Last week I sent a text message that used the word "just" three times. ... A text.
I am especially guilty of using the word "just." I just want to tell people things. I just want to say... I'd just like to ask... I was just wondering... and it will just take a minute. For me, "just" doing something is often an apology. I'm sorry you're reading this right now - I just wanted to share something, and it will just take a moment of your time.
As it turns out, when I started paying attention to this tendency, I found that it has seeped into my professional world, too.
Two days ago, the awesome Christina Feigel and I taught a master class on giving constructive criticism that included scripted responses with students. As happens with scripts, ours became predictable and elicited some laughter and good-natured teasing. What was my response to that? "It's just one option of phrasing."
WHAT WERE YOU DOING, PAST CAYLA?! That meant they were listening, and they learned. No apology needed.
I even do it - and I bet you do, too - in musical and school situations:
Now, the point - I have decided to reclaim the word "just." "Just" is not always evil. Sometimes "just" keeps things in perspective. Sometimes "just" helps me focus.
I put this plan into action last night, for the bassoon preliminaries of the concerto competition. I did a little powering up and made a positive "just" mantra.
I am not going to do everything. I am not going to play with flawless technique. I am not going to be the poster child for authentic Baroque style. I am not even going to remember every note.
And at the end of the evening, I hadn't played with flawless technique or glorious Baroque style. I hadn't even remembered all the notes. "Just" wasn't a perfect plan, by any means. But someone came up to me afterward to tell me how much he enjoyed it - "I mean, really."
You know what I felt like?
Yep, phenomenal cosmic power. "Just" wasn't a perfect plan, but it was a surprisingly empowering one.
I'm just going to leave you with that.
"Practice doesn't make perfect. Practice makes permanent."
This idea of habit formation has been central to my most recent "Lap Four" goal - see my earlier post if you're confused. Historically, I have problems with consistency. One day I play a brilliant concerto, the next I forget how to slur an octave. Home run, strike out.
In my multifaceted approach to solve this problem (and subsequent random internet surfing), I came across several videos, web resources, and a book by New York Times writer Charles Duhigg. He describes the "Habit Loop," which led me to two important realizations:
I set out to deconstruct my habit loop.
CUE: Public performance.
ROUTINE: Freak out, lose control.
REWARD: An "engaging" performance. Sometimes this is a euphemism, sometimes not.
Here's his story, the cookie-based version of my bassoon habit:
After months of diligent work refocusing on the reward - engaging an audience with a musical experience - I finally stepped beyond my most recent plateau. I played in a master class, and, for the first time in what felt like forever, I was happy with what I presented.
I played representatively. I played how I play when I'm alone. I played how I play when I am having fun. *gasp*
A friend of mine asked me later that evening what I felt to be the biggest change in my playing over the past several months, and I gave him a highly inadequate answer. (So, this post is partially for you, Adam!)
I gave him a technical answer. I did blah blah to my reeds and think of my sound as blah blah and by body blah. Blah.
After more reflection, here's the real answer: I practiced right.
By "right" I don't mean that I was practicing wrong before. I mean I practiced being right and knowing I could be right. I practiced being right more than I was being wrong, which I had always before thought of as a waste of time. However, it stands to reason that we will always do what we have always done. If nine times out of ten you crack a note, that one success only means that you have a 10% chance the next time around. Play it correctly ten times in a row, then your chances just over 50% (11 rights for 9 wrongs). Math!
I stopped practicing to be perfect, and I started practicing to be permanent. I practiced right, and it felt right.
Go give it a shot, and let me know what you think!
Warning: This post contains moments of tough love.
Why do you practice?
To move up in your section? To reach higher than your personal best? To increase your ability to connect with an audience?
Up means improvement and success. Just take a look at my Google image search for "success":
In practicing and learning, those "up" moments are brilliant. They encourage us, console us, validate us.
Sure, the "down" moments sting, but it's the prolonged periods of parallel motion that are truly devastating. It hurts to work and feel no progress, it hurts when dedication doesn't seem to matter, and it hurts to watch others improve while you're stuck on cruise control. Plateaus are the worst.
So now I offer you three "UP"s as options to take until you reach your next "up".
To conclude: I had a teacher once who equated the process of practicing and improving over the long-term to climbing a mountain - it is only at the end of your climb that you realize how high you've reached.
In the meantime, though, remind yourself what you can do. Tell yourself you're awesome, because you are to someone (even if not yourself).
Some plateaus can be just plain beautiful.
After my most recent writing haitus, I struggled over choosing which topic would relaunch my blogging. Many things come to mind (and will be passed to yours in due time) - I have stream of consciousness ramblings and vague outlines on teaching, focus and mindfulness, research, social media presence, and so on and so forth. I decided to blog on "powering up" because it has benefitted me very concretely in the past two weeks.
It all started here, with my summer foray into documentaries and TED Talks:
In case you don't have 20 minutes to watch a TED Talk (which I think you should set aside at least once a week), the organization summarizes it for you:
"Body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see
Wait a minute. So you CAN actually fake it 'til you make it?
The concept is quite simple, actually. Holding your body in a wider, more expansive, "high power" pose sends the message to your brain that you are, in fact, high power. Biologically, the claim is that testosterone levels rise and cortisol ones fall, thus increasing your subconscious expectation of success and your natural propensity for risk-taking (or bravery-requiring) behaviors. Additionally, you send the the nonverbal message that you are strong and confident, despite how you may feel in actuality.
I was intrigued enough to try this a little over a week ago, immediately before performing the Mozart Concerto with the lovely Henry Cheng and IU Ad-Hoc Orchestra, to whom I am continually thankful. Despite my immense self-consciousness, I stood backstage for a solid minute like this:
No, I was not wearing that costume.
I was amazed at how well it worked! I felt physically stronger, my weight was more even distributed between my feet, my legs and hips were more grounded, my inhalations flowed deeper into my abdomen, my shoulders fell back and down naturally. As much as I was ever going to in that moment, I felt pretty Wonder Woman-y.
Now, I am not advocating imagining yourself as a superhero as a method for technical improvement. Ultimately, if you can be as collected, self-assured, and in the moment as possible while performing, you are more likely to replicate how you present the music in a stress-free environment. And superheros, at least according to my observations, cope with stress exceptionally well.
Amy Cuddy (afore-referenced TED Talker and Harvard business professor) presents this as applicable in job interviews and presentations. I vote for performance settings such as recitals or auditions. The opportunities are quite wide ranging, though. Give it a shot, and I would love to know what you experience.
Power up and go be super!