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How I Learned to Put Paralyzing Perfection Aside and Improve A Little Bit Each Day Instead

Recently, perfectionism and procrastination have come up in one way or another for myself, my colleagues, and my students, and it has encouraged me to take a look at my own patterns and find real solutions to break out perfectionist habits.

What is Perfectionist's Procrastination? 

Have you ever thought about the immense amount of work standing between yourself and your ideal perfect self, and been paralyzed or discouraged from taking any action at all?

Here's what it sounds like for me:

I should really improve A, B, and C, but I'll tackle all that next time when I feel really ready and focused and have lots of time.

I'll wait until I can dedicate a full hour to tone exercises, then I'll finally work on those tapers I need to improve. 

Perfectionist's Procrastination Latches onto ideas like these:

  • Waiting for Ideal Conditions 
  • Waiting for "Enough" Time
  • Waiting to Sound Good
  • Waiting for More Energy

Ultimately, my mind creates an unrealistic to-do list in an effort to fix everything all at once, and when I think about the amount of work ahead of me, I tell myself: next time, next time, next time.


Perfectionist's Procrastination can be deeply rooted in fearing failure and mistakes.

For example, a more honest inner dialogue to the above example might sound more like this:

I could work on my tapers today, but I don't know what I'm doing. I know I'm bad at it, and I don't want to face my weakness.

In addition, the fear of not doing enough leads to fear of not being enough. And that's paralyzing.


Perfection-Oriented vs. Process-Oriented

For at least the past eight years, I've been organizing my practice sessions in the order of tone first, technique second, and repertoire after that, and attempting to do at least an hour of each thing.

However, I often spend most of my energy and focus on the initial stage, losing motivation before I've given the next stages any attention. 

Why do I keep falling into this rut so often? 

  • Perfection in the Practice Room

Perfection wants to finish everything immediately and achieve perfection now. Our faults can give us tunnel vision, and we can throw all our energy into one task, like tone work. While we're giving tone good attention and improving, we can burn out out entire supply of energy and focus, and we have nothing left for anything else.

And musicians need all the skills. Perfection knows this, too, and feels like a failure when giving up before moving on.

Perfection doesn't like to Let Go.

  • Process-Oriented Practice

Process-oriented practice puts in the highly-focused practice that perfection loves, but it comes with permission to let go and move on to the next task.

 

The following two ideas led me to break out of perfectionist mindset and find breakthroughs in process-oriented practice in the past two weeks.


A. "Improve A Little Bit Each Day"

I recently raved about Dr. Terri Sanchez's Epic Flute Warm-Up, which ultimately led me to purchase her book, The Aspiring Flutist's Practice Companion.

In her book, the smallest phrase came up in the Epic Warm-Up 2.0, and it really struck me:

"Improve a little bit each day."

I've consistently been doing her Epic Warm-Up almost every day for three months because it's fun and manageable, only taking 15 minutes total to feel thoroughly warmed-up. And you know what? I've improved a little bit each day in those three months! 

This was a huge lightbulb moment.

B. Set Yourself Up for Success To Prevent Early Practice Burnout

Now that I've given myself permission to improve a little bit each day, I've created room to realistically invite more tasks into my practice session without feeling overwhelmed.

My next goal involves organizing my tasks in a way that ensures I don't burn myself out too soon, as I was consistently doing before.

I came across a video on Facebook by Denise Tryon, Adjunct Horn Professor at the Peabody Conservatory, on practicing. 

Essentially, she separates her day into three separate sessions, practicing in the morning, afternoon, and evening with ample time in between.

Right away, I realized that I could be improving a little bit, three times a day.
Lightbulb moment number two.

Tips for Beating Perfectionist's Procrastination + Improving a Little Bit Each Day:

After re-approaching my practice mindset based on the above ideas, I implemented a few more ideas to really help motivate me towards consistent, well-balanced, process-oriented practice experiences.

1. Get yourself excited for tomorrow's practice session tonight

  • Re-set your practice space: Tidy up and re-organize your materials, placing tomorrow's first to-dos on your stand so you're ready to go! (Or, place your materials in your bag in the order you're going to use them to make it easier on yourself once you arrive at your practice space.)
  • Listen to recordings, watch videos, or read words that inspire you.
  • Write down or e-mail yourself your schedule for tomorrow, which leads to the next tip!

2. Give yourself a completely reasonable to-do list

  • It is way too easy to prescribe yourself an 8-hour practice session, because your perfectionist self would love that, but I've never executed anything I've planned for myself when it's unreasonable and unattainable.
  • Set yourself up for success! If your to-do list allows you to easily complete every task, you'll feel accomplished and begin craving more rather than feeling burnt out.

3. Use a timer (And actually listen to it!)

  • Many times, I've put a timer on while practicing certain exercises, and have continued on long past the buzzer. When this happens, I usually end up feeling frustrated, exhausted, or both.
  • If your inclination to work past the buzzer comes from feeling antsy or incomplete, learn to give yourself a pat on the back for really focusing and putting good work in, and move on! It'll still be there tomorrow. And the next day. If you leave it feeling like there's more to continue on with, that may motivate you to pick back up and put more work in the next day!
  • In addition, you can now channel all that energy into the next practice task!
  • Timer Tips:
    • Try 3-minutes for one-measure chunks within a piece, 5-minutes for shorter exercises, and 10-minutes for longer ones as a starting point.

In Conclusion

  • I've come to realize that I'd rather put in a highly focused 10-minutes-each on six aspects of my playing every day than one hour of work on only one area. 
  • The best way to improve your weaknesses is by working at them daily. Put your timer on and put in the work!
  • Make the most of your minutes, and keep yourself feeling fresh and focused for each aspect of your practice session.
  • You don't need to "finish" everything. You don't need to solve every issue every time you practice. In order to be sustainable, there must be a point at which you let go and move on. If you feel like you're not done, you'll know right where you need to go tomorrow, and you'll still have energy left to focus on the next tasks on your list. 
  • If you find it difficult to move on before achieving perfection or completion, just remember that there is no end to the possibilities of improvement.
http://media.boreme.com/post_media/2013/pablo-casals-cellist.jpg

Here's permission to put perfection aside and enjoy the process!


Finally, I came across this video the other day, and found it particularly fitting in the context of doing a little bit of work each day with a lot of focus and care. A few months later, the results are beautiful

#practiceroomrevelations

One Way to Reduce Throat Tension

While practicing recently, I noticed that I was feeling very tense - pulling upwards, and leaning into and over my music stand. Upon investigation, I realized how much my shoulders, face and throat were tensing.

Forcing Vs. Allowing

When instructed to open your throat, be aware that this can occur by either forcing openness or allowing openness. 

I was forcing. 

When I let go of my "smile" and allowed the face to drop, (not just the jaw, but the cheeks, forehead, ears, eyes, tongue, and corners of the mouth), my throat tension went away, and everything felt easier. This was especially useful in the low register. Releasing from a smile embouchure and allowing the corners to come forward toward the lip plate led to much more flexibility and consistency! 

Do you experience throat tension?

Do you find that it occurs when there is more general tension all over the body, especially the head?

Tell me in the comments below!

7 Ways to Have an Inspiring Lesson Every Week [A Guide for Students]

7 Ways to Have an Inspiring Lesson Every Week [A Guide for Students]

1. PLAN + PRIORITIZE

At the end of each lesson, a clear list of assignments or goals should be established between you and your teacher. Write them down while you're discussing them to avoid forgetting anything, and be specific! If your teacher doesn't provide specific parameters (Ex: learn measures 1-50, or prepare minor scales, double tongued at MM=120), set them for yourself - you'll have an easier time focusing on tasks while practicing during the week.

Prioritize your task list and look ahead to your schedule to figure out what you'll practice when. Even if you don't stick with your plan, having a rough guide for what you can realistically accomplish each day is more motivating than having no guide at all. 

2. Keep Your Notebook Ready

In addition to writing your assignments down at the end of each lesson, your notebook should be out and ready during your lesson to keep track of important information that you're going to want to access later. I'm always more than happy to wait while my students take notes during a lesson! (It also lets me know that you've processed an a-ha moment when you can put it into words!)

When your lesson ends, add any other information while it's still fresh in your mind. I would walk straight to my favorite bench after all my lessons in grad school and write down as many details and ideas as I could, or elaborate on the fast scribbles I had made. 

3. Practice Well

Practice right after your lesson while new ideas or discoveries are still fresh. Many of my lessons involving changes to my embouchure or physical movements involved a lot of experimentation during the lesson. By the end, I may or may not have fully embodied what my teacher was explaining, so I would continue the process immediately following in a practice room in front of a mirror. 

Practice thoroughly enough during the week to resolve or remedy the mistakes that were discussed at the last lesson. Bringing the same mistakes to your next lesson halts progress. Make new mistakes next time, and you'll be able to learn something new!

4. Ask Questions

Practice sessions based in awareness, observation, and experimentation involve asking yourself many questions! Throughout the week, write down any specific questions you'd like your teacher's help answering. (For example, you may want help deciding how to phrase or breathe in a certain passage, advice on making a more effective subito dynamic change, or ideas for approaching baroque articulation.) Tip: Always try answering them for yourself, and bring your ideas to your lesson.

During your lesson, ask as many questions as you need to understand new concepts from every angle. If your teacher is asking you "open your throat," but you're not sure how to do that, ask for clarification.

Important! You are not a failure if you don't understand immediately after hearing one direction. Ask your teacher to describe their experience in detail, try it for yourself, and explain what the experience feels like for you. Since we cannot see what is happening inside while playing, exchange as much specific detail as possible.

5. Communicate Your Goals

Your lessons are for you! Clearly and frequently discussing your goals allows your teacher to provide you with the right tools at each lesson. Discuss any opportunities (such as auditions, competitions, solo performances, new repertoire...) that interest you. Your teacher wants to prepare you for success, so don't be afraid to share your dream! 

6. Communicate Your Concerns

Your teacher should be an individual you trust and feel at ease disclosing any concerns, overwhelmed feelings, or fears with. Establishing a safe environment to invite honest communication provides a space for effective learning. If you're unhappy with your progress or any aspect of your lessons, respectfully let your teacher know how you feel. 

7. Bring An Open Mind + Open Ears

Remember that each lesson is an opportunity to learn something new! Bring a positive attitude and prepare to try new things. If you tend to feel anxious or self-judging during lessons, notice when you feel challenged and pushed out of your comfort zone, and give yourself permission to be curious and grateful for the chance to learn.

Your teacher's demonstrations are another important opportunity to learn. Listen and watch like a scientific researcher, because their years of experience and everything they're trying to teach you are on display all at once! Even more than hearing how nice their sound or vibrato is, or how fast they can play, listen carefully for how and why they are musically engaging - that is the most important concept that is best explained without words.

In Conclusion

Preparation, attitude, and communication are the keys to highly productive and inspiring lessons! 

 

Interested in Learning more about lessons?

Slower Practice with Greater Impact

Back in 2012, I wrote this post on practicing slowly: Making Slow Practice Meaningful.

Many of the ideas of integrating a full scope of movements and observations still ring true for me, and guide every one of my practice sessions. 

  • Slow practice should always include more than simply playing the correct notes with the correct rhythms. Even in the stages of learning the notes, greater musical intentions should be included. Take the time to decide how it should sound, what is being said, and what ingredients to include.
  • Slow practice gives a chance to watch how we're producing sounds, and therefore we can experiment and uncover greater possibilities for achieving our desired musical interpretation.

Quality Over Quantity

Principal Chairs shared a wonderful interview with Elizabeth Rowe, principal flutist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and her thoughts on practicing efficiently are noteworthy:

"I am a huge believer in quality over quantity. So often, I see musicians working on just one element of the music at a time. For example, I might see someone slowing down a difficult passage and repeating it a number of times to clean up their fingers, but all the while they’re using a relatively poor sound and not inflecting the music with much shaping or character. They then have to circle back to add those elements in later on. I always try to layer on as many musical elements as possible when working. So I don’t just play scales, I try to play beautifully shaped scales with a singing sound, perfect intonation and some sort of interesting rhythmic element. I don’t just work on playing the Firebird with excellent rhythm, but while I’m working with the metronome I ask myself if those rhythmic figures are conveying the character I want. In other words, use your whole mind and soul when practicing. This is the quality part! If you do this at all times, the work will be very intense, efficient, and tiring!! Twenty minutes of this sort of in-depth work accomplishes much more than an hour of drills. I also advocate practicing without the flute if you can’t find a practice space or only have 2 minutes to spare—our minds are powerful tools, and simply thinking through a phrase or imagining a certain quality of sound can produce results later on."

- Elizabeth Rowe via Principal Chairs, 2015 - Read the Full Article Here

Slow practice doesn't just provide an opportunity to get the notes right, but an opportunity to practice with every element included. I find that I have to go even slower when practicing with heightened observation, emotion, intention, and efficiency, and I always learn more when doing so.

Detail-Oriented Practice

Select a short, difficult passage and commit to learning about every detail:

  • What is the overall character or mood of the piece, specifically this part?
  • How does that influence the shape and sound quality of my notes?
  • What indication does the composer give for tempo, style, dynamics, and articulation markings, and what effect do these elements provide?
  • Uncover phrasing and structure related to the bigger picture.

Make these choices, put a timer on, and practice slowly.

Just how much detail can I practice with?

The Treasures Hidden In Mistakes

The night before my junior undergraduate recital, I dreamt that I performed the Bach Sonata in E Major on a mechanical pencil instead of a flute. The most terrifying part of the dream wasn't the fact that I was attempting to give a recital on a pencil, but all the mistakes I made while playing.

Many musicians fear mistakes. We may base our self-worth on our ability to play without mistakes, and go to great lengths to avoid them. In some, fear of mistakes leads to an overly cautious approach that compromises exploration of the full range of musical expression. 

 

Fear + Hesitation

A common issue, especially in younger students, is hesitation and pausing when a difficult spot approaches. Many times, students stop in their tracks, then continue through the difficult section perfectly. They've learned the piece, and are able to execute, but fear creates a fragmented presentation.

 

Embracing Mistakes

While mistakes may be the stuff of nightmares, we would be unable to grow without them. In a previous post on 5 Things Body Mapping Has Taught Me, a quote of Barbara Conable stands out as a simple, yet crucial concept for redirecting the fear of mistakes: 

"Mistakes are information."

Something I teach my students early on is to embrace mistakes. Beyond accepting that they happen, we make them happen on purpose, and even celebrate our cracked notes! Getting past the fear and judgement associated with making mistakes provides freedom from anxiety and self-loathing, and gives room for growth. 

 

Put a Microscope On It

Sophia Amoruso #GIRLBOSS

Sophia Amoruso #GIRLBOSS

I love the expression "put a microscope on it" because it encourages us to slow down and inspect all facets of what we're doing with a fine-tooth comb. The amount of things we can uncover about ourselves and our playing can be quite surprising when approaching our mistakes in this way. Explore your mistakes, and experiment by making subtle changes to find a more desirable result. Going beyond the surface with patience allows a deeper understanding, and this is where I find myself in breakthrough moments!


Take the Risk

In performance, overcoming fear of mistakes comes down to taking risks and allowing guidance from an emotional connection to the music we're performing. It can be thrilling to take the leap of faith and play continuously despite fear. Listen, feel, and enjoy the moment. Should a mistake occur, reconnect to the support of the ground and the space, and continue to focus on the present. Practice performing and recovering from mistakes, and notice how it feels to approach a difficult moment with trust and ease.

 

Takeaway

When a note does not sound how we want, we can be quick to correct it and pretend it never happened, or we can treat it as a perfect opportunity to investigate. Replace self-judgement with excitement! In the words of Ian Clarke, "Brilliant!" There truly are treasures to be found when diving head first into mistakes. 

Yoga Poses to Incorporate into Your Practice Session

I recently came across some old practice journals, and found a page I'd written after a yoga warm-up. I was reminded of several poses and breathing exercises that are especially beneficial for musicians.

It is no secret that yoga is beneficial for musicians, especially for the foundations of breathing, awareness, and the mind-body connection. Here are some of my favorite ways to incorporate yoga into my practice session, along with some favorite yoga videos courtesy of YouTube.

If You're Anxious...

 

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Alternate Nostril Breathing will encourage slower breathing and has a calming effect. If you're seeking greater focus or mental clarity, try this first.

 

Guided Savasana (Corpse Pose)

One of the first notes I made in my yoga warm-up entry came after laying on the floor in corpse pose. I allowed myself to watch the journey of the air into the nose or mouth, and watched for any tendencies to help, force, or tighten at any point during the inhalation and exhalation. A crucial point is allowing a natural wave-like flow between the inhalation and the exhalation, avoiding any urge to hold at the top of the breath. Understanding tendencies such as these outside of playing provides greater awareness of anything that could interrupt a natural breath while playing.

 

WIDE-LEG CHILD'S POSE

Child's Pose provides an opportunity to observe the movement of the spine while breathing: Upon inhalation, the spine gathers. Upon exhalation, the spine lengthens. Additionally, I allow the abdominal muscles to release during the exhalation in this pose. When playing, releasing the abdominal muscles allows for greater ease in breathing and improved breath capacity!


To Energize...

 

SUN SALUTATION

Moving the entire body as a warm-up before practicing is a great way to feel energized before practicing, especially if you're feeling tired. The more warmed-up my muscles feel, the easier it is to play! 

 

Pigeon Pose

I love hip-opening poses, and Pigeon Pose is my favorite! Hip openers bring awareness to the lower body, and this pose provides an opportunity to feel the movements of the breath and their relation to the legs and hip joints. In addition, this provides another chance to allow the abdominal muscles to release, inhibiting a habit of gripping while enhancing the stretch. 

What are your favorite yoga poses or stretches? Does your warm-up include a full-body warm-up?

(*Note, guidance from a certified instructor is recommended for proper pose execution to prevent injury. Always consult with a doctor if you experience pain or injury.)