a coach- or a friend. One of the best things a teacher can do for you is widen your perspective. It's much more difficult to perceive progress -or lack of progress- on a day-to-day basis than it is to perceive patterns long term. If you don't have a teacher, it's still worth recruiting another set of ears. Try checking in at a yearly workshop, or finding a recorder accountability partner to listen to you play.
*The more you know, the more you know you don't know. It's both a cruel and a marvelous truth that, in any area of life, the greater your expertise, the more accurately you're able to perceive the boundlessness of your ignorance. It's a little like descending in an airplane: When you're up high, you might be able to make out general shapes like mountains and rivers. As you get closer to your destination, the details of the landscape leap out at you- individual roads and houses and even cars. The more you improve, the more the wonder and richness of your project becomes evident. But so does its scale! Perhaps you've improved at hearing when your recorder is out of tune with others. That is real progress- but in the short term, your new knowledge may disturb you as you learn to apply it constructively.
I was discussing this yesterday with a student -the immensity of all there is to learn about music. He came up with a wonderful quote from the poem "Brown Penny" by William Butler Yeats. The poem is about the boundlessness of love, but that sense of boundlessness, we decided, applies equally to music. We could study for an eternity-
Till the stars had run away
And the shadows eaten the moon.
-and still not know everything there was to know. To me, that's part of the joy of learning (and teaching!). The road goes ever on.
If improvement inspires you, take a few minutes to think about how you measure, and acknowledge, your progress. It could open your eyes- and ears!