Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Mindful practicing

These days you'd never guess that I spent the better part of four years (from the point at which Erin began practising violin entirely independently) despairing that she would ever do more than hack sloppily through stuff. She was always very receptive and conscientious at her lessons, but once she left her teacher and came home, it would be back to the same mindless bashing through. It was a wonder that any progress ever happened. I think that 90% of her effective practising was actually occurring during her lessons. It was a good thing she's a quick learner!

Yesterday she changed her plans and didn't go back to the basement studio for the third hour of violin practising, and as a result left this practice plan on the whiteboard for me to discover when I arrived to teach a couple of students this morning. I have no idea what all of it means, but it's obviously carefully thought out and well-organized. She probably even used the metronome a few times. Wonders never cease.

We've had our struggles with violin since we began monthly trips to Calgary. At first she was incredibly highly motivated to work, and she blew her teacher away with the amount of progress she made from one month to the next. But by the November trip, the challenges of maintaining focus and motivation for those long weeks of no outside accountability, no external challenge, were starting to wear her down. And then came the busy holiday season, and there was a longer-than-hoped-for gap between lessons. And then with the lesson after New Year's, there didn't seem to be a re-ignition of passion. It began to look to me like she was mostly going through the motions. The spark was missing again.

We planned our next lesson trip for a mere three weeks later in an attempt to boost her motivation. But it didn't seem to be happening. There were more than a few missed days, and several where she presented the impression of diligent practicing, but there clearly wasn't much actual good stuff happening.

So I explained to her that she was trying to do something that I was nowhere near being able to do even by age 18 or 20 ... maintain self-motivation and drive without the structure of weekly lessons. I'm really in awe of what she has managed to do. She spends a lot of time on the violin, she keeps plugging away, even when she's struggling with notation she doesn't understand, technique that is new to her, difficult and confusing. She does this work without a peer group, without the sense of belonging to a studio of fellow students, without knowing any other teen who spends this kind of time and energy on music. And she keeps it going for weeks at a time, all on her own. Well, she more or less keeps it going.

So she is doing something quite amazing, and I told her that I know and fully appreciate this. But still, I said, how can I justify spending 10% of my life and several hundred dollars a trip getting her to a lesson if she hasn't squeezed every last bit of mileage out of the last one? It's a big expectation I have ... but given the family sacrifices this arrangement entails, I need to ask that of her. So I told her exactly how much heavy-duty practicing I felt she needed to cram into the five days before the next lesson to justify the trip. And darned if she didn't decide that the lesson was important enough to her that she just hunkered down and set uncomplainingly to work. With a big red plan on the whiteboard.

I really am very proud of her.


  1. Wow, now that's some organization. Hopefully it pays off with good results on the next trip to Calgary.


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