Eyes Off the Prize: Why Dreaming Small Makes Practice Better

By Miranda Wilson

Practice Is Easy When You Feel Inspired

On a good day, time flies by and the instrument practically plays itself. Everything goes well. It doesn’t even feel like work.

Too bad about the other 364 days.

The Motivation Generation

I travel a lot for work, and visit a lot of high school orchestras to recruit students. I’ve noticed that almost every high school has motivational posters plastered all over the walls. They usually have pictures of American eagles, or people engaged in some extreme sport or other, plus a slogan about aiming high, dreaming big, and rejecting failure. These posters drive me crazy.

None of this is poorly intentioned. After all, everyone wants to motivate students to work hard. And now that a large proportion of schoolteachers and university professors come from my generation, the so-called old millennials, it stands to reason that we’d use this stuff. It’s how we were raised.

Self-Esteem School Dropout

When I was a child, self-esteem and motivation were taught as actual subjects at my school. At 1:30 every afternoon, we sat in a circle saying positive things about ourselves, sometimes taking a break to sing “Tell yourself you’re beautiful! Tell yourself you’re smart!” and other melodious anthems of a late-1980s childhood. “Every one of you,” proclaimed our teacher, “is very special and important. You can be anything you want to be, as long as you want it enough.”

Fifteen years later, our university professors were aghast to learn that we were all indecisive, disorganized, emotionally incontinent, and disinclined towards effort. It wasn’t that we refused to accept failure, it was just that we didn’t see it as the logical conclusion of a listless work ethic. If you failed, it was because you had neglected to want it enough. (These understandably irritated educators appeared to have forgotten that it was their generation who had encouraged this narcissistic worldview in the sunny classrooms of the 1980s.)

I’ll Do Anything To Get an A! Except Show Up and Do Work!

And yet, we persisted in our belief that we could be anything we wanted. Eyes on the prize! You can do it!

I knew a rather bad violinist at university who talked endlessly about how ambitious and motivated she was. She was going to be the best violinist in the world. She would do whatever it took to succeed, except practice. Something about all the motivation-speak made her feel exempted from actual action. Needless to say, she is not a violinist these days.

The Most Overrated Thing In the World

Motivation is all very well on a good day. On a bad day, when I feel like garbage and have a to-do list as long as my arm, motivational posters in high schools make me want to pull out a Sharpie and fix them. (I don’t, of course, because I want the teachers to invite me back.)

But it continues to drive me crazy that lack of motivation is still seen as a lack of character, when motivation is just procrastination dressed up in a bunch of feel-good platitudes.

What’s way more valuable is getting practice done on a bad day. On a day when you don’t feel like scaling a mountain or going skydiving or dancing on a beach. On a day when you are uninspired, bored, lethargic, sleepy, annoyed, disappointed, doleful, sullen, unambitious, and filled with rage. (In my household, we call this day “Tuesday.”)

Here’s what I did on my quest to make myself practice more and better.

Eyes Off the Prize

Aiming high and dreaming big are quite amusing. They are also semi-useless. If you’d asked teenage Miranda what her goals were, she’d have said she intended to be a world-traveling solo cellist who performed the Elgar and Dvorak concertos every night with major orchestras. There would be luxury hotels, designer gowns, and handsome admirers. She was going to be almost exactly like Yo Yo Ma. She would have recording contracts with Deutsche Grammophon and live in a penthouse.

Sounds great, except she was a schoolgirl in New Zealand with no money and no contacts and an utter and blissful ignorance of how the music profession worked. When faced with such obstacles, you don’t even know where or how to get started.

A much better goal might have been to play half an hour of scales every day. Less glamorous, to be sure, but might have produced the same or better results than the previous goal.

I never gave up on my dream of being a full-time professional cellist, and I’m lucky to have achieved it. It doesn’t look the way I envisioned it, aged 15. That’s OK, it’s still very satisfying. I learned along the way, however, that just wanting it enough doesn’t cause it to be handed to you. I had to play a lot of scales and eat a lot of ramen and, if I am to be scrupulously truthful, kiss a lot of backsides. Sheer dumb luck was quite useful too.

Dream Small: The Underrated Virtue of Ludicrously Small Goals

If the goal is to be Yo Yo Ma, you might as well not bother unless you actually are Yo Yo Ma. But if the goal is that you’re going to cultivate your tone quality until you sound like an improved version of yourself, you could probably get your backside in the chair to do that. Small, incremental improvements add up to big ones in the long run. We can’t have a concert at Carnegie Hall this week, but we can for sure do some long-tone scales.

Curiosity Killed Perfection. Thank Goodness.

“Perfect practice”? That’s a lot of pressure to place on yourself. How can you possibly know what perfect practice is if you aren’t allowed to be imperfect? Unquestioning obedience to the teacher’s instructions is all very well, but if you don’t do any experiments of your own, you don’t really know why you’re supposed to do a certain technique in a certain way. Why do we have to hold and move the bow in a certain way? It’s only by comparing the teacher-recommended method with some other method that we can understand the efficient and logical use of our body and instrument.

Hello Frustration, My Old Friend

Sometimes I think this is the most important thing of all. We don’t like being bad at things, and when something goes poorly it’s tempting to assume that we’re bad at it and should quit. The acceptance of failure should be a core principle of self-teaching. If something goes badly, it means further experimentation is needed.

It’s been humbling for me to take up a few hobbies recently. I’m a passionate/obsessive amateur baker, and I tend to throw tantrums when my bakes don’t turn out well. My first ever attempt at croissants tasted like an unpleasantly greasy bread roll. I caught myself concluding that I was useless at puff pastry. Then I laughed out loud at myself. Teacher, teach thyself! I’d only tried once! Yes, it was frustrating that I’d wasted a whole day of my “one wild and precious life” messing about with flour and butter only for it to turn out poorly, but I could look back and analyze what I’d done wrong — butter not cold enough? Overproving? — so that I could do better next time.

And I did.

Netflix and Scales (Or: Self-Bribery, A Love Story)

Everyone knows they’re supposed to floss, use sunscreen, exercise, etc. These habits aren’t inherently difficult, but we don’t want to do them because they’re boring and annoying. I once heard a skincare specialist say “The best sunscreen is the one you use.” What a liberating thought. Experts are constantly telling us that the best protection is provided by chalky, gunky sunscreens that are hard to apply and smell unpleasant, so we obediently buy them and never use them, then lie awake guiltily worrying that we’re about to get cancer and wrinkles. Why not use a less-good sunscreen that smells lovely and goes on easily? We might actually build a sunscreen habit that way.

By the same token, the best practice is the practice you do. Although I enjoy practice once I get into it, I drag my feet about getting started, so I bribe myself by tying practice to two things I love, coffee and television. While the first coffee of the day is brewing, I get out my cello. Then I set my cup next to me while I warm up, taking a sip in between exercises and scales. I know I shouldn’t admit this, but I do watch TV while I work on fundamentals. Sound off, subtitles on, done. Many people would disapprove of this, but it’s what makes me get things done. I don’t have to be inspired. I don’t have to have a good attitude. All I have to do is have my backside in the chair, a few sips of coffee, and The Great British Baking Show, and gradually I warm up to the idea of practice. Once my warm-up is over, I can turn off the TV and focus on learning and memorizing scores, but the hard bit of making myself get the cello out is done. The rest is easy.

The Simple Pleasures of Dragon-Slaying

A focus on big goals can stop us from noticing the little moments of joy along the journey. When I’m only thinking about the end result of the concert I’m working towards, I sometimes forget how much I enjoy the physical process of producing tone on the cello, or the puzzle-like activity of working out a fingering that better contributes to the expression of a phrase. It’s like those stories about quests and hero’s journeys – they wouldn’t be half so engrossing if they skipped to the bit where the hero finds the treasure or the princess or whatever without telling us first about how they outfoxed sorcerers, slayed dragons and hacked through thorn bushes. When you start thinking deeply about how you’re going to get from note to note, and progress from there into careful consideration of small- and large-scale musical structures and characters, you start taking immense satisfaction in figuring out how the whole thing works. It makes me want to get started.

What “aha!” moments have you had about getting practice done? I love to hear from readers, so please share your thoughts in the comments, or come on over to my Facebook discussion page.

© Miranda Wilson, 2019. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without permission of the author.

2 thoughts on “Eyes Off the Prize: Why Dreaming Small Makes Practice Better

  1. Enjoy your writing style immensely! Thanks for all the great insights, along the way it does get tougher as the improvements are smaller and less dramatic!

    Like

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