True story. Eight year old Turner is 15 minutes into his lesson. He has practiced this week. Turner’s mother has told me it was a little bit difficult to get him started practicing, but once he got started he stuck with it and did 45 minute sessions. I look at the times on his log sheet; 45 minutes a day, Monday through Friday. On Saturday and Sunday, Turner can’t take his guitar to his dad’s house. So he tries to add a little “extra time” during the week to make his practice time equal 30 minutes a day, 7 days a week. Impressive for an 8 year old, but I also realize his is doing exactly and only what is needed to get a Music Basket reward.
Right now, 15 minutes into his lesson, Turner is playing “Boogie Bass”…a piece with lots of extended ledger line reading. He is nailing most of the notes, but the moment he hits a wrong one, I hear the rapid flutter of percussive pick scrapes against strings. This is how Turner signals frustration. He begins all over again.
“What happened there Turner?” I ask.
“I made a mistake.” Obviously, he is not just making a mistake. There’s a lot more going on there. He’s clearly struggling to make this perfect, and every note is subject to a judgment call. And I’ve seen adults make this mistake as easily as Turner.
“Hey Turner. Stop a second.” He pauses and looks up, the tension in his face visibly releases. “Do you like to draw?” Trick question, I think to myself. Every kid Turner’s age likes to draw.
“Yeah, I’ve even won awards for some of my drawings.”
“Turner, what do you think about when you draw?”
“Nothing at all?” I’m looking for clarity.
“No, my mind is all calm and peaceful, It’s not all wild in there like it usually is.” Considering some of Turner’s history, I’m not surprised he’s used the word “wild” at all to describe his inner mental weather patterns.
“When you make a mistake, what happens?”
“Well, I just fix it.”
“Do you get mad at yourself and scribble on the paper or something, or do you just fix it?”
“No, I just fix it.”
“You’re just lost in the process of drawing, right? You don’t judge when you have made a mistake, you just fix it, right?”
“Hey Turner, what happens when you practice guitar. Is it like that?”
“No.” He’s quiet.
“It could be.” He looks at me, now more interested, as if I know the location of some hidden treasure. “And the best part is, you already know how it feels to be that way from drawing, so you know what it is supposed to feel like.”
He sits still holding his guitar, really wondering what I’m getting at now.
“When you draw, you are lost in the process of drawing. You don’t sit there and judge your mistakes, right? You just fix them, it’s part of the process. Like adjusting when a boat goes off coarse…you just adjust the rudder or the sails. Right?”
He nods. I continue. “You don’t judge the adjustment of the rudder as good or bad, do you?”
“So why not practice guitar like that? You are very focused on getting the piece perfect and moving on to the next piece. Try to get into the process of learning it. Fix the things that need to be fixed as they come up, just like you do with drawing. Relax. Lose yourself in the process. Make practicing the guitar more like drawing. If you make a mistake, work on that part for awhile until it gets better.”
He looks at me for a moment and picks up his pick to try again.
“Again, you already know what drawing feels like….use that as a guide to make guitar playing feel like drawing.”
Turner starts again, slower this time. His overall tone has already shifted to a more relaxed sound. He has a much easier time with “Boogie Bass”. If he makes a mistake, we stop and go back to work on them. I can see him “practicing” getting into a “practicing” mindset. The focus has shifted from the product into the process.
I comment at the end of the lesson. “Do you think you can practice practicing this week…make practicing guitar feel more like drawing?”
“Yeah, this is good. I like it. I think it will be more fun.”
I’ve had this similar dialogue with perfectionist adult students, young musicians like Turner, and many others. The common thread; all suffered from frustration while practicing. All found practice to be much more enjoyable after having this conversation. The shift was made to ultimately focus on the process, not the product.
In part 2 – more on how I came to understand this concept.