Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Helping students develop a Practicing Mindset – part 2

In part one of this blog series, I discussed how I helped young Turner understand what mindset he should attain in order to practice well. I wouldn’t have been able to explain the idea of focusing on process versus product quite so well without the help of a book called The Practicing Mind. I was personally exploring the topic of mindfulness last summer and a friend advised me to check out this book. The Practicing Mind is written by a musician, for musicians, originally with the intent to discuss how to practice. The author, Thomas Sterner, instead found himself broadening the book’s purpose to general mindfulness. He found mindfulness to be the connecting factor between anything in life that one practices, whether it is a golf swing or a Beethoven Concerto.

Below is an excerpt from the book, to help further explain the idea of “process versus product” oriented thinking:

“There is an endless nature to life. There is always more to be experienced. Deep down we know this and are glad for it. The problem is that everyday life steals this from us. It pulls us away from this perspective with a constant bombardment of advertisements all promising to fulfill us, but none of it ever works: “Get this, do that and life will be perfect.” We need to let go of this futile idea that happiness is out there somewhere, and embrace the infinite growth available to us as a treasure, not something that we are impatient to overcome.

People involved in the arts understand this endless nature through direct experience. It is part of all the arts. That is why I believe that a personal pursuit in some form of art is so important to a person’s sense of well-being. It teaches you this true nature of life right up front if you pay attention. When I was in my late teens, there were two incidents that created so much more patience within me as a result of a change in my perception.

The first happened shortly after I had started studying jazz improvisation with perhaps the best jazz pianist in the area. His name was Don. After one of my lessons, Don started playing around on the piano as I was packing up my music. I had never met anyone who played the piano as well as he did. He had earned his ability with years of a solid practice ethic, working at the piano sometimes seven and eight hours a day. While he was playing, Don told me that he felt that if he didn’t start working harder he was never going to get really good on the piano. I was shocked by his casual remark. I commented to him that if I could play the piano as well as he could, I would be content to sit all day long and do nothing but listen to myself play. He looked at me and smiled. “You know, Tom,” he said, “that is exactly what I said to my teacher years ago when I first heard him play.”Don had studied with a world-renowned classical and jazz pianist. I had heard recordings of his teacher, who was extremely accomplished. Still, it occurred to me that if someone could reach Don’s level of playing ability and still feel unfulfilled, I was going to have to re-think both my motivations for studying the instrument and my feeling the need to reach some level of “perfection” in order to become fulfilled.

The second event grew out of the first and began when I was nineteen years old. I had been studying with Don for just over a year. I was trying to play a certain passage in a piece of music and wasn’t having much luck at it. I was frustrated and feeling a bit sorry for myself for not measuring up to my own standards. I wasn’t progressing fast enough in my own mind. I made the decision that I would write down all that I needed to accomplish musically to meet my own criteria of good musicianship. The list included items such as being able to play fluently in certain difficult keys, playing in front of audiences, etc.

Several years later I was working in a small practice room at college late one night and I was having another difficult practice session. I remember thinking to myself that I was never going to get any better no matter how hard I tried. Depressed, I decided to quit for the evening. As I started packing up my music, a crumpled-up slip of paper fell out of one of my music books. It was the five-year music plan I had made when I was nineteen years old. I was twenty-two now and I had completely forgotten about it. I sat down and began reading the list to myself. What I read took me by surprise and made and made a lasting impression. I had accomplished everything on the list in less than three years, not five. In fact, I had done things musically that I couldn’t even imagine doing when I was nineteen, and yet I didn’t feel any different. I didn’t feel any happier with my music or any better as a musician. My horizon was moving away from me. My concept of a good musician was coming from a different frame of reference. In that moment I had a realization which took several minutes to fully evolve. I became aware that there was no point of musical excellence out there that would free me from the feeling of “I need to get better.” In that moment, I understood that there was no point I could reach where I would feel that I had finally done it, that I was good as I needed to be, and that there was no need to improve because I had arrived at my goal. It was an epiphany. At first I felt a moment of overwhelming depression and fear, but it was immediately followed by joy and relief of the same magnitude. I knew that what I was experiencing was a realization that all true artists must go through. It was the only way to build the stamina necessary to continue in an infinite study.

There was a sense of freedom in knowing that I would never run out of room to grow. There was a peace in knowing the race was over. Where I was “right now” was just where I should be for the amount of effort I had expended. I saw the wake behind the boat for the first time and realized I was moving ahead, pretty quickly as a matter of fact. But the more important truth revealed to me in that moment was this: the real joy was in my ability to learn and experience that growth moment by moment. The process of discovering the ability to create music that had always been within me was the goal, and I achieved that goal in every second I was practicing. There were no mistakes being made, just a process of discovering what worked and what didn’t. I was no longer struggling up a mountain towards some imaginary musical summit that was going to make my life complete. I realized the infinite nature of music and I was relieved instead of intimidated or frustrated.

That moment was the beginning of my shift in awareness of how I approached anything in life which required applied effort over long periods of time. That subtle shift in perception and that is all it was, brought about unlimited patience with myself. I became patient with my progress. I not only stopped looking at my progress, I stopped looking for my progress all together. Progress is a natural result of staying focused on the process of doing anything. When you stay on purpose, focused in the present moment, the goal comes to you with frictionless ease. However, when you constantly focus on the goal you are aiming for, you push it away instead of pulling it toward you. In every moment of your struggle, by looking at the goal and constantly referencing your position to it, you are affirming to yourself that you haven’t reached it. You only need to acknowledge the goal to yourself occasionally, using it as a rudder to keep moving in the right direction.

It’s like swimming across a lake toward a large tree on the other side. You should focus on just keeping your head down and pulling the water past you with stroke. You fill your lungs with fresh air and then expel it in a relaxed fashion, glancing at the position of the tree on the distant shore every so often to keep your sense of direction. You do this with total detachment, or at least as much as you can muster. You say to yourself, “Oh, I need to steer a little to the left, that’s better.” If, however, You try to keep your head above the water the whole time, watching the tree and trying to see how much closer you are to it after each stroke and kick, you waste enormous amounts of energy. You become frustrated, exhausted and impatient. You become emotional and judgmental about your progress and lose your stamina. All of this energy you are wasting could be going into reaching the far side of the lake, but instead you are dissipating it through incorrect effort, which produces negative emotions. You are fighting yourself and pushing against the task. It will take you longer to reach the tree on the far side of the lake if you reach it at all.

We have seriously missed the boat with this whole concept in our culture. We not only take the opposite path to an extreme, but we are so infatuated with reaching the goal of our efforts that we miss the point entirely.”

Podcasts and more on the The Practicing Mind at

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  1. Valerie Kampmeier

    Thanks for sharing this Brittany- what an amazing man. I’m definitely going to share these quotes with my students.

  2. Paula Bird

    Thanks, Brittany, for sharing this with us. Your post came at a good time for me, as I have been thinking along these same lines. I also recently discovered two lists of long term goals that I had forgotten I made a decade ago, and I was amused to find that I had accomplished everything on my lists. This quote is very helpful. Thanks, again. Keep up the great work. Great writing!

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