discipline

How much of your teaching depends on a student’s self-discipline? Is self-discipline natural to them, enforced by parents, or taught? What even is self-discipline?

Lots of studies have shown that self-control leads to success in learning, and in life itself — and yet, a new book reviewing psychological studies on this subject suggests that many of us may have an outdated understanding of self-discipline.

New Year’s resolutions are infamous for uncovering how hard it is to follow up on our annual bold promises to knuckle down and get everything right in the new year.

We try to deny it, but we know it’s true — forcing yourself to be disciplined often means fighting with yourself. The toll it takes is not only emotional, but physical. One study showed that it causes premature aging of immune cells.

Forced willpower is stressful — it increases the heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety levels.

David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, just published a book in January called Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride.

He has found that compassion, gratitude and genuine pride (as opposed to hubris or arrogance) actually act to lower the heart rate, blood pressure, and to decrease anxiety and depression, while increasing people’s motivation to take on and persevere in difficult tasks.

Why? Because these emotions involve relationships with people. People go out of their way to help others, to do for others, to fulfill promises. Studies have actually measured that people who feel these emotions are willing to persevere 30% longer at tasks than people who make themselves do the work out of self-control.

Relationships are rewarding; self-control is in itself lonely and can actually be harmful over the long term. There seems to be an epidemic of loneliness these days, and its health effects are becoming better known.

How does this tie into teaching music? It makes us think about our priorities.

Here are a few ideas:

Generosity — consider giving students some materials free or at cost. Giving a few extra minutes at a lesson or outside of lessons if students have questions. Help them look at a new instrument even though you may not be paid for that time. Give an annual certificate or gift! Lending a hand in these ways will make many students grateful to you for your help. All teachers have run into students who may take advantage of their time, but you can draw lines, and to really motivate your students, it may be best to err on the side of generosity.

Friendly relationships with students are huge motivators for students, and we have choices all the time on how to build these relationships. Music Teachers Helper is a great aid by providing transparency for billing and payments, reminders of upcoming lessons, and emailed lesson notes, for example. When simply teaching a skill, it’s worth being aware of your language and whether you are building a relationship or forcing compliance.

This is not about treating students with kid gloves but about genuine connections. It is important for students to feel challenged and to see that they can rise to those challenges, but how the challenges are delivered can make or break your relationships. There are teachers who feel the need to use threats, demands, and even practicing contracts, but these types of interactions are likely to increase stress and reduce long-term success. The same can be said about the focus of some music teachers on teaching a fear of mistakes rather than a desire to play musically.

Social elements in learning — creating a community feeling can have a huge impact on student loyalty, sense of compassion and gratitude. Including group classes, recitals or playalongs, hosting a music party, and having one student help another can all help build relationships that motivate learning far better than enforcing old-style concepts of self-discipline.

I like to think that there are two kinds of discipline — external and internal. The external kind is the kind you often see exercised by school administrators, through rules and punishments, in the hopes of building good habits through tough love, and yes, fear. The internal kind you see instilled by good teachers who model enjoyment and quality, and develop curiosity, desire, and yes, fulfilling relationships with the teacher and other students.

As a music teacher, you certainly have thoughts on this far-reaching subject!

I hope you will share your comments.

 

Photo by Angello Lopez on Unsplash

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It seems there is a secret that is right in front of our noses. It is the secret of effective practice.

How I Learned The Secret of Effective Practice

When I was a young college student at NYU in a double major program of music education and jazz performance on guitar, I spent many hours on the 9th floor of the old SEHNAP building. It was called SEHNAP at the time because of the crazy acronym for a school that just seemed to be thrown together: the School of Health, Nursing, and Arts Professions. Today it’s called the Steinhardt building after a patron.

The 9th Floor

Anyway, the 9th floor was where the practice rooms were. These were small rooms with upright pianos and a small double pane glass window to peek in or out. There was just barely enough room for one person to sit and practice at the piano or stand and play sax or violin or any other instrument with a single music stand. The rooms were soundproof which also meant they were pretty air tight. After spending an hour or more in a room, you would start to feel the stuffiness of low oxygen and the heat of your own breath filling the room and you had to take a break for risk of fainting! And yet, these rooms were packed most of the week. Weekends, you could possibly find a room when lunch rolled around. But these rooms were coveted. It was where all the work happened.

Woodshedding

Jazz players call this woodshedding and it involved a story of Charlie Parker (or maybe some other jazz legend) hiding out in a woodshed to practice for hours and hours a day. In fact practice became known as “woodshedding” or “shedding” for short. I figure I spent my first two years of college “shedding” anywhere from 2 to 4 hours a day. This was less than in high school when there was really nothing else to do and I could spend up to 9 hours a day practicing. But it wasn’t all that productive. A lot of it was just repeatedly playing the same songs and licks and exercises over and over again with marginal improvement.

Victor’s Epiphany

It was on one of these long shedding days on the 9th floor when Victor, a guitar player of amazing abilities in his 3rd year, came stumbling out of a practice room with a euphoric look on his face. A bunch of us were taking a break from practice sitting on the floor near the elevators and we looked up expectantly.

“I just realized the most amazing thing!” Victor looked like he was high or something.

“What’s up Vic?” Ben called out.

“You don’t practice what you ALREADY know! You practice WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW!”

Victor stumbled back to his practice room and shut the door. The group of us on the floor just sat there like a bomb had gone off. In fact it was a bomb…in our minds. It blew away all the old conceptions of what practice was. It’s a moment I will never forget because it was like a complete shift in my thinking.

Practice What You Don’t Know

This is something that is hard for young students to realize on their own. Many of my lessons are spent actually in practice mode with them. I think of it like a soccer coach practicing goal kicks with my players. In fact, most kids playing soccer are not going to be practicing on their own, they are getting the practice with the coach.

Practicing in the Lesson

As a music teacher, it can be similar. Many students have poor practice skills or do not practice at home at all! The lessons then become about practicing and teaching them how to practice.

Smoothing Over

The biggest tip at improving is having the student work on the part that is giving them the most trouble, and repeating it several times. Then, running the whole song becomes a much better experience. At home, the student is now able to enjoy creating these sounds because that trouble spot has been “smoothed over.”

The game of practice is a book about encouraging and motivating children to practice their music instrument

You can teach kids the vital life skill of practice

The Game of Practice

This is an excerpt from my new book, The Game of Practice, with 53 tips to make practice fun! 

It’s a book for music teachers and parents of music students.  It has essays, like this one, about mindset and then 53 individual tips and tricks to make practice much less overwhelming and more game-like along with stories from my studio and my own personal parenting experiences.  You can get it for free for a limited time at Amazon.  If you find it helpful, I would greatly appreciate a kind review.

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