Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Musician's Mindset

After writing last week about how different mindsets effect writers, this week I'm thinking about how musicians need a growth mindset as well. Too many musicians, music teachers, and parents worship at the altar of "talent." I once had a three year child come to his first piano lesson with me. At the end of his lesson (where he basically learned to find middle C), his father asked me, "do you think he's talented, or is he just wasting his time?" I was taken aback. How on earth could I, or anyone else for that matter, be able to tell from one lesson with a three year old how much talent he had? And how could anyone think music lessons were a "waste of time" for anyone without exceptional talent?

What that father demonstrated is a "fixed" mindset instead of a growth mindset. Instead of recognizing that music is a skill that takes years of hard work and effort to develop (for people of all talents), he started with the idea that only special, talented people can or should play music. I've seen other destructive effects of this idea as well. I remember meeting a young violinist in college who refused to practice his orchestra music--he said he was too "talented" to need to practice. I can hardly imagine a more self-destructive idea. Practice helps us learn and grow as musicians; without it, we're denying ourselves opportunities for growth that help us become better. It's true that everyone has different natural abilities, but why limit yourself by refusing a chance to grow? Truly successful musicians, from Yo Yo Ma to Mozart, practice and hone their skills constantly. With that in mind, I've come up with a list of ways for musicians to embrace the growth mindset we need to persevere and succeed in a challenging profession.

1. Focus on Practice and Effort

People who focus too much on talent tend to give up in the face of obstacles. To them, setbacks indicate that they're not talented enough, and there's no way to change that. But when we focus on practicing effectively and working hard, we realize that we have the tools we need to overcome those obstacles instead.

2. Seek New Challenges

In a fixed mindset, challenges are frightening. But for growth minded musicians, challenges are a way to expand our skills and stretch our abilities further. Many of the best musicians experiment with different genres or aspects of music. Performers could try their hands at improvisation, or composing and arranging. Composers might try writing music for different instruments or new ensembles, or study the scores of a new composer. A rolling stone gathers no moss.

3. Persevere!

Every musician has had bad performances, or failed auditions, or just plain difficult days. If we just give up, then we never learn to work past difficulties and challenges. Instead, ask for feedback from audition committees, juries, or audiences, and work hard to do better next time. Failure isn't a tragedy; it's an opportunity to grow.

4. Watch Your Self-Talk

Many musicians beat themselves up over mistakes--I know I've been guilty of this. Instead, let your self-talk be helpful. Change "stop missing that note, moron!" to "listen for the intonation here." I work with my students to change their self-talk from negative put-downs to useful feedback and instructions. A growth mindset means focusing on correcting mistakes, not beating yourself up.

5. Avoid Comparing Yourself to Others

I had a friend who was seriously disappointed with the chair she had in her college orchestra. She thought she must have played a terrible audition, and she envied her friends with "higher" chairs. After we talked about her feelings, I suggested that she talk to her conductor, to see if he could give her some advice to help her improve. When she spoke to him, it turned out that he hadn't placed her there because she'd somehow failed; he simply wanted to give everyone in the section a chance to learn to play in both the front and the back. My poor friend had felt terrible for days comparing her place in the orchestra to everyone else's, when it didn't have any relevance to her playing at all. So avoid comparing your progress and your place to everyone around you, and focus on learning and growing as best you can from where you are.   

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Writing Mindset

I've been fascinated by Carol Dweck's research into the psychology of success since I first read about her work in NurtureShock. It reinforced some of what I'd read about in Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards, another excellent book that challenges plenty of received wisdom on using praise to control children's behavior. Still I had yet to read Dweck's magnum opus Mindset, so on a trip to the library I decided to reserve a copy. It's been such an amazing and helpful book, I intend to buy a copy to keep around when I have to return it to the library. While I'd previously though of Dweck's research as primarily relating to teaching and parenting, this book goes much deeper into how our mindset effects our relationships, our careers, and our ability to lead a fulfilling life. 

After reading Dweck's book, I started thinking about how our mindset effects writers. Writing carries with it an enormous amount of rejection and criticism, and requires an intense, sustained effort for any amount of success. How many people want to write a novel but never finish even a rough draft? Or more likely, how many have a good story idea but never sit down to write it at all? So what does it take to withstand all this adversity and keep writing? A "growth" mindset.

In her book, Dweck shows that some people embrace challenges as learning opportunities. They see failure and rejection as valuable lessons, and learn to accept feedback without allowing the criticism to sap their self-worth. These people have a growth mindset--they believe they can grow their talents and improve themselves with plenty of hard work and effort. Other people have a fixed mindset--they believe that success is dependent on talent and luck alone. They're reluctant to take risks and hate failure, because it's a sign that they're not talented enough to be successful. The fixed mindset discourages effort, because if you have enough talent, everything should be easy for you. 

It's easy to slip into a fixed mindset when you've gotten another rejection. It's easy to say, "I'm not good enough, I might as well give up." But it's so much more satisfying and exciting to say, I'll try again. I'll write more stories. I'll write another novel. I'll listen to feedback from my writing group, my beta readers, and anyone else who'll give it to me. I've gotten helpful feedback from editors who rejected me, and I'm so glad they took the time to send more than a form letter. A growth mindset encourages me to take risks with my writing. I'll try a different genre, or try writing short stories in addition to working on a novel, or query for non-fiction articles. Quitting guarantees failure, but if we keep going, if we work hard enough, we just might make it. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Review: The Light Fantastic

I've read and loved many of Terry Pratchett's books, including “Small Gods,” “Good Omens” (which he wrote with Neil Gaiman), and “Equal Rites.” So like many of his fans, I was deeply saddened to hear Terry died this past year. In honor of the creator of Discworld, I decided to read a book of his I'd never read before. When I found “The Light Fantastic” in the library, it seemed like the perfect fit.

What I love about Terry Pratchett is that he manages to pay homage to the scifi/fantasy genre even as he satirizes it. “The Light Fantastic” is filled with brilliant send ups of fantasy tropes, from the elderly but still heroic Cohen the Barbarian to the druids who are open to nature and science but burn anyone who disagrees with them. And of course there's Rincewind, the much beloved and terribly incompetent wizard protagonist of many of Pratchett's books. This was the first time I'd read a “Rincewind” book, and I found him as sharp and funny as I'd hoped. Pratchett makes Rincewind's tendency to run from danger seem practical and truly sympathetic, making Rincewind less of an anti-hero than someone flat out opposed to heroism in general.

Yet for all this book's sharp humor and lovable characters, Pratchett also depicts the terrifying results of religious fanaticism as well as the cold grey horror of relentless capitalism. Trymon, an ambitious wizard obsessed with organization, is willing to sacrifice anyone and anything on his path to power. Pratchett is careful to note that Trymon isn't cruel or sadistic per se; he simply doesn't notice or care if anyone is hurt by his actions. It's easy to see the humor in this book, but Pratchett's keen observations of human behavior and his humanist philosophy gives this book a deep heart. In the end, even Trymon can't stand the result of his blind actions, just as today's business “leaders” will suffer from the results of their terrible, selfish decisions as much as anyone else (think global warming or antibiotic resistance).

I enjoyed this book, and I'm looking forward to reading more of Terry Pratchett's books. Thankfully, he wrote a huge number of them before he died. Rest in Peace, Terry. The turtle moves.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Dealing with Frustration

No matter how patient I try to be with myself or my students, or how much I try to teach them to have patience with their progress, it's inevitable that musicians and music teachers get frustrated. Music is a tough, demanding art form that requires near perfection from its professionals. Yet none of us are perfect and when we fail to live up to our high expectations, it's easy to get frustrated. Likewise, as teachers it's hard to stay patient all the time. So when we start losing patience and getting frustrated, here are some techniques to get back on track.

1. Appreciate the Progress and Achievements You Have Made

Sometimes in our quest for perfection, we forget to look back and appreciate the immense progress we've already made. Just as gratitude is associated with happiness and joy, appreciating all the small steps on the way to a goal helps ease our frustrations and gives us the encouragement we need to continue. Instead of beating yourself up for not mastering a piece of music, think about how far you've come and all the amazing things you can do. With students, try to remind them of how far they've come--"Remember last year when you struggled on a previous piece? Now that piece feels easy, and this new piece is hard, but by next year, I bet you'll look back on this piece and think about how easy it is!"

2. Try a New, Fun Piece

One of the things I like doing when I'm fed up with practicing is to play something fun and new. For me, that might mean playing through a violin version of the Lord of the Rings Soundtrack, or a few Irish fiddle tunes, or Renaissance ballads. The change of pace is refreshing, and often taking a break gives me a fresh perspective on the piece I struggled with.

3. Review an Old Favorite

When you're struggling with a new piece, sometimes it's nice to go back and review an old favorite. I often encourage my students to find a piece that they've previously mastered that has similar techniques to their new piece, and review it. It helps to build connections between pieces, and it gives them an ego boost to play a piece they've mastered. For me, I like to review techniques like scales and arpeggios when I get frustrated. It gives me a nice warm-up/break, since they're so familiar.

4. Take a Deep Breath

When we get frustrated, our bodies get tense and stressed out. Of course, unnatural tension often distorts our technique, so instead of getting better, we start playing worse. It's a downward spiral: frustration leads to tension, tension leads to more mistakes/worse tone, more mistakes lead to more frustration. To break the cycle, we need to stop, take a deep breath (or ten), and let go of the tension.

5. Remember that Struggle is a Critical Part of the Learning Process

Playing music isn't something that comes easily to most people, and even immense talents like Mozart spent years honing their skill. Evidence shows that we learn more when we struggle with a concept--mastery takes work. So instead of letting our struggles frustrate us, we should appreciate them as a sign that we're working hard enough to learn effectively.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Review: The Best of Connie Willis

I've had an interesting experience reading books by Connie Willis. I remember enjoying a short story of hers while I was reading the anthology Rogues, but it wasn't until I picked up a copy of The Best of Connie Willis that I realized I'd actually read and enjoyed several of her novels when I was a kid (think around twelve). I'd loved The Doomsday Book and Bellweather. However, after so many years I'd forgotten about her (I'm not sure I realized at the time the same author wrote both books--I could be clueless that way). Yet when I picked up The Best of Connie Willis on a trip to the library, it all came back to me. I even bought a copy of The Doomsday Book at the library book sale, so I could reread it later. First, I wanted to read Willis' collection of award-winning short stories.

One of the things I enjoyed about this book is how diverse all the stories were although they all came from one author. Willis writes hilarious misadventures like "At the Rialto" (which is similar to the sparkling wit she displays in "Now Showing," her excellent contribution to Rogues), as well as creepy, atmospheric horror like "Death on the Nile." Willis excels at the slow reveal--the surface of her stories can seem ordinary, but powerful currents move in their depths. The dysfunctional married couples in "Death on the Nile," for example, seem caught up in their interpersonal dramas and touring Egypt even as evidence mounts that something is terribly wrong. "Firewatch" is an exercise in taut suspense, yet several surprises in the end give the story a haunting poignancy. Likewise, in "The Last of the Winnebagos," the photographer's trip to see the last Winnebago forces him to reflect on an entirely different loss.

Willis' subtlety and her insight into human nature make these some of the most profound science fiction stories I've read in a while. She wrestles with grief, loss, and the pain of disintegrating relationships, yet she's also able to write a hilarious send up of literary analysis and Emily Dickinson. I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes science fiction, or books of any kind really. I'm planning on reading more of her novels as soon as I can. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Exercise, Creativity, and Health

Let your inner child (or your real child) enjoy a walk in the park
I've never considered myself an athletic person. Sure, I played soccer for a while and ran track in middle school, but I'd never considered myself coordinated. If I made the track team, it's only because of sheer stubbornness--I was usually dead last in any long distance runs we did. Yet, for all that, I enjoy physical activity and I've found that it has huge benefits for my mental health and creativity.

While running wasn't my thing, I love a good long walk, especially if I'm in a beautiful park surrounded by fresh air and growing things. My husband and I often spend the weekend exploring parks throughout DFW, including the Arbor Hills Nature Preserve and the Katy Trail. Being in nature refreshes and inspires me, and regular walking makes me feel calm and centered. There's plenty of evidence that outdoor activity is great for your physical health, but regular exercise also fights depression more effectively than SSRIs (note: I'm not a doctor, so please don't stop taking your meds unless a real doctor tells you to). It's also associated with creativity and helps you learn more effectively.
Let the blue bonnets make you happy and creative
Sadly, many people dislike exercise. I blame gym class and high-pressure kids' sports for this. Too many people associate exercise with being picked last for dodge ball or pressured by their doctors/parents/society to lose weight. Yet physical activity can be enjoyable, refreshing, and non-competitive. You don't have to torture yourself doing a repetitive, boring routine you hate in a gym (though I don't mind going to the gym if the weather's bad. I just listen to an audio book or good music, and I'm fine). Fresh air, sunlight, and getting in touch with nature are important for health and mental well-being as well, so enjoy a walk in a beautiful park. It will stimulate your mind and do wonders for your health.

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