Process is greater than achievement

Summer’s here, and with it a (slightly) slower pace to life. I’m trying to take advantage of the shift to take stock of where I am in life and make some needed changes. First off, I’ve changed the appearance of this blog to something that looks a little more mature and reasonable. The next change I’m going after is rethinking the way I manage time, particularly as far as practicing is concerned. Finding an effective practice schedule has been a struggle for me for years. I’m still working at it.

I went into undergrad with a mentality that I was seriously low on the ability curve for bassoonists my age and that I had to improve as much as possible in as short a time as possible in order to have a successful career. Efficiency was not a concern: output was the only thing that mattered. I assumed that more hours in the practice room would directly correlate to better playing. I worked extremely hard for the next three years but didn’t put much conscious or critical thought into my working methods. I observed the following results:

1) I got pretty good at doing things that I could loop constantly with a metronome without thinking terribly hard about what I was doing. I neglected everything else.

2) As practicing cut into time needed for sleeping, my performance in all other areas of my life declined sharply. I became very anxious and short-tempered.

3) I did very little outside of music, because planning a non-musical activity would require admitting that I had some time available and was choosing not to use it to practice.

4) As time went by I didn’t even practice that much. I was too tired and burned out to concentrate so I tended to procrastinate worse than ever.

5) I was less creatively engaged with my instrument.

The last point was maybe the worst one – it caused me to resent what I was doing with my life. As I reached the end of undergrad, the drive that had allowed me to maintain such an insane schedule just wasn’t there anymore. Realizing something had to change I started shifting towards sanity. I embraced the idea that there should be such a thing in my life as “free time.”

It seems pretty freakin’ obvious in retrospect, but it was a revolutionary idea at the time. I grew a lot as a musician and a person by doing less. I perceived the process of self-improvement very differently – as a gradual process, something that through discipline (firm, but not self-abusing) yields great results. Music, like life, is not all about how well you accomplish one specific task and what lengths you’re willing to go to in order to do that. Nothing is ever that obvious or convenient. It’s about building habits and attitudes that allow you to do well more consistently, whether “doing well” means having cleaner articulation or maintaining closer ties with the people who matter to you.

My practice “strategy” in undergrad didn’t work because it wasn’t a sustainable process. I was too oriented towards results to think about a smart process to get there, and even the results I wanted weren’t too well defined (“I want to be really good and have a job of some kind!”). My strategy in grad school wasn’t much better – I overcompensated by basically having no plan.

This fall I’m going to have a steady and predictable rehearsal performance schedule for the first time in my life, so I think it’s time for a new approach. I’m setting myself some hard and fast rules that I think should make for a successful growth process, and as a byproduct, more successful performances. Here are the rules:

1) Plans must be realistically achievable. They must leave room in the schedule to live a happy, healthy life. I’m not going to practice six hours a day, so I’m not going to pretend that’s a reasonable expectation.

2) The plan will address weaknesses in small chunks every day so that over a matter of months they’ll become strengths. I’m thinking of things like “B-flat minor scales” but this is equally applicable to things like “actually get out of bed upon hearing the alarm go off.”

3) Plans will evolve. If I’m failing to meet my goals, I want to figure out why and change something, instead of just flagellating myself over it. The point is to be better at stuff, not make myself feel worse. Somehow, there’s a way to make the process work.

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